Jazz Open Space…

I’ve purposely taken my time writing this post, not simply because of my hectic post-London Jazz Festival schedule. I’ve also wanted to read other bloggers’ positions on the points raised at the Jazz Open Space, and allow my thoughts to solidify into cohesive, representative arguments.


On Monday I went to an event called Jazz Open Space. The premise was to formulate some ideas, as a jazz community, towards answering the question, ‘what are we doing about UK jazz in 2011?’ It was held in Conway Hall, Holbon, and it was organised in partnership by the Musicians Union and Jazz Services.

The London Jazz Blog had previously reported that this event is associated with a wider consultation from the All-Party Jazz Appreciation Group. The purpose, stated by Dame Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England, is to know exactly what the jazz community wants (money, I would have thought. Isn’t that obvious?!).

The structure of the day (10am until 5pm) was created using Open Space Technology. Such a premise was a first for me, and judging by the faces of the other participants it was a first for them also. Essentially it was a structured coffee break, an idea that sounds a lot simpler than it actually is, with the only technology involved being paper and pens. We decided the topics to discuss, when they would be discussed, and we could wander from one group to the next, within the hall, to discuss whatever issue we wished.

A very free-spirited, Steve Hiltonesque approach to proceedings, it of course had its pitfalls. The more forceful and demanding one was in tone, the more one got to speak, overshadowing the more demure members of the group. What resulted, at times, was nothing more than a lot of mini-lectures sprinkled around the hall.

However it did work in some instances, and it was certainly more fun than a typical conference-type setting. But due to the ‘take what you want’ manner participants were encouraged to consume each discussion, it often resulted in only a few crumbs being left for a conclusion.

The topics I listened to and participated in were…

  1. Should the BBC focus more on jazz?
  2. Are there enough black musicians on UK stages?

The first was offered by Peter Ind, the second by Dorian Ford.

Before I go in to further detail on these topics I want to state I am typing from memory and some rough notes that I took during these discussions. If anyone present at the event has an issue with anything here, please email me and I’d be more than happy to discuss.

Peter Ind is a remarkable character (he has amazing anecdotes from his time touring with Tommy Flanagan and sitting-in with Duke Ellington). He believes, and I concur, that we live in times where the lowest common denominator is promoted and nurtured, rather than art that tests and inspires us. As a tax-funded organisation the BBC should not consistently be chasing ratings, but should be tailoring its programming for all sections of society, particularly the under represented jazz community.

In response to this John Cumming stated his belief that the BBC regularly gets an unfair bashing from jazz aficionados. They do promote jazz, a lot more than “we think” (a little patronising bearing in mind Peter Ind was there) and that “we have to realise” what ever jazz output they do currently offer, it is likely to be reduced even more, since the cutbacks will kick-in from next year.

“We can’t divorce jazz from the bigger picture.” Cameron would have been proud.

Peter Ind reminisced at this point, stating, “I was in New York in the 40’s and 50’s and I remember the passion of those times, so that somewhat colours my view!”

John retorted, “We’re all passionate about it. We must be to do what we do!”

As director of Serious, John Cumming has a seemingly close relationship with the BBC (they do sponsor the London Jazz Festival after all)…

“The BBC is a civil service and there are creative people in it, but they do have to find their corner. It took us a while to get sponsorship, knocking on their door, talking their language.”

He went on to mention how much jazz has been on Jools Holland’s show of late, at which point I mentioned the McCoy Tyner incident (Jools cut short their section when the solos overrun). At this point John got very defensive of ol’ Auntie…

“No they did not, they did not! I can tell you exactly what happened!” All stern and school masterly.

“Well, in all genuineness, explain what happened then?”

He went on to explain how the saxophonist (he meant Gary Bartz) had missed his cue, his solo overrun and Jools was forced to bring structure back to the show unfortunately during McCoy’s run. Would they have done the same had it been Lady Gaga or Elbow? I don’t think so. I wished I’d retorted with that, but of course hindsight is a wonderful thing!

One other point of interest. John Cumming stated that BBC 4 took the decision not to film and broadcast any of the LJF on TV simply for monetary reasons, instead to continue the trend of focusing on documentaries and “thematic works” (that must have been John using BBC language). Shame.

When are we going to see more black UK jazz musicians on the UK’S jazz stage?

Probably the most controversial issue of the day and it was a privilege to have heard such wise and experienced voices on the scene discuss this.

Peter Ind stayed on to take part, and opened with his experience of a period in the early 1950’s, in New York specifically, where “the racial differences were minimal”. I took his point to be that there is no excuse for this not being the case now, coming up to 2012.

This topic was brought up because of the recent Facebook page created by Cleveland Watkiss, after Leon Daniel experienced racism at Ronnie Scott’s. Many organisations within the UK jazz scene were accused of having an anti-black agenda when it came to using UK musicians, including The National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Serious.

The new director of NYJO, Nigel Tully, was present at this discussion, but unfortunately John Cumming was not (a point raised by Trevor Watkiss). Tully was open and honest about the behind-the-times attitude NYJO had allowed itself to get in to, and how he was in the process of turning things around.

Tully discussed the report that the Arts Council of England had made about NYJO. It stated that NYJO run within it’s own little world, not believing it was accountable to anyone, even though it was funded in-part by taxes. There were four key points of concern…

  1. It had an old fashioned artistic policy.
  2. It was poorly governed.
  3. There was no diversity. It was completely middle-class and white.
  4. It never reported how it spent its public money and no official forms were ever filled in and returned.

This was around 2 years ago and since then, under Tully, they have instilled a diversity agenda to broaden the Orchestra ethnically, socially, musically and gender-wise. Obviously this was greeted with approval.

“We have a long way to go, but we are getting there”.

Everyone was impressed and grateful for his honesty and determination for change. It was an example of what needs to be said and done if jazz is to broaden the diversity of children who take it up. However it’s only fair to mention that previous director, Bill Ashton, pretty much invented British jazz education nearly 50 years ago, and everyone on the scene has surely been a beneficiary of that!

Rosie Hanley, Trevor Watkiss and Russell Occomore also contributed insightful and at times inspiring points. Occomore summed it up for me though, when he discussed why the Ronnie Scott’s incident was a catalyst for this discussion and a ‘last straw’ moment…

“Even if it wasn’t down to racism, the fact that it can be perceived as racist is enough.”

As a white man I can’t talk about racism from experience, but as an estuary-accented working-class man who has been through the redbrick university mill, I can certainly talk about being stereotyped and undermined, and it’s not on, even if malice is not intended.

My experiences pale in comparison in struggling to find gigs in your own country, when lesser, whiter, posher-speaking musicians get them 10-a-penny. I believe this does happen in the UK, and listening to Trevor Watkiss and Russell Occomore discuss their experiences on the jazz scene you can tell it hurts.

I’m still amazed how posh and white the jazz scene is in the UK, yet I really shouldn’t be. With the lack of funding and respect given to the art from British institutions it’s now become a musically rebellious pathway for those who can afford to be in it. Without their parents money many musicians, even those who get media (albeit jazz media) attention, couldn’t afford to do it. Fair play to those playing the cards they were dealt (what a fortunate position to be in!) but I will say this to anyone offended by my comment, a mono-social-ethnic scene should not be what jazz is about.

During the discussion I tried to instigate a way of not necessarily getting a broader mix of jazz musicians on the scene with immediate effect, but how we can increase the diversity of children taking up this art in the long run…

Jazz musicians need to be willing to go in to the comprehensive classroom.

I taught for 3 years in an inner-london school, not as a peripatetic but as a classroom teacher (I’m the proud owner of a PGCE), and I can say from first-hand experience all children, no matter what their social-economic background, have the potential and inclination to excel at jazz and improvisation. This necessary educational drive makes sense not just morally but musically also. For example I’d rather hear the solo of an A-level student who’s suffered for their art than one who’s had private lessons from a Royal Academy student or professional musician. I’m sorry, but it’s true. That’s the essence of jazz! Stories about passion and strife!

Anyway, where do we go from here? Using social media to express opinions, hopefully like this one and the aforementioned Facebook group, are good because they blow away the cobwebs and create discussion. Events like the Jazz Open Space promote a culture of transparency also. These issues need to be discussed, not swept under the carpet, so fair play to the MU and Jazz Services for helping this to happen.

About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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4 Responses to Jazz Open Space…

  1. The Paddy says:

    The Facebook discussion you referred to was mismanaged and descended into spiteful and rancorous diatribe. It silenced, attacked and alientated people who could have, and in some cases will, go on to be far more instrumental in instigating the kind of change that its moderator professed to stand for.

    Social media can of course be used as a powerful tool for galvanising support for change. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity missed. Have a look at that page now. It’s saying nothing.

    Bill didn’t invent British jazz education. He invented a big band that served as a training ground and gateway to particular quarters of the music business, usually for people from a particular cultural background and musical inclination. Important as it has been, there are many, many fine musicians who have been no where near it.

    I agree that British jazz is too posh and too white. It is essential that people who are not posh, or not white also gain a strong position in the infrastructure, and not simply because they’ve been invited by the powers that be, as that usually also keeps the status quo in tact. For too long it’s been plain to see that whilst the creators of the work are diverse, those reaping the rewards, be that financially or in terms of recognition are not. This stands across the arts and not just in Jazz. If we do not take up positions as curators, managers, producers, entrepreneurs, DJs, agents, artistic directors, programmers etc.. we will simply continue to work to line the pockets, and satisfy the vanity of those who have bought their way into positions of influence on this music.

    It should also be pointed out that there are many more fine white musicians suffering from lack of opportunities than there are black, just as there are many more white musicians benefiting from good opportunities than there are black. There are simply not enough opportunities to go round.

    It should be remembered that bands like the original Jazz Warriors and organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors have at timed struggled to find suitable black musicians. The idea that there are loads of young, or older jazz musicians languishing and discriminated against is a total myth.

    As for the changes and pioneering work taking place in organisations. No body ever does that single handedly, even if at the end of play it is they who get the credit or the OBE.

    Nuff Said

    • Will Rodway says:

      Thanks for your message, Paddy. You’ve certainly given me some food for thought, especially the missed opportunity with the Facebook group and how for real diversity to occur it needs to come from the business end also. Keep reading! Best.

  2. The Paddy says:

    Your point about how we engage the next generation is valid too. I read an article by Tim Hagans recently in which he pointed out that producing more and more players and opening more venues is not the answer to our woes if we don’t generate an audience.

    Jazz education should not just be about turning out players but switching people on to the music.

    I know that many musicians see teaching as being a step down from performing. You know “if you can’t do it teach it.” It’s bullshit. Many guys I know of who teach see it as a chore and are only interested if the kid looks like they’ll be the next whoever. They might give it the big “it takes a Village…..” spiel, but in reality they can’t be arsed.

    Nor do the best players always make the best teachers. Jazz eduction needs people to be trained as educators. Many players are too arrogant to do so and to be fair there are not enough opportunities to get the level of training required. A Jazz educators course should not be abut hoe to play Jazz but how to TEACH it!!!!

    Diversity does have to come from the business/management end too. How many people are there in truly influential positions in major arts/funding organisations who are not White and/or Middle class?

    The issue is also that if one follows the current established routes, one is at the mercy of those who, for now, hold the sway and who are desperate to keep hold of their little kingdom, be that financially or to satisfy their vanity. My suggestion is that there are other routes and mechanisms by which their ownership can be challenged.

    Keep writing. It’s a fantastic blog. Great insights and wonderfully written!

    • Will Rodway says:

      Thank you for your kind words, most appreciated!

      You’ve certainly given me some food for thought and expanded on points I haven’t yet commited to my blog – in particular the difference between performer and educator and the need for broader routes in to the scene. There is definitely a condescending bourgeois attitude towards teching, which I suspect is a new thing (too cliche to state post-thatcher?!). I say this because I know the likes of John Dankworth, Ian Carr and Mike Garrick were highly active with touring comprehensive schools to educate in the 70s (Alyn Shipton for example was a benificary of this). Now education from a musicians perspective seems to be focused on the conservatoire set.

      Anyway, keep reading my friend!

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