Masters of our Domain

Autumn brings many harvests in its wake; not least the publication of numerous surveys and reports, the pages of which drift across the digital realm like the falling leaves. With the Brexit deadline drawing ever nearer and inconsistency remaining the only consistent factor in approach from both government and opposition, the uncertainties that the whole nation faces in March 2019 are already having an impact. A survey of 1,600 musicians by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, published this August, finds more than 40% report a negative impact on their careers, mostly arising from uncertainties around visa issues for future bookings; the July 26th report from House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee also warns of the consequences of visa restrictions on the UK’s cultural sector as a whole, and urges clarity on the continuation of free movement after Brexit – clarity which is sadly unlikely to be forthcoming at any time soon. Touring abroad is a vital component of many professional musician’s incomes; music in general, and jazz music in particular, is a cultural form that can appeal across national boundaries, and jazz occupies what is known as a global niche – audiences may be small, but they can be found, sharing their common culture, across the world. Access to these transnational markets has long been a valuable resource for jazz musicians, ever since Sidney Bechet took up residence in Paris and opened the door for so many other US players when the home scene went through barren periods – let us hope that our UK talent continues to have access to the educated, engaged and passionate European audiences on our doorstep. 

Of course, we also have our homegrown scene, and there exist also the boundless virtual prairies of the digital realm to be exploited. Good news from the latter realm, as in a July report, Spotify told the BBC Newsbeat service that in the past six months, the number of UK users aged 30 and under listening to their flagship Jazz UK playlist had increased by 108%, and smaller streaming platforms such as Deezer and Amazon Music reported similar increases.The growth has been attributed to “a flourishing UK scene which fuses jazz with a variety of genres”, and a Dr Peter Elsdon, a musicologist at the University of Hull, has been quoted in the report describing jazz as “a chameleon” that constantly changes colour to reflect its environment. “Because of the way streaming services work, people can find out about jazz more easily and quickly than they might have been able to in the past”, he explains, referring one assumes, both to the search n’ suggest algorithms that bring new artists to your desktop or hand-held device, and also to the availability of so much previously hard-to-find jazz music via the services themselves. One might add here that a certain generation of jazz musicians still persistently demonstrate a negative attitude towards streaming; while it is true that niche musics are not always well served by current streaming models, for reasons discussed in earlier editions of this column, realism surely compels us to acknowledge that the hope that consumers will obligingly boycott Spotify and return to buying CDs, as in days of yore, is very unlikely ever to be fulfilled. Visibility and engagement are the essential stepping stones towards audience progression – JazzFm reported its highest audience figures for the past four years, and in July an unlikely milestone was reached when John Coltrane scored his first ever UK Top 40 album chart placement, crashing in at number 21 with the belatedly rediscovered Both Directions At Once. One may slice and dice the analysis of what this really means, and find positives or negatives to suit one’s own temperament, but the unmistakeable message is that both the media landscape and the recorded music industry are changing, and that opportunities are being thrown up for those astute or engaged enough to exploit them. As popular music tends increasingly towards blandness and homogenisation, a sector of the youth market responds by developing a hunger for more challenging and sophisticated forms, and jazz can benefit by satisfying that hunger if it is prepared to array itself, attractively garnished, upon the cultural smorgasbord.

While foreign markets and online presence are important to the scene as a whole, it’s the UK market where the majority of our players will find their sustenance. A picture of the whole is provided by the recently published UK Live Music Census – the first of its kind. Let’s hear what it did, in its own words: “For 24 hours from noon on Thursday 9th March 2017, volunteers in cities across the country went out and about to live music events, from pub gigs to massed choirs to arena concerts. Live music censuses took place in our three primary snapshot cities of Glasgow, Newcastle-Gateshead and Oxford, while affiliate censuses also ran in Brighton, Leeds and Southampton on 9-10 March, and in Liverpool on 1-2 June, the affiliates led by members of UK Music’s Music Academic Partnership (MAP). Nationwide online surveys for musicians, venues, promoters and audiences were online from March until June. The intention of the census project was to help measure live music’s social, cultural and economic value, discover what challenges the sector is facing and inform policy to help live music flourish.” We should note the inclusion of Brighton as a location – a reflection of the flourishing sector in the town across all genres, jazz being no exception. The research was exhaustive and the findings comprehensive, but we can but summarise a few points here. It will come as no surprise to our esteemed and discerning readers to learn that the report concluded that live music has ‘significant economic, social and cultural value’ – the annual live music spend in Oxford alone is estimated at over 10 Million GBP, supporting over 350 full-time equivalent jobs. More is now spent on live than recorded music, with nearly half (47%) of respondents to the audience survey spending more than £20 on tickets for concerts/festivals each month while only a quarter spend the same on recorded music. On average, nearly half (49%) of the annual income of those respondents to the musician survey who identify as professional musicians comes from performing live, compared to only 3% from recording.

The survey is unique in its breadth, gathering data and stories from all those involved in music, from audiences to promoters, council licensing boards to venue owners, and even including the rarely heard voices of the musicians themselves. The survey’s analysis divided musicians into three categories – professional, semi-professional and amateur. Some results may come as a surprise, others less so – the sector is still male-dominated, with men accounting for 68% of professional and 81% of semi-pro players – men and women earned roughly the same per gig, but fascinatingly and perhaps unexpectedly, male singers tended to average more than female ones (100 GBP compared to 85), whereas for instrumentalists the positions and earnings were reversed.

Although individual earnings spread across a far wider range, it is significant that this average figure is well below the Musician’s Union suggested rate of 121.50 for casual engagements, reinforcing the commonly acknowledged heuristic conclusion that this rate is effectively a nominal one only that in practice is seldom adhered to. In addition, while 78% of professional musicians are self-employed, the survey found that 66% of those respondents to the musician survey identifying as professional musicians earn less than £15,600 direct from live music each year and 28% earn less than £5,200 direct from live performance; indeed, research by the Musicians’ Union in 2012 found that 56% of the musicians surveyed earn less than £20,000 in total per year, with music teaching being the primary means of supplementing income – accounting for typically up to 50% – and maintaining their professional status.

Analysis by genre provided further insights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it suggests that the four most lucrative genres for respondents to the musician survey overall are: rock, pop, blues and classical, with 40% of all respondents earning money from rock, 26% from pop, 22% from blues, and 21% from classical music. However, another, rather different picture emerges when the musician’s own preferences are examined – when asked to choose which genre they identify with the most, 29% identify most with classical music, 14% with jazz, 11% identify with rock music, 8% identify as a singer/songwriter, and a measly 7% are happy to openly identify most with pop. Furthermore, 38% of respondents to the musician survey identifying as professional, currently earn money from classical music, 31% from pop, 31% from jazz, and 22% from blues For respondents to the musician survey identifying as semi-professional, however, the most lucrative genre is rock music: 48% earn money from rock music, while only 9% earn money from classical music. While jazz accounts for a small proportion of overall financial turnover from the sector as a whole, it holds its own as the genre that many musicians would rather be playing – and earning their living from – and a gratifying proportion of those musicians are successful in this ambition. 

Where are these dedicated, jazz-loving professionals performing? The survey’s findings highlight unequivocally the importance of small venues: “Over three-quarters (78%) of respondents to the online audience survey had visited small music venues (under 350 capacity) for live music in the past 12 months, and three-quarters (74%) had visited pubs and bars (for live music). Two-thirds (67%) of respondents to the musician survey had performed in small music venues in the past 12 months while nearly two-thirds (64%) had performed in pubs or bars 31%)” 

Here in Brighton we are lucky to have a scene that is supported by so many dedicated musicians, where the audience is eclectic, sophisticated and willing to engage with niche music, and where there is a plethora of grassroots venues. The Verdict deserves special recognition as a dedicated, musician-friendly venue, where musicians can stage their own concerts, playing the repertoire they want with the band of their choice; but equally, the flourishing pub and bar scene plays a part in developing new talent and sustaining existing players. Research from PRS for Music shows that live music can be a very good way of increasing publican’s sales; 24% report an increase of 25 to 50% in sales on music nights and 71% reporting an increase of 10 to 25%. This economic viability provides a different, parallel model to ticketed gigs, where there is a constant risk that the promoters/musicians may sustain a loss if they fail to sell enough tickets. As jazz audiences are small, jazz musicians can be particularly susceptible to this risk, and the readiness of landlords willing to offer a fixed fee for a free-entry gig provides a secure alternative. The danger, of course, is that a free-entry gig will deter audiences from a door charge gig – in addition, the economic realities of the licensed trade in Brighton (and across the UK) mean that the fees offered by landlords can never in practice approach the MU recommended minimum. This tension provokes lively debate within the community; we would suggest that, as with the scenario with recorded music detailed above, astute musicians will use the available resources to manage their careers to their best advantage. The casual, free-entry pub session has been a long-established feature of the jazz landscape, with a tradition traceable back to the 1950s at least; ticketed gigs will thrive on their own merits if they offer something exceptional; both have a role to play in the wider picture to progress both careers and audiences. The challenges of wage stagnation, competition and venue closure are all too familiar to anyone who works in the sector, and all are detailed in the report, but perhaps further citations are un-necessary. While you have been kind enough to spend time reading this column, gentle reader, some jazz musicians in your area have been rehearsing for a gig, setting up for a gig, playing a gig, or packing down from a gig and preparing for the next one – why not find out where they are, and set out to join them? If we don’t use it, we’re sure to lose it, so let’s Keep Music Live. 

 

Read the full report: here  

The Moving Finger Writes

“Anyone lucky enough to receive the Performing Rights Society’s regular magazine will no doubt have been intrigued to see an article headed ‘What’s going on in British Jazz?’, and even more intrigued by the following introductory quote from saxophonist Pete Wareham:

‘Jazz? I don’t know much about it. I haven’t been following it for ages…… I’ve been listening to a lot of Diplo and Mykki Blanco’.”

The moving finger, as Mr Fitzgerald reminded us, writes and then moves on, and its cancellation policies are even less accommodating than those of a budget airline. But let’s cast our minds back to September 2013: a month scarred by the unhappy manifestations of violence in Kenya and among the long-suffering people of Syria, which we need not dwell upon here, and by other more easily digestible events; an ancient company called ‘Microsoft’ purchased another equally obsolete entity called ‘Nokia’, Gareth Bale transferred to Real Madrid for a record fee of 85.3 million GBP, Breaking Bad swept the Emmys and Angela Merkel swept the polls to election triumph, while Ed Miliband struggled with his bacon sarnie and Mr Cameron wondered if a referendum might be the very thing to deliver him the result he wanted on Scottish independence. Set against this dramatic backdrop of world events, the Sussex Jazz Magazine was launched, and while the fortunes of all those mentioned above have dipped and swayed, SJM continues to thrive.

In a bold editorial decision, the first edition was dedicated to local bass players; and the lead quoted above was the first tentative overture of this column. It might be interesting to catch up with Mr Wareham, who has been gratifyingly busy in the intervening time with the latest incarnation of his Melt Yourself Down project, aided by local sticksman supreme Tristan Banks, and see if his enthusiasm for Diplo continues unabated. For an artist to proclaim a love of EDM from within the jazz pigeonhole was quite unusual back in 2013, when any mention of jazz in the UK still tended to draw the catchphrase from that Fast Show sketch from the general public, despite the efforts of Roller Trio, Portico Quartet and such hyperborean animals as GoGo Penguin and Polar Bear to dissolve the boundaries between the tradition and the welter of contemporary sounds newly accessible via the wonders of streaming. It’s instructive to look back on the last five years worth of issues and see how they chart the development of the music that, for want of another viable title, we still call jazz; and satisfying to see how many of the reports have been positive. 

SJM was set up to serve the local jazz community, both players and listeners, and its growth has mirrored the growth of the scene. Early editions of this column touched on the popularity of jam sessions and the healthy grassroots scene of casual pub gigs; both have continued to thrive. Later issues explored the tricky questions of financial remuneration and the economic viability of the jazz musician’s life, the debate around free-entry gigs, and the responsibility of both players and audiences to support the scene – these issues continue to evade simple resolution. However, let us pause to list some of the achievements recorded in SJM since its first issue. Love Supreme has confounded the cynics and naysayers to survive, and grow in size and stature, and the Bandstand stage continues to provide an accessible platform and a bridge into the local community. This resolutely commercial mothership touching down outside the city has been mirrored by the emergence and rapid success of a pair of home-grown events catering to different wings of the disparate muse – the South Coast Jazz Festival celebrates the evolving tradition with a clear eye on the richness of the UK’s own musical legacy, while the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival does what it says on the label by bringing home the joyful noise of the music’s outer fringes. Three major jazz festivals establishing themselves around the city in the last five years is indication enough of a healthy scene; this year sees the establishment of the Splash Point Jazz Festival in Eastbourne and the continuation of the Rye Jazz & Blues Festival as well, while both Jazz Re:freshed and Jazz In The Round are expanding their London-based operations to bring exciting new jazz to Sussex. Our 2013 issue lamented the closure of Jazz Services; now exciting developments are afoot for a new publicly funded umbrella organisation for jazz in the South. Back in 2013, The Verdict had only just opened, and the candid will admit that its future was not universally seen to be secure; yet here it still is, as summer 2018 draws to a close, still open for business and putting on more bands than ever. It’s been a pleasure to have been involved with the New Generation Jazz programme and, thanks to the support of the Arts Council, to have brought so many wonderful young players to The Verdict to experience the unparalleled warmth and enthusiasm of the crowds, the inexhaustible ebullience of  indefatigable host Andy Lavender, and the exciting vagaries of the house PA system. 

A transparent plug for New Generation (New season just announced! Get your tickets for Fraser Smith and the Alibis now, folks!) leads us from the local to the national scene, and the unavoidable rise and rise of a new generation of young musicians emerging from South London over the last five years. Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Ashley Henry and Ezra Collective were all relatively unknown when they made their New Generation debuts back in 2015 – since then their profile, and that of the scene of players emerging from Tomorrow’s Warriors collective, entering the London conservatoires and exiting again to pick up vibes via club nights Steez and Total Refreshment Centre, has risen to the level where the national press, always hungry for a new ‘movement’ to promote, have seized upon it. National broadsheet articles have led into borderline-hyperbolic features in Rolling Stone (‘Jazz’s New British Invasion’) and the New York Times (‘Shabaka Hutchings Brings London Jazz Into the Spotlight’). While Kamasi Washington has led the way, crossing over into mainstream festival audiences both in the US and here at such hipster-friendly UK events as Field Day, it’s inspiring to see UK jazz lauded as the cutting edge, rather than following in the lead of the US. Such media attention brings in its wake the inevitable questions; the UK is brimming with talent, and as the bright light shines into on one set of players it will unfortunately cast a shadow over other, equally deserving hopefuls. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniably heady rush of excitement at the sight of UK jazz artists at the centre of a media storm; a young generation for whom referencing club music and the jazz tradition together is no longer an anomaly, and who are prepared to embrace notions of mainstream success that have the potential to reach beyond the sometimes impenetrable-seeming boundaries between jazz (whatever that is) and popular music (aren’t they meant to be the same thing?). 

This summer, Jazz Re:freshed, the multi-faceted promotional crew at the heart of the new movement, reached out from their London base to stage their first all-day event at Brighton Dome with an array of stars of the new wave, with a stunning 1,500 tickets sold and free admission for the under 15s. The crowd were an eclectic mix of youngsters checking out their peers and older fans, some of whom would surely have remembered the last Brit-jazz boom (also fuelled in no small part by Tomorrow’s Warriors) that brought to our attention Courtney Pine, Ronny Jordan, Steve Williamson, Orphy Robinson, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, Jason Yarde and so many other great players. All media hypes conform to the same cycle of boom and backlash, but true talent and commitment can ride the wave and translate into career longevity. Last month’s column brought unwelcome news of the closure of Total Refreshment Centre, and a licensing threat to the Mau Mau Bar, both crucial incubators of the scene, and a reminder of how fragile a musical renaissance can be, and how difficult the commercial climate remains. Past columns have explored the dire state of the recorded music industry for jazz and the continuing precariousness of the existence of the jazz clubs and the musicians who play in them. So let us close this five-year review, brimming as it is with optimism for both the local, the national and the international development of the music we all love, however we choose to define it, with a warning that if we don’t use it, we’re sure to lose it. Get out to a gig tonight – or if not tonight, then tomorrow. There’s sure to be something on in town – jazz is booming. 

 

    Many thanks to all those who have had the patience to read this column over the last five years, and the kindness to tell me that they have enjoyed it. Your encouragement, support and advice is very welcome. 



Tenor Madness

This month brings us not only a welcome blast of authentically summery sunshine - just in time for Love Supreme at Glynde, folks! - but also a double hit of delicious vinyl issues by a pair of statement tenor players. While many in the jazz world work hard to promote egalitarianism in all things, there remains a heirarchy of instruments, to the extent that trumpeters tend to predominate over, say, players of the harp, oboe, tuba, or even the bass (shame!) in most people’s lists of jazz luminaries, and the tenor sax has traditionally been up the top of the list as the vehicle for many of the music’s most important statements. No-one stands taller in this tradition than John Coltrane, and the unearthing of a ‘lost’ album by his classic quartet is a thrilling event; and no-one is currently crossing boundaries and making waves like Kamasi Washington, whose latest, typically grandiosely titled ‘Heaven And Earth” hits the shops in follow up to the equally epically named ‘The Epic’ triple set.

Washington’s work comes supported by some major investment, packaged in lush triple vinyl and bedecked as before with the full orchestral array of strings, woodwinds, brass and choirs. Such is the scale of the production that Washington’s own sax playing is perhaps the least discussed aspect of his output, which is a shame as his is an intriguing contribution to the tenor legacy. His powerful, hard and clear- edged tone and killingly precisetiming indicate the influence ofhis employment with hip-hop artists like Nas, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamarr, but his harmonic language is both broad and deep, and the assimilation of hard R & B, contemporary jazz language with the sweep of 1960s style ‘cosmic jazz’ is both artistically convincing and accessible. This record features a version of ‘Hub-Tones’ which is a nod towards the post-bop tradition not seen since his early self-released records. While the production’s lush expansiveness make this perhaps an easier listen than the more radical jazz devotees might appreciate, anyone seeking to dismiss the Kamasi phenomenon as well- marketed kitsch should check his appearance on Jools Holland’s Later. The sheer intensity of the compressed performance of ‘Fists Of Fury’ blazed forth from among the usual motley selection of rock and pop acts - over a thunderous, even chaotic assault from the twin drummers, Kamasi and keyboardist Cameron Graves played furious impassioned
solos as vocalist Patrice Quinn chanted ‘Our time as victims is over; we will no longer ask for justice, instead we will take our retribution’. The combination of wild solos, overpowering rhythm and stark, uncompromising political messaging is one that hasn’t been heard at the forefront of jazz-and-related-musics for a long time.

The Coltrane release is an unexpected discovery, and poses its own further questions - how could a major label (Impulse, funded by the mighty ABC) lose an entire recording by its priority artist? Apparently Coltrane was engaging in some musical subversion of his own; according to producer Bob Thiele, he was under contract to produce two records a year, and simply wasn’t enough to contain all the music that was bursting out of him.

Like Prince many years later, he was under pressure to record less rather than more, and Thiele would book him studio time without alerting the label execs. Coltrane also used his access to recording budgets to reward his musical collaborators - records show that when bassist Art Davis’ outspoken demands led to him being ‘whitelisted’ by Thiele, Coltrane listed him as a leader/ arranger on his invoice so that the bassist would get paid double scale - and he was scrupulous in ensuring overtime payments for his band to support themwhen they were off the road. This recording survived the loss of the masters in the clearance of ABC’s archive thanks to the practiceof running off a 1/4 inch tapecopy for the artist’s own personal use - fortunately preserved by the family of Coltrane’s wife Naima. At the time, Coltrane was working two veins at once - commercial sessions at the behest of Thiele yielded collabs with Duke Ellington (‘In A Sentimental Mood’ from that album is Trane’s most streamed Spotify track by a massive margin) and Johnny Hartman (recorded the day after this session), while on the bandstand and under his own direction in the studio he was pushing against the boundaries of the music. This release is titled ‘Both Directions At Once’ and the track listing reflects this sense of a musical crossroads. There’s a couple of untitled blues, (one with a rare extended arco solo from Jimmy Garrison, bass fans), a version of the pop-jazz standard ‘Nature Boy’ and an unexpected exploration of ‘Vilia’ from the light-operetta ‘The Merry Widow’. The New York Times describes the album as “something close to the breadth of what Coltrane and his associates were delivering onstage” and pianist and scholar Lewis Porter comments “You get a lot of that musical meat, but
in a context that will be more accessible to a lot of listeners.”

Perhaps the gem of the collection is the inclusion of four versions of ‘Impressions’ one of Coltrane’s most widely played tunes. At the time it had been a centrepiece of the band’s live show for two years, but is still untitled on the tape box - later in the year a live version was released under its familiar title in the album of the same name but no other studio versions are known to exist. The composition has a complex genesis; Coltrane’s superimposition of the melody
of Morton Gould’s ‘Pavanne’, as interpreted by Ahmad Jamal, (and also claimed by others as diverse as Dr Lonnie Smith and the Rocky Boyd/Kenny Dorham band) over the chord sequence of Miles Davis’ ‘So What’. The latter could be seen as a typically mordant comment by Davis on the constrictions of the AABA 32-bar standard song format, reducing the harmonic movement to a single shift that is simultaneously the closest to and the most dissonant from the tonic, and it seems to form an important step in Coltrane’s journey away from explorations of harmony and into wider and wilder spaces.

Coltrane’s live gigs are now a distant memory, fortunately preserved on a handful of recordings; Kamasi Washington continues to tour his own show around the global festival circuit.However, anyone wanting a fix of tenor action this weekend need look no further than Glynde Place outside Lewes where the man who played with Trane and whose influences are clear to hearing Washington’s work will be performing on Saturday night - Pharoah Sanders is headlining the Big Top at Love Supreme this year. If you’re there, come over to the Bandstand Stage and the Friday Arena to check out a feast of the best artists from around our area, and say hi to the New Generation Jazz team - we’ll be delighted to see you!

 

Hot fun in the summertime

Summer  officially begins  once the June issue of SJM hits your inbox, and with it a crop of festival events to tempt you to spend your hard earned dollar on tickets, folding chairs, real ale in plastic beakers and all the other usual accoutrements  of civilised outdoor fun. The big one in Sussex is of course Love Supreme, now back for its fifth year to prove conclusively that everyone who said a greenfield jazz festival just wouldn’t work are now even more wrong than ever. We’ve touched on the subject of controversial headliner policies before – regular readers of this column will know that we take an ecumenical view, believing that there is a season for everything and that music can indeed be a universal language if freed from the burden of snobbery, so we’re eager to hear from anyone who witnessed Mr. Rick Astley’s performance with the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra at Cheltenham to hear how the famously constant crooner got on with the standards repertoire.         

   Love Supreme’s big draw this year is Elvis Costello, and some of our older readers, who may remember Mr. Costello as the sneering new wave firebrand of the angry 1970s, have found this an unusual choice, but let’s remember that his daddy was Ross McManus, trumpeter for Joe Loss, his missus is Diana Krall, and Burt Bacharach is one of his best buddies, and keep an open mind. Those of us resistant to the charms of his undoubted talent will find plenty of other treats, from a host of new wave Brit jazz artists like Nubya Garcia to undisputed titans Dave Holland and Pharaoh Sanders, plus the usual prospect of intriguing new discoveries waiting to be made. New Generation Jazz will be back once again to programme the Bandstand and the Friday Arena with a host of superb local and upcoming talent and we’d be very happy for you to just spent the whole weekend with us. 

    Looking ahead, there’s the Rye Jazz and Blues Festival in August with an ever more impressively designed website reflecting its increasing reach and stature. Details are still arriving on this one but there’s usually a good representation of artists from our locality. The equally idyllic summer destination of Swanage is also still firmly on the Summer jazz map, thanks to the heroic efforts of guitar supremo Nigel Price to keep the show on the road in his role as the new festival director, while still somehow keeping his diary full with his own gigs. Look out for the special gala event at the Mowlem theatre: The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars feat. James Pearson and Alex Garnett – ‘The Ronnie Scott’s Story’ with live jazz, narration, rare archive photos and video footage documenting the gritty history of the legendary London club with support from our own local megastar Claire Martin OBE and Nigel himself on guitar. It’s scheduled for Friday 13th July, so what could possibly go wrong? 

Forward to Victory

The New York Times ushered in the New Year with a blog feature from its pop critic Jon Caramanica in cahoots with  Giovanni Russonello, who covers jazz for The New York Times, and Natalie Weiner, a staff writer for Bleacher Report who writes about jazz for Billboard and JazzTimes. The presence of a female journo was perhaps not accidental – among the topics they covered in their overview was the issue of female representation in all areas of the jazz world; or rather the way that the continuing lack thereof is increasingly attracting attention as societal attitudes towards gender continue their accelerated evolution. This column glanced at the issue earlier in 2017 in the context of some rather ill-judged remarks by Robert Glasper as reported on Ethan Iverson’s blog, and the ensuing online furore that left both men seeming rather baffled and, eventually, conditionally repentant. Not to overlook the towering presence of the unique Val Wilmer, it must be conceded that the UK scene certainly has similar issues to deal with – promoter/musician Issie Barratt’s sterling work to raise awareness deserves recognition here, both through her own campaigning and with her Interchange project, and it was great to see her welcomed by South Coast Jazz Festival to deliver a seminar as part of their inspiring additional events programme. 

It’s equally gratifying to see that our New Generation Jazz concert and workshop series is able to make bookings that reflect  the shift in attitudes among the rising generation – the first, sell-out show of 2018 featured the superbly precocious trumpeter Alexandra Ridout; previous gigs have been led by Nerija,  Nubya Garcia, Cassie Kinoshi, Trish Clowes and Camilla George, and looking ahead we’re excited to be welcoming pianist Sarah Tandy among many others – watch this space!

The NYT article was headlined ‘Is Today’s Jazz Finally Outrunning the Past?’ – a deliberately provocative leading question which we’ll allow you to unpack at your leisure. A move away from gender stereotypes was acknowledged and welcomed, but that wasn’t the only eye-catching statement contained within. As well as noting the 2017 centenary of such unassailable titans as Thelonious Monk,  Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Rich, the writers also pointed up what they saw as the most vital flourishing contemporary jazz scenes. One was Chicago – the other was London.  For New York’s leading quality paper to feature the UK scene over its own backyard is surely something to celebrate back here at home. Another article in this month’s issue of venerable cultural gatekeeper Rolling Stone is even more explicit in its linking of London, jazz and feminine empowerment; under the no less loaded headline “Britain’s New Jazz Vanguard is Funky, Fun, Vibrant and May Cross Over” it writes “Nubya Garcia’s solo debut, Nubya’s 5ive, shows what really makes the London scene distinct from most of its American counterparts: a holistic embrace of women as bandleaders and instrumentalists.” 

It’s a direct consequence of the efforts of the JazzRe:Freshed crew to promote a sector of the UK scene – or, more specifically the London scene – to overseas audiences. In August they took over a package of UK artists led by ubiquitous reedsman Shabaka Hutchings and drummer/leader (and another former New Generation booking) Moses Boyd, and the resulting gig made waves in NYC’s brimming pool of talent. In December, Nubya and drummer Yussef Dayes were in São Paulo, Brazil, with Jazz Re:freshed – later this March she’s in Austin, Texas at the SXSW Festival with Boyd, Zara McFarlane, Blue Lab Beats, Ezra Collective, and Ashley Henry – the latter three all previous New Generation artists. 

It’s a particular vision of jazz that, in the wake of Kamasi Washington’s breakthrough success, has crossed over to the kind of young and diverse audience that throngs cities around the globe. Many of the same artists can be seen on the bills of cross-cultural festivals like Brixton’s Field Day, and news reaches us that all-female jazz sextet Nerija have been signed to the uber-hip indie label Domino, whose eclectic vision encompasses everyone from Robert Wyatt to Franz Ferdinand but which has not previously been noted for embracing the jazz scene with any enthusiasm. Jazz Re:Freshed’s  Justin McKenzie has stated “We had a space for musicians who were in the jazz world and wanted to experiment, or who were doing stuff that the jazz world was frowning on” and while players like Boyd and Hutchings are as steeped in the tradition as any of the regulars at a Ronnie’s Late Show it’s their youth-orientated, dance-friendly interpretation of that tradition that is deliberately reaching out across the barriers that the jazz world sometimes seems to have erected around itself. This sets this particular group of players, despite their burgeoning international reputation, as a minority within the wider UK jazz scene, which sometimes seems to exist within a somewhat hermetic environment of its own devising. 

A regular feature of the jazz calendar are the flurries of carping comments that swirl around the internet like returning swallows as the major international festivals announce their headliners – inevitably to have those headliners derided for not possessing sufficiently echt jazz credentials to satisfy sectors of the community. One can sympathise to an extent – jazz music is a deep and complex art form requiring a lifetime’s devotion, and it can indeed appear galling when a pop star suddenly adopts its idiom, seemingly as casually as changing a stage costume, and is instantly elevated to the top of the bill above truly dedicated practitioners of the art. Jazz, however you define it, does mean to many people a musical form that is qualitatively different from other genres, and which requires its own delineated space, away from the supposed vulgarities of the mainstream,  in which to flourish. You can’t argue with people for liking what they like, of course.  Yet it is also true that the Great American Songbook has its origins in commercial ditties that were created as part of popular musical theatre productions and meant for ordinary people to enjoy, and the founding figures of jazz were equally concerned with making music that would be popular, so that regular people could listen and even dance to it. It seems unnecessarily self-limiting to see music as a zero-sum game, where the success of one artist, one scene or one genre must be at the cost of all the others. Jazz can be unfairly stereotyped as inward-looking, elitist and obsessed with its own self-defined history – surely the path towards the future lies in preserving its heritage while embracing the forward motion towards a diversity that surely encapsulates its free-thinking, untrammelled spirit.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/arts/music/jazz-refreshed-london.html

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/review-we-out-here-and-more-of-uks-new-jazz-vanguard-w516707

https://weouthere.bandcamp.com/

Variety is the Spice of Life

As January recedes into the chilly mists, we can warm ourselves with the memory of  another triumphant South Coast Jazz Festival. Unfortunately an unforeseen host of pressing prior commitments prevented me from attending all but one of the gigs, events, panels and workshops on offer, and I must refer you to my esteemed colleague and fearless editor Mr Charlie Anderson for his report elsewhere in this issue. However I was able to keep up with things from a distance and it was great to hear reports coming in of another gig sold out and another workshop packed with attendees. The one-off Brotherhood Of Breath reunion in particular seems set to enter into legend, and is an example of the way that festivals of this sort can take a lead in commissioning events that regular promoters cannot, and thus serve to both preserve, curate and propagate the tradition. 

This month sees the return of New Generation Jazz, with Alexandra Ridout as the first in another year-long series of workshops and gigs by young up-and-coming jazz artists, aimed at connecting those artists with existing audiences, and with bringing in new audiences from the younger demographic.  Alexandra, of course, was featured with Clark Tracey’s band at South Coast Jazz, helping to bridge both projects as well as the musical generations herself. The New Generation team – which includes myself –  were delighted to be able to assist in a small way at South Coast Jazz by lending some promotional weight to their show featuring the mercurial young pianist Elliot Galvin alongside students from Brighton’s BIMM music college. Galvin is just the kind of artist we support, and it made perfect sense to move the gig into the town-centre location of The Walrus on Ship Street – an intimate basement bar that has potential to develop as a sympathetic jazz venue. This is the one event that I was personally able to attend, and I was struck by how well the potentially unlikely mix of young singer-songwriters and wide-ranging piano trio improv actually worked. This column has often returned to the issue of how jazz takes its place in the wider fields of Art with a capital ‘A’ and Showbiz. There’s a viewpoint that its values are so endemically specific that it can only thrive in a specially created artistic habitat, and while there’s a truth in this, it can also result in jazz becoming segregated into its own discrete ghetto. Yet even the most senior of jazz listeners will now have grown up in the rock and roll era, and most of us will have arrived at jazz via a progression of different musical forms – why can’t gig billings reflect this? In the late 60s and early 70s, Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, and John McLaughlin toured with rock bands in the freewheeling spirit of the times – is jazz so fragile that it can’t flourish alongside other genres and compete with them on its own terms? In addition, the term ‘jazz’ now encompasses many widely divergent forms of musical self-expression, and it seems incongruous that a contemporary piano trio should be seen as incompatible with a singer-songwriter, but yet suitably matched with a thunderously swinging big band, just because both are filed under ‘jazz’ in the record store. It’s an ongoing debate and plaudits are due to the South Coast team for working to bridge the genre gap while simultaneously working diligently to uphold the tradition that provides their core. 

Speaking of audiences, a lively debate ensued on Facebook after musician Joe Caddy posted a series of questions about the future of live jazz, which seemed to point an accusing finger at promoters for allowing the scene to decline, and for failing to support musicians adequately by paying them commensurate with their ability. A considered reply came from Birmingham Jazz’s Brian Homer, which i make no apology for quoting at length.. 

“most of the scene is maintained by enthusiastic musicians or non-musicians in mainly smaller clubs/venues and festivals. And much of the time these things lose money on the night/weekend etc. So to keep things going people dig into their own pockets or raise some sponsorship or arts funding or whatever and generally spend a lot of time and effort mostly for no pay at all. Of course musicians deserve proper payment but let’s not forget the much of the scene is kept going by a motley crew across the country. The issues are complex and why some gigs do better than others is a mystery to many of us but I don’t think poor promotion is the major factor. Of course many promoters are amateur in the sense they don’t get paid but we do take it seriously and worry about getting the message out and how best to do it. Here’s some thoughts: 1. Audiences are fickle or maybe it’s just they have lots of other things to do so only go to particular things. 2. Recent research indicates that dedicated “jazz fans” are perhaps not as numerous as we think or would like. 3. There are many, many too many Free to Enter gigs. It devalues the “market” or as ACE would have us say “the jazz ecology”. The argument is that (apart from those pub and restaurant gigs) FTE gigs “help get people into jazz.” Apart from a handful of people in my experience this is bollocks. People used to paying nothing for top quality jazz may get into jazz but they rarely want to pay a proper price for it. 4. We’ve had some surprising full houses recently but the reasons are diverse. Sometimes it’s because bands have a particular following or are playing music that attracts non-specifically jazz fans or because they are a particular draw to certain social groups. 5. “Jazz” has become a portmanteau word covering a vast range of music. I’m not sure how useful it is anymore. It’s too easy for some people to say “I don’t like jazz” while actually not realising that in the jazz firmament there is probably something they will like.  6. This leads on to how we describe the music. Badly most of the time. We rely too much on “in” terms (that’s both musicians and promoters) when most of the audience don’t get the terms. 7. I think the current jazz scene is very lively with lots of new music but one aspect that perhaps could help is that musicians seem to have got out of the habit of playing each others’ music. I’m not advocating trying to re-run the classic years but when music is written – played on a CD and on a tour then rarely played again I think we are missing an opportunity for audiences to get to know ‘new standards’.” 

Much food for thought here, and we’ll be returning to these issues in subsequent columns. In the meantime, the more gigs we go to, the more gigs will get put on – it’s a simple, self-perpetuating mechanism, so keep coming out and supporting the scene!

 

Minority Report

There’s nothing like a selection of statistics to start the new year, so here’s a grab-bag for you to dive into. Firstly, the Guardian has quoted some figures, possibly gathered by Barratt Homes, that indicate over 85,000 Londoners sold up and moved to the South East between 2015 and 2016, with over 5,000 of those moving straight to Brighton. We can speculate that a sizeable quotient of these new arrivals are people entering in the middle-management phase of human existence who bought London property in the 1990s or earlier and now can’t believe their good luck. We can assure them all that a very warm welcome awaits them at our thriving local jazz venues, where they will be able to enjoy a level of empathetic musicianship that will make the visit fully as nourishing as all the big name concerts that they might have seen back in London if only they’d had the time and it wasn’t so expensive. Perhaps they are also part of the later-life demographic  who are contributing to the continuing growth of music streaming by belatedly embracing the medium – the annual Nielsen report trumpets a massive 60% growth in streaming revenues, driving the entire industry into growth for the second consecutive year, a phenomenon not seen since the era when our new DFL friends were still able to afford property in Zone 2. 

Even jazz seems to be feeling the bounce – Spotify reports that music broadly labelled as ‘jazz’ was streamed 56% more in the 12 months up til March 2017 than in the similar preceding period. However, there’s still a mismatch between jazz and streaming, as seen in the disparity between album sales revenues (1.5% of total for 2017, higher than folk and new age!!) and streaming revenues (0.2% – better than nothing, but only just), which you could characterise as illustrating the difference between paltry and measly. Despite repeated pleas and petitions, and Tidal finally coming on board, the major streaming sites still don’t include the meta-data (what used to be known as ‘liner notes and credits’ in the old, 4-dimensional days) which many jazz fans expect. The uncharitable might be tempted to dismiss this preoccupation with accurate factual detail about who played what and when, employing the inevitable scornfully unflattering metaphors involving anoraks and trainspotters (despite the former being very useful and the latter being entirely harmless), but who cares about the uncharitable? Fans of the tradition know that the enjoyment of a musical recording can be broadened and deepened by an awareness of the context of its creation, and that’s what connoisseurship is all about.  Until streaming services are tailored to represent jazz catalogues in a more presentable form, fans will prefer to stick to physical albums – as long as they still possess CD players capable of playing them, as vinyl releases are still the preserve of the hip and highly touted on the one hand, and the legendary but deceased via the endless stream of legacy re-issues on the other. 

    Two other reports out over the last 12 months tell the tale from the point of view of the producers rather than distributors and the consumers. The Musicians’ Union commissioned a major piece of research from DHA Communications, now out under the title ‘The Working Musician’, and the University Of Leeds has published a paper entitled “That’s the Experience: Passion, Work Precarity, and Life Transitions Among London Jazz Musicians.” Briefly summarised, they tell a tale of a highly qualified and motivated workforce creating superlative music in precarious conditions. The Leeds report is of especial relevance here as it highlights the particular challenges facing early career musicians in jazz. Sales of recordings and publishing rights are important income streams for other genres of music, but young jazz musicians can struggle to attract attention to their records when they are set against the richness and depth of the entire 20th Century recorded tradition. Too many jazz fans adopt the attitude inaccurately attributed to the Caliph Omar regarding the books in the Library of Alexandria, declaring (in paraphrase) that if a jazz record is similar to Kind Of Bluethen we have no need of it, and if it is radically different then it should be destroyed. 

    It’s most heartening to hear from South Coast Jazz Festival that their event is selling briskly, and if you’re hoping to attend you should get onto buying your tickets without delay. They’ve assembled a mouthwatering programme of high-caliber artists, with a canny emphasis on familiar big names. Equally important is the support they’ve shown to emerging talent – Alexandra Ridout is appearing with Clark Tracey and is already a name to watch out for, and a real coup is the unique one-off talent that is Elliot Galvin, presenting a new trio and new material. With New Generation Jazz set to return to the re-furbished Verdict in 2018, there’s plentiful opportunities ahead to show your support for the future of the music that brings us together and keep the scene alive for our new pals from the Big Smoke.

 

Hat and Beard

This year would have been Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday, and the plethora of tributes from critics, musicians and fans alike have been ample evidence of his continuing importance on the contemporary scene. It’s interesting to compare his current stature with that of his contemporary, Dizzy Gillespie, also born in 1917. It could be fairly said that Gillespie’s career was more successfully managed than Monk’s, and his reputation more consolidated, during his own lifetime – both started out being labelled as bebop rebels, yet Gillespie managed to move into the mainstream while simultaneously gaining the lion’s share of the accolades as bebop’s founding father, while Monk, despite his Time magazine cover and long-standing contract with Columbia, struggled financially throughout his career. Yet this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival accorded Gillespie a single concert in tribute, while Monk’s celebrations spread over two whole days, cumulating in a re-creation of his legendary 1959 Town Hall concert with a specially-convened big band of foremost UK players led by Strata-East kingpin Charles Tolliver. Jazz musicians return again and again to Monk’s repertoire; he holds the distinction of being the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, but while the Duke’s composing credits run into the high hundreds, Monk’s entire output consists of around 70 tunes. Once seen as an eccentric outlier, as known for his fancy headgear and bizarre behaviour both on and offstage as his artistic output, he has moved closer and closer to the centre of jazz’s core identity as the years have passed, as each succeeding generation of musicians finds themselves drawn to try and interpret the musical conundrums he set up. 

    Monk’s life and legend alone are enough to fascinate; as more details emerge of the man behind the myth, so do the contemporary resonances in his story. As a black man in America, he suffered from police harassment and racial discrimination, as still sadly evident in today’s USA; his eccentric behaviour is now interpreted as a consequence of mis-diagnosed and mis-treated mental illness, possibly bi-polar disorder, reflecting our own contemporary willingness to acknowledge the often unseen prevalence of such issues. His biographer Robin Kelley mentions possible prescriptions for Thorazine (an amphetamine) and Librium (a depressive), and his son T.S. Monk has also confirmed his father’s struggles with mental health. In contrast to the very masculine world of 20th century jazz, Monk’s life story was dominated by women, from the Harlem neighbour who taught him stride piano to the un-named evangelist whose tent show provided his first experience of touring, to his early mentoring by Mary Lou Williams, to his wife and lifetime companion Nellie, and the Baroness Pannonica who gave him shelter in his final years when he withdrew into silence and isolation. He was a musical rebel who never altered his vision to suit contemporary tastes, a proud black man who refused to knuckle under, a self-contained mysterious presence who gave few interviews; yet also a hardworking, jobbing musician and family man, who sustained his marriage, shared hands-on childcare duties, and put his children through private school; a loyal friend who sheltered the vulnerable Bud Powell from drugs charges by taking the rap himself; and a sly, humorous joker who wasn’t averse to acting up for the cameras when it suited him. 

    Monk’s piano style is as hedged around with legend, conflicting opinion and contradiction as his personal life. Early critics thought he sounded heavy-handed, clumsy and wrong, and criticised his supposedly limited ability. At the EFG Centenary concert in Cadogan Hall, longtime Monk aficionado Jonathan Gee’s interpretations of classics like ‘Blue Monk’ and ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ were spiced with the smooth, fluidity of touch, and the lush extended chord voicings that have become the standard language of jazz piano, deriving from Debussy and Ravel by way of the timeless mastery of Bill Evans. Monk’s own playing, full of awkward pauses, unexpected intervallic jumps and stark root-position chords delivered at sledgehammer intensity, is far harder to assimilate; you can here echoes of it in the playing of Stan Tracey, but tellingly his nearest stylistic twin is Ellington, whose own unorthodox voice on his instrument is often overshadowed by his importance as a composer. To ears accustomed to the immaculately poised performances of the post-Evans school, Monk’s hesitant, crashing solo recordings sometimes invoke comparisons with the deliberate ham-fistedness of Les Dawson, and many contemporary critics – in particular the acidic anti-modernist Philip Larkin – assumed that he simply couldn’t play properly. Yet this was a man who at thirteen was apparently banned from the legendary Harlem Apollo talent contests because he always won, who was equally able as a teenager to perform works by Rachmaninoff, and mastered the demanding stride style of James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson early in his career. Biographer Kelley refers to rehearsal tapes in the possession of Nellie and Baroness Nica, which document how Monk methodically and laboriously practiced his ideas, deliberately developing his stiff-fingered, hammer attack, stripping out more and more notes from his voicings to arrive at his unique creations of ordered space and dissonance. Even the basic details are contested – Leonard Feather claimed that Monk’s technique was due to his unusually large span, Kelley speaks unequivocally of his ‘small hands’ . 

    If Monk’s piano technique remains as difficult to quantify and unapproachable as the man himself, the continuing fascination of his compositions endures and deepens as their deceptive simplicity continues to reveal layers of depth and relevance. You can hear intimations of the next 60 years of jazz in everything he wrote, from the modal explorations hinted at in the bridge of Monk’s Dream to the challenges of complex form in Criss Cross and the rhythmic displacement in Straight No Chaser and the deliberate challenge in his embrace of angularity, straining at the boundaries of conventional harmony. Even at his careers’ height, Monk always seemed like an outsider – as time goes by the centrality of his legacy becomes ever more apparent. 

    I must admit to a certain prejudice in favour here, as the first jazz record I ever bought was by Monk. It was the Columbia issue Monk from 1964, with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales on bass and the sadly recently deceased Ben Riley on drums,  and had been misfiled in the reggae section of the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange. The black and white cover photo featured Monk smoking a suspiciously hand-rolled cigarette and fitted in neatly between the Peter Tosh and Burning Spear records. The music inside was a revelation; in the overcast monochrome musical climate of the post-punk early 80s, it was like a refreshing shaft of light breaking through the clouds. Here was a joyful embrace of melody allied to a tough, assertive musicality; a confident, self-contained hipness worlds away from the shouty orthodoxy of the time; a sense of virtuosity borne lightly, committed yet nonchalant at the same time; and above all, a glorious flexible rhythmic dexterity. At the time, my acme of musical sophistication was the rambling mono-chordal prolixity of Frank Zappa, or the elephantine, self-important galumphings of King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ – Monk’s music seemed at once lighter in spirit but deeper in meaning. His 60s Columbia output isn’t generally reckoned to be his best, but it’s deserving of re-evaluation, not least because the recording quality makes them an easier listen than some of the harsh-sounding  Blue Note and Riverside issues, and Rouse has been consistently under-rated – after all, it’s hard not to suffer by comparison when you’re in a chair previously occupied by both Coltrane and Rollins. Monk’s music seems to me to contain the very essence of what makes jazz so special, and his continuing relevance is tied in with the enduring appeal of the music.

Autumn Leaves

In the showbiz calendar, Autumn is often the month of relaunch, as weary musicians wrap up their summer touring, the last function gigs herald the end of a season spent under canvas in dozens of catered marquees, and those mysterious and all-powerful denizens who preside over booking schedules and press campaigns return, refreshed from the sybaritic pleasures of their summer holidays. As the nights draw in it’s good to look ahead and see that the pace of jazz activity in Brighton and further afield continues to maintain itself.

A couple of events deserve a mention due to their sheer popularity, even though they’re currently in abeyance. Herbie Flower’s Jazz Breakfast series at The Dome may not be on the radar of the dedicated fans but it consistently attracts the biggest crowds of any event dedicated
to jazz-and-related-musics apart from the ever-increasing groove behemoth that is Love Supreme. Let’s hope that Herbie’s health will permit this to continue. Equally, Pete Morris’ lunchtime sessions at All Saints in Hove have been quietly building in popularity, and the final session of the season, featuring an all-star cast of top local players fronted by Julian Nicholas and Imogen Ryall, attracted a record audience of 160. We hopefully await news of both these events, and, looking a little further afield, it’s heartening to see the response to Nigel Price’s call to arms to save the Swanage Jazz Festival, which many Brighton musicians have performed at over the years. Let’s hope his herculean efforts, and the plentiful support he’s summoned from the wider community are rewarded by the festival’s future being assured for years to come.

Closer to home, New Generation Jazz continues its winter programme, following the superb Charlie Stacey’s knockout gig with a succession of ever younger and more ridiculously talented tyros - stay tuned for announcements for 2018.

The South Coast Jazz Festival triumphantly returns for the third year under the dual stewardship of Claire Martin and the aforementioned Mr Nicholas, whose increasing visibility both locally and nationally is richly deserved. They’ve got 8 days of concerts, workshops, film and special events coming your way - defiantly resisting any unfortunate associations that railway metaphors may evoke amongst regular sufferers on Southern Rail, they’ve billed it as ‘a whistle-stop tour around the world of jazz’ and it’s due to call in at the Ropetackle in Shoreham from the 20th of January. The launch party featuring Oli Rockberger was a storming success as well.

For those prepared to brave the endless vagaries of Brighton mainline, November also brings
the EFG London Jazz Festival, and alongside such guaranteed box office favourites as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Robert Glasper you’ll be able to catch a host of young UK acts in some of the smaller venues across town. From our vantage point at the Bandstand Stage at
this year’s Love Supreme we caught glimpses of what seems to be a real grassroots movement of new young British talent starting to find it’s own voice in the clamorous throng of jazz-and-related-music. Artists like Alex Hitchcock, Maisha, Poppy Ajudha, Ezra Collective, Yussef Dayes, Triforce, James Beckwith, Zenel Trio and Nerija are working to meld together an intriguing blend of jazz language and contemporary urban sounds that has the potential for real breakout appeal, with the ubiquitous Shabaka Hutchings leading the pack in terms of visibility. It was good to
see Zara McFarlane fronting a band of faces from the scene on BBC 2’s Later this week, many
of whom have appeared at New Generation events over 2017 - let’s hope that they continue to include Brighton in their itineraries. The Verdict is now fully open, under new management and regularly presenting jazz four nights a week - the full spectrum, from Safe House’s uncompromising dedication to free improv to the return of Dennis Simpson’s enduringly popular Small’s Jazz programme of all-acoustic mainstream swing. What other venue, anywhere in the country, offers such a range?

With a host of well-supported casual pub sessions on offer as well, the continuation of Neal Richardson’s Splash Point series at the Marina, and the jam sessions thriving across town, there’s never been more jazz on offer in Brighton. So use it, don’t lose it! 

It's my party and I'll play dominant subs if I want to

Party conference season is upon us once again, and the barriers have not yet been removed from outside the Brighton Centre, where they’ve been on duty all week protecting the Labour Party as they set out their stall before the public. Local musicians who’ve been on duty entertaining the public in their regular spots around the town centre will have benefitted as their audiences were swelled by the party delegates, easily recognisable by their red lanyards and air of new-found, unaccustomed confidence over a barely suppressed excitement, like previously unpopular teenagers who suddenly find themselves with the most Prom invites in their class and are starting to comprehend the magnitude of their potential rewards. Jazz musicians in the UK have long been drawn towards the political Left, and evidence that this affiliation continues could be found at The Walrus on Ship Street, where two nights of music were staged as a benefit for the Brighton and Hove Labour Party, organised by the tireless Terry Seabrook, Julian Nicholas and Jon Newey, and headlined by two of Sussex’s brightest musical stars, Claire Martin OBE and Liane Carroll. Both nights were well attended and supported by many of the local musical community – they also introduced many to the potential of The Walrus’ spacious and well equipped downstairs bar, ideal for staging further events. 

Of course, not all jazz fans are also Labour supporters, and the title ‘Jazz For Labour’ was the subject of some acerbic online repartee between supporters and those whose enthusiasm for jazz was not matched by a corresponding devotion to progressive politics. This column has already expended some energy in examining the long and complex relationship between jazz and politics; and in reconciling the two opposed yet coexisting truths that while artistic endeavour cannot be owned by any one set of political beliefs, yet art cannot exist in a vacuum and will always reflect the stresses and dialectical oppositions of the society in which it is generated. Jazz musicians in the UK tend to be liberal and progressive and sections of their audience tend towards the conservative, whether you spell it with a small or a large ‘C’ , and this tension generates it’s own kinetic energy which occasionally emerges in  bursts of colourful recriminations, especially where funding is concerned. 

Many jazz musicians will be de facto Labour supporters because of their Musician’s Union membership, as the Union is an affiliated organisation and pays a fee to the party in return for all its members receiving the right to vote in Labour ballots and, musicians being what they are, those who don’t actually embrace this eminently covetable privilege are likely to retain it through sheer inactivity. But if we are to take policy at face value, there’s no doubt that the current Labour Party pledges directly address many of the issues affecting the UK’s musical community to a far greater extent than those of any other party. Promises of a £1 billion Capital Development Fund and an Art Pupil Premium to make instrument classes available to all primary school pupils are included in the party manifesto as part of their pledge to end austerity, and one may of course question the affordability. Yet another less trumpeted, less costly but equally noteworthy proposition is a reform of licensing and development regulations to favour small venues in recognition of the essential role they play in fostering talent. 

The pledges in question draw up plans for protecting and investing in music venues, to support grassroots and professional music, and ensuring a healthy music industry across the country, and for creating a review of the business rates system to make it fairer to organisations like music venues, extending the £1,000 pub relief to help small music venues that are suffering from rates rises. The MU has welcomed these proposals; we have examined the plight of small venues in this column, and can only agree. In the interests of balance, let’s introduce a voice from another perspective, that of the exciting, dynamic world of online capitalism.The ticket sales website, WeGotTickets, has rapidly become a go-to resource for independent promoters, including our very own New Generation Jazz, due to its reach, transparency and ease of use. Their own blog’s latest update addresses the issues confronting small jazz venues, and we make no apology for quoting extensively from it, not least because of the prominent mention it gives to The Verdict:

“Despite the genre’s niche appeal, around the UK a number of excellent small clubs ensure jazz’s grassroots scene is well catered for. In London, the Vortex Jazz Club is something of a flag bearer, hosting a broad range of jazz – from standards through be-bop and hard-bop to spiritual jazz and the more avant-garde – in its intimate 100-capacity room. Other great clubs around the country include Fleece Jazz in Bristol, The Verdict in Brighton, Oxford’s Spin Jazz, Jazz at the Cavern in Farncombe, Wakefield Jazz, and Jazz at The Crypt and Spice Jazz, both in London. Festivals such as the EFG London Jazz Festival and Cambridge Jazz Festival are also keen to support up-and-coming artists, often programming events into smaller clubs alongside their larger shows.

These clubs don’t have it easy though. Speaking to us after being voted onto our INDIE50 – a list of individuals doing amazing work behind the scenes in independent music – the Vortex’s general manager Kathianne Hingwan spoke of the tough times they’re experiencing. “It’s a bit of a hand-to-mouth organisation” she explained, “and that’s because there isn’t really that much money in jazz. Ronnie Scott said that if you want to make a million in jazz, you need to start with two – it was meant to be a joke but it’s actually true”.

Although the challenges facing the grassroots scene are numerous – jazz clubs obviously suffer the same well-documented stresses and strains that are affecting all small venues – it’s imperative that these independent clubs are successful. Their importance to the whole jazz industry can’t be overstated. “The guys from Ronnie Scott’s come over here, and when we thought we might disappear about 18 months ago they were very worried”, remembers Kathianne, “They said that we couldn’t disappear because it’s very important what we do, because we give a lot of the young musicians their start”.”

It’s always a pleasure to report good news. We’ve dedicated previous editions to documenting what we see as a genuine shift towards jazz-and-related-music among mainstream, younger audiences, and WeGotTickets’ own data actually backs this up, citing the following stats

“Our sales figures at WeGotTickets give reason to be optimistic. Working mainly with small clubs and festivals, we’ve seen almost a 40% increase in jazz ticket sales over the last two years. We have over 20% more jazz events on sale in September 2017 than we did in the same month in 2015, with more than half of that growth coming this year, and all signs point to a continued increase as small clubs are able to expand from one or two nights per week to a fuller events calendar.”

As sad tidings reach us of the threat to the continuing existence of the Swanage Jazz Festival, it’s good to hear of tales of growth in the sector we all love, regardless of political affiliation. Let’s hope that the political establishment will acknowledge and support this growth as we head forward into the uncharted waters of Brexit and beyond. And let’s not forget how the seismic shifts in the way that recorded music is consumed have seriously affected the jazz community; Big Streaming, as represented by Spotify and Apple Music, does not serve jazz particularly well, as we have noted before. The recent decision by TfL to halt the Uber juggernaut and the willingness of Berlin and Barcelona to curb the spread of AirBnB until both companies can accept their burden of social responsibility, and the steps taken by the EU to restrict the monopolistic hegemony of Apple and Google all provide an example of how disruptive tech doesn’t always have to get it’s own way. Surely all but the most dogmatically libertarian can support a measure of enlightened intervention in favour of the music we all love, regardless of what colour rosette we may be moved to adopt come convention time. 

The Silver Screen

September can be a quiet month for music fans, after the summer festival season is over but before the autumn touring schedules kick in. Of course, expectations can be sustained by the promise of the EFG London Jazz Festival, coming our way in November, and there is heartening news from the wonderful South Coast Jazz Festival, set to return for a third triumphant time in January 2018. In addition, The Verdict is attempting to plug the gap single-handedly by programming more jazz than at any other time in its history, and there’s the continuing series of lunchtime concerts at All Saints church in Hove that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Fortunately there’s another treat currently available for jazz fans – the recently released documentaries of John Coltrane and Lee Morgan. Chasing Trane is currently on limited release in selected cinemas but I Called Him Morgan is available on Netflix, well worth the minimal bother of signing up for a month’s free trial, as currently on offer from the service, if you’re not already a subscriber.

  Coltrane is such a titan of modern music that it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for a theatrically released documentary. Morgan’s name may be less universally recognised outside the circles of jazz aficionados, but it’s possible that the general public might actually be as familiar with his music – or at least with his seminal tune The Sidewinder. The eponymous LP was released in 1964, when Morgan was 26, with seven Blue Note albums as a leader under his belt but still developing his career, and Coltrane was 38, already established as a major musical force, but with only three years of music making ahead of him. The Sidewinder’s driving boogaloo beat and powerful, bluesy soloing turned the tune into a surprise hit, breaking all previous Blue Note sales by a factor of ten (including those for Blue Train, the 1957 Coltrane recording on which Morgan was featured), and it’s been a constant feature on soundtracks, adverts and compilations whenever anyone wants to evoke the grooving 60s. Such was the commercial success of the record that it set a template for Blue Note for the rest of the decade – small-group records with the leading track in a driving straight-8 feel, followed by a swinging mix of original blowing heads, blues or rhythm changes, and perhaps a standard to round things off. The album marked a high point in the integration of the intricacies of bop with the earthy roots of jazz in blues and gospel, and must have seemed to some to indicate a commercial salvation for jazz; but it also marked the beginning of the end. Rock and Roll was poised to take over as the music of young America and by 1965 the baton of musically hip standard bearing had passed to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds or James Brown. 

    The Sidewinder is a truly terrific record, without a single wasted note or empty gesture, full of virtuosity lightly worn, by players so utterly immersed in the culture of their music that it seemedthey could turn out this material effortlessly – Morgan later claimed that he’d conceived of the title smash as a last-minute filler to complete the session. Yet its very facility contained the germs of its own redundancy – audiences at the time were looking for something deeper, more unexpected and less formulaic, that would make grander gestures – the wave of artistic neophilia that had swept the post-war world was breaking into the mainstream. Morgan’s hip, polished, harmonically aware funk suddenly seemed to be approaching the corny.  Blue Note tried to ride both horses by signing artists like Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, but their most successful record also heralded a long period of decline into both the commercial and the cultural margins.

  Anyone looking for depth, unexpectedness, or grand gestures in the jazz world of 1964 would probably have turned to John Coltrane.  Two of his superlative statements, Live At Birdland and Crescent were released that year – the former in particular saw him chafing against the constrictions of harmonic tonality which he had already explored with a thoroughness unmatched by his contemporaries. So titanically, monolithically freighted with significance are Coltrane’s later recordings that they can overpower some of the other aspects of this supremely rounded musician – an important composer (Giant Steps is full of memorable tunes sometimes overshadowed by its titular etude), a gifted, velvet-toned interpreter of ballads, an impeccably swinging blues player, and someone who matched Morgan’s jukebox 45 hit with one of his own – an instrumental cover of a hit song originally performed by Julie Andrews in the guise of a singing nun. Coltrane gave Morgan a break on Blue Train but moved much faster than the younger man, and by the end was recording and playing music that some didn’t recognise as jazz at all. 

    The legacy of both men continues to be influential, but in vastly different ways. Most general music fans, when they think of jazz, imagine something like one of the cuts off The Sidewinder – the Blue Note hard-bop sound and house design style have become a sort of benchmark of authentically hip jazz, regaining the popularity that drained away in the late 60s, so that the name ‘Blue Note’ is hardly ever divorced from the word ‘iconic’ in cultural journalism. If Coltrane sought to move beyond the bop idiom he had mastered so fully, Morgan and his cohort preserved it by presenting its harmonic intricacies in a digestible form that you could even dance to, and its appeal has endured among audiences even if the artistic standard bearers have moved on. Coltrane of course would be avowed as by far the greater artist by most musicians, and his multifarious legacy continues to dominate, to the extent that aspects of that dominance are being called into question. Ben Ratliff’s book on Coltrane explores how the legacy of his late period masterpieces was interpreted as a cult of sheer volume married to spiritual sincerity among free players that overlooked the way that he himself was steeped in every aspect of the tradition, from blues to bop. Coltrane’s influence reached beyond jazz – the aforementioned Byrds were big fans –  and he could be credited with unwittingly promulgating the idea that it’s acceptable to solo for 15 minutes over a single chord – an idea seized upon by a generation of rock guitarists – and that meaningful jazz can be effectively approximated by whizzing up and down the dorian mode over a moody minor-key vamp. Pianist Ethan Iverson recently published a fascinating article comparing two 1967 performances of Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood by Bill Evans and Ellington himself (Coltrane recorded a definitive version with the composer in 1963).  In it he decried the influence of the scalar approach to jazz on the introductory level, stating “Bach and Parker built structures based on internal counterpoint, where the melodic impulse was true in every dimension, while Beethoven and Coltrane offered fast-scale passagework over varied textures. The music of Bach and Parker is essentially at one volume and one affect, while Beethoven and Coltrane are able to go from quiet to thunder and back. While it would be foolish to proclaim that Bach and Parker are greater than Beethoven and Coltrane, it is true that Beethoven and Coltrane are easier to imitate (not to mention teach), simply because acquiring the essentially untheatrical craft of Bach and Parker is harder than that of the later, more theatrical masters”.

    Would it be pushing the analogy too far to compare the music of Morgan to that of Mozart –  standing between the rigorous austerity of harmonic counterpoint exploration and the theatrical thunder of passagework and texture, to offer a version dominated by melody and a determination to make music that is rigorously ordered but also pleasing and accessible? Like Mozart, his detractors may accuse his music of being lightweight compared to the intensity of Coltrane, yet part of its lasting appeal lies precisely because it doesn’t place such heavy demands upon the listener. 

    As with all artists whose careers were cut off in their prime, the temptation remains to speculate where their muse would have led them had they lived their full span, and how they might have changed the music we hear today. Morgan combined his bebop sophistication with an earthy, blues-drenched sensibility, which lent his music an easy populist appeal, as the crossover commercial success of The Sidewinder testified. The values that made him a superlative interpreter of what used to be called ‘funk’ in the 50s – as in Horace Silver’s Opus De Funk – could probably have translated seamlessly into funk as it was understood in the back-beat heavy, rhodes-drenched 1970s, and he might have challenged Donald Byrd as contender for theR&B groove heavyweight title. Or perhaps the wilder leanings that were hinted at in the Live At The Lighthouse sets would have prevailed, and he might have explored along the boundaries of free and fusion, jazz and rock, that were touched on by frontline partner Bennie Maupin and by Maupin’s employer Herbie Hancock during his Columbia tenure, and which found its deepest and darkest expression in Miles Davis’  increasingly opaque series of recordings that started with the release of Bitches Brew two years before Morgan’s death. Where Coltrane might have gone next is far harder to guess; such was the lightning speed at which he reset the frontiers of his art that it’s hard to imagine him settling into any of the set pathways that jazz followed as the 70s progressed. Afro-haired funkateer, dashiki-clad free blower, bombastic fusion technician, staunch traditionalist – all these roles seem too small to contain him. Perhaps as the end approached he was nearing to his goal, progressing beyond all sound into the silence that surrounds every note and that waits behind every piece of music, and into which all music returns.

 

De Profundis

Love Supreme Festival reached its fifth birthday this year. An additional Jazz In The Round stage, curated by Jez Nelson, a strong representation from a new generation of British artists, the continuing contribution from the local Brighton scene to the Bandstand and Arena stages, and the enduring smoother-than-silk vitality of the immaculately mustachioedGeorge Benson, all gave reason to celebrate. More than this, from the organiser’s point of view, was the fact that the event finally managed to sell out to capacity for the first time. The green field festival exists in an extremely insecure financial situation; the massive fixed costs involved in creating a medium sized township in an empty field for the weekend, to say nothing of the necessary licences and insurance and the artist fees – headline acts generate up to 80% of sales and consequently can attempt to hoover up 80% of the available budget – mean that anything less than a 100% sell-out will typically leave the backers out of pocket. So attaining the magic sell-out crowd is a real landmark in the festival’s survival – let’s hope that this gives them the confidence to continue to grow, and maybe even sort out the sound quality in the Big Top by next year.

    Love Supreme, as many have noted, is a commercial festival – it is backed by investors but it’s primary revenue source is the ticket money collected at the box office. Punters are lured in by the recognisable promise of the big name headliners, but once inside the gates are likely to find themselves exposed to all kinds of sounds that you won’t hear on commercial radio. Jazz, as we’ve noted before, is a broader church than ever in the early years of the 21st century, and it would be a real challenge to represent all its different incarnations equally – the Love Supreme bookers tend to favour those acts that make the sort of muscular, extrovert statements that translate well on a big outdoor stage or a crowded tent, or are associated with the latest developments to have caught the attention of the audience or the attendant media (which drives which being one of the perennial questions of the art versus commerce debate) or are young and photogenic enough to generate a certain amount of free coverage, or all three.  Twas ever thus – it’s the realities of creating art in a commercial arena, and while no-one should underestimate the amazing levels of skill and commitment on display from all acts at the festival, there’s no doubt that other equally talented acts won’t get booked because they don’t fit the criteria, which are at least in part set by the implacable forces of commercial necessity. 

    Cue the entry to this discussion of the noble forces of public arts funding, intended to address this specific imbalance and provide a haven for those deserving artistic vessels which might otherwise founder upon the stormy waters of the music biz. Arts Council England provide a sterling service supporting the grassroots of jazz in the UK. Our own New Generation Jazz project relies uponACE support to bring its roster of young artists to play sell-out shows; the South Coast Jazz Festival uses it to provide the necessary financial stability for its successful, ever-growing annual feast of talent; many jazz artists would find touring impossible without its support, a fact confirmed to me by one of our most prolifically gigging and best-loved musicians – the combination of the ever-rising cost of hotel rooms and thereduction in CD sales at gigs makes unsupported touring harder than ever. Despite ACE having recently rejected a bid by the Small Venues Trust, the demise of Jazz Services as a dedicated portfolio organisation to support jazz artists, and the massive 85% of available funding that allegedly goes into opera and classical, there’s no doubt that the jazz landscape in the UK would be a far emptier place without their essential financial support. How would this landscape look if jazz were to exist in a purely capitalist environment where the viability of any artistic project would be wholly dependant on its commercial potential?

    Artistic funding is an arm of the state, distributing revenues collected by government for the purposes of collective good as determined by the state’s elected or appointed functionaries. The more rabid form of free-marketeersand their Brexiteer colleagues have long argued that state intervention constitutes a distortion of the natural workings of society – proponents of the system, looking with a shudder of Nordic rectitude at those societies where market forces are allowed to run unchecked to the invariable benefit of the few at the expense of the many, support it for exactly that reason. The benefits of state support for the arts are a cornerstone of liberal opinion. 

    Jazz, however, as we have noted before, has historically been a commercial music form that arose in the hotbed of free market capitalism that was 20th century America. Its transition to a publicly supported art form has been relatively recent, and the change in status has effected changes in the nature of the art itself. In the light of this, let’s examine a statement by man of the moment Shabaka Hutchings, whose reed work featured in no less than three different acts over the Love Supreme weekend. “One of the traits in this generation of musicians that you might associate with the word jazz is that they see what they do as connected to the audience. And weirdly, you might see that as connected to the demise of the arts funding culture. ….that culture is very different than it was 15 years ago, before the Tories got their claws into it. At least as I see it, for a musician to survive you have to be intimately connected to the people that you’re playing for. You are actually linked on a survival level. It was a lot easier before, and I feel like that distorted things, because it meant that you could exist without considering who you’re playing for. All you’re connected to is the funding, and the ideology that says that art can be like that…. maybe that’s the thing that connects all of the music that similar artists of our generation play – we are trying to play music for the people who we are a part of. We’re not trying to to make music based on hierarchy, created in an institution, or in our abstract theory books” 

    The concept of being obliged to play music that is intimately connected with one’s audience will, of course, be very familiar to those players who augment their livings by playing in bars, clubs and social functions. Like the be-boppers of the 1940s, who made there livings playing in dance bands, many players turn to jazz as the space where they can play for themselves and each other and escape for a while from the pressures of commercial reality. If music simply follows the money, the results are entirely predictable, and paradoxically can ultimately become a complete turn-off for audiences. Jazz musicians have to balance the needs of attracting and retaining an audience, making a living, and creating valid artistic statements – the resulting tensions are part of the gig. Funding can create and sustain audiences but can it also drive a wedge between the artists and the public? There are many sides to this ongoing debate – I’ve heard from aPortuguese promoter that UK artists are under-represented in Europe because the availability of funding in the UK makes it unnecessary for them to reach out and build audiences abroad. For the moment, the availability of public funding plays an essential part in supporting the UK scene, but a profitable partnership with the commercial realm is equally important, and may become more so as the complications of Brexit continue on their unforeseeable pathway. 

What's In A Name?

We’ve been quietly but firmly insisting in this column that there’s something stirring in the world of jazz-and-related-musics, both here in the UK and further afield. While sales of recordings continue to plummet across all sectors, the rise of delivery via streaming services continues to increase; in fact, thanks to the massive uptake in streaming subscriptions, the global music sector is seeing growth for the first time in many years. Inthe UK, the rights collection society PRS has reported its highest ever annual pay-out of 527.6m GBP – this figure is not adjusted for inflation, but still represents an 11% growth over 2015, which means that it’s the first time in 20 years that the seemingly inexorable decline in music revenues has been reversed. Given the option of streaming over piracy, most consumers seem to prefer streaming – this is in itself good news, but how much jazz musicians are benefitting from these developments is hard to assess. The sector is changing so fast that it’s difficult to gather the stats and analyse them in time to make a pronouncement without being almost instantly wrong-footed, but let’s take a look at the US market, where the most widely trumpeted figures, from Nielsen’s January 2015 report, suggest that jazz sales now only account for 1.4% of the total market, and, even worse, for only 0.3% of the streaming market. It seems that even if the good times may be tentatively returning,  jazz has been banished from the party and made to sit forlornly in the corridor with its equally unpopular classmates, folk and classical, while the cool kids pop, rock and R&B take over the common room once and for all. But the picture is such a confusing one, with vinyl sales still showing growth decades after the format was supposed to have died forever; independent record stores thriving while major high street chains close, and the malignant spectre of YouTube hovering in the background with it’s limitless free streams, teeth-grindingly annoying advertising and utterly opaque royalty structure, that it can support any number of conflicting opinions on the actual state of the music biz today, let alone prognoses for its future. 

    Anecdotal evidence from those musicians toiling tirelessly away at the coalface of the UK scene suggests that the loss of physical sales to streaming has often not been compensated by additional revenue from that source. One of our most ubiquitous and popular gigging jazz musicians has told me that his latest album – a widely reviewed, flawlessly swinging take on the hard bop tradition –  sold around 500 copies, supported by a tour that packed in as many dates as it’s possible to book in the UK. That’s a turnover of 5000 GBP – a respectable addition to gig fees rather than a bonanza, but still far more than could be achieved through 500, 5000 or even 50,000 streams of the same album – in the kind of hand-to-mouth cottage industry of the self-released jazz album, every physical sale counts, so every sale lost to streaming is a blow to the sustainability of the model. Streaming payment models are weighted against niche artists, because the ‘slice-of-the-pie’ distribution method means that the majority of your subscription fees end up going to the big players, irrespective of whether you are listening exclusively to Dizzy Gillespie rather than Dizzee Rascal. 

    Of course, it’s horribly dreary talking about music in terms of sales projections, delivery methods and market shares, and many, especially those not actually trying to make a livelihood from it, may feel that to focus on these drably prosaic matters is to miss the point completely. Move away from sales talk and back into the world of spontaneous creativity and live performance, where jazz has always thrived, and a different and far more encouraging picture emerges. This year, the renowned industry beanfeast now known as SXSW Festival hosted its first ever UK jazz showcase, as the triple alliance of promoters Jazz Re:Freshed, arts support unit British Underground and online magazine Jazz Standard brought an eclectic mix of UK artists to Austin, Texas to capitalise on the unmistakeable stirrings of interest in the UK scene (London duo Yussef Kamaal were refused visas at the last minute – now why might that have been?). Those of you who’ve been keeping an ear open to the sounds emanating from the New Generation Jazz nights at The Verdict will recognise many of the names being talked about – Moses Boyd, Femi Koleoso’s Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, Nerija,  Camilla George and Cassie Kinoshi are all past or future bookings whose names have been loosely linked together into something approaching that most treasured of journalistic creations – a Movement. Jazz Re:Freshed, who have also hosted Brighton power trios Vels Trio and Howes3, have been doing sterling work in supporting a fresher young sound through their regular London shows, and this hard work is starting to attract attention internationally, as lauded American radio network National Public Radio recently broadcast a documentary about the new wave of British jazz musicians who played in Texas this year. 

    Some, however, may still approach this news with some circumspection. One thing that unites all the musicians mentioned above is their ambivalence about accepting ‘jazz’ as a defining label. All of them come from a jazz background but incorporate a great deal of genre fluidity, claiming inspiration from the rich melting pot of contemporary UK urban music as much as the international jazz tradition. In theory, this is the sound of young musicians incorporating the musical influences of their own age group in order to move the tradition forward and reclaim its relevance to the millennial generation. In practice this means a great deal of heavy ostinato groove stuff with spacey modal soloing – the focus is more on exploring the rhythmical energy borrowed from urban styles than on harmonic or melodic adventures. The difficult task of re-engaging the wider, younger audience with jazz has long been discussed and bemoaned – there’s definite signs of an emerging resolution, but the music itself is undergoing changes towards a different interpretation that has its own UK identity, and that some may feel excludes whole chunks of the current scene, which may be no less worthy but have less appeal beyond the traditional constituencies. Anyone interested in this work in progress, and fortunate enough to have obtained tickets for this years Love Supreme Festival, which in a sign of the changes discussed here has sold out for the first time in its 5 year history, can check out what’s happening by seeking out any of the several bands on the bill to feature prolific multi-reedsman Shabaka Hutchings. He’s also a man whose interviews have revealed a number of very interesting perspectives on the shape of jazz to come – but they and the full attention they merit, will have to wait for the extra space waiting in our next issue.

 

Satisfaction, finally

Jazz FM Award Ceremony Review -Jazzwise Magazine - May 2017

A combination of the diligent pursuit of journalistic integrity on behalf of you, dear reader, and the organiser’s generous assessment of my actual capabilities to deliver as such, resulted in my being fortunate enough to attend this year’s JazzFM Awards. The setting was the Shoreditch Town Hall, its high-Victorian architecture evoking a suitable spirit of municipally serious-minded yet aspirational collective endeavour. Would that my humble keyboard were able fully to describe the dazzling splendour of the assembled company, the rapier-like cut and thrust of the repartee, the sumptuousness of the canapés, and the dignity and forbearance of the ushers and waitresses, but these details will have to wait for the attentions of one upon whom Calliope has more generously bestowed her gifts. I can confirm that among the musical highlights were Laura Mvula’s performance of The Man I Love in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by pianist Oli Rockberger, Georgie Fame’s unexpected, affectingly artless cockney-flavoured rendition of ‘Everything Happens to Me’ backed by an all-star house band featuring Guy Barker, and a storming performance from New York man of the moment Donny McCaslin. Among the eclectic array of presenters adding lustre to proceedings were fearless guardian of the democratic process Gina Miller, scat supremo Cleveland Watkiss,  eternally boyish radio star Gilles Peterson and famously irascible veteran Van Morrison, whose valiant but ultimately unsuccessful struggle with a recalcitrant microphone stand commanded the respect and admiration of all who witnessed it. It was a real pleasure to see Ashley Henry and Nubya Garcia among the nominees for Breakthrough Act of the Year, both of whom were featured at New Generation Jazz events at Brighton’s Verdict Club in 2016.  However it would be fair to say that even these eminences were overshadowed by the nominees who garnered the majority of the subsequent press coverage, and sparked much heated debate in the process – Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. 

    Between them the old-timers notched up three awards. Charlie Watts was up first, receiving a Gold Award ‘in recognition of his lifelong contribution to jazz and blues’. Watts’ enthusiasm for jazz, especially the bop big-band styles of his youth, is well known; he cut a very modest, self-effacing figure onstage, particularly in contrast with his presenter, the indefatigable free-jazz crusader Evan Parker, who was as ebullient as Watts was reticent. Introduced by host Jez Nelson as ‘the most important man in the room’, Parker started his speech by declaring impishly ‘I bet 98% of you have never even heard of me’ – Watts responded by muttering ‘I should be giving this award to you’ before both men paid tribute to bassist Dave Green, one of the stalwarts of jazz in the UK for as long as the Stones have been on the radio. That two figures from such radically different areas of the music biz should share a stage and find common ground in esteem for a style that both admire but neither regularly perform was a heartening display of ecumenicalism. Equally, when Mick and Ronnie took to the stage to accept the award for Best Blues Album for their recent release of back-to-their-roots R&B the choice seemed uncontroversial. It was the same record’s award for overall Album Of The Year that set social media chattering. How could the Stones possibly qualify?

    Something of the sort seems to have occurred to Jagger, who noted in his acceptance speech that in their early days the Stones were regularly thrown out of jazz clubs for playing R&B. Back in the early 60s, jazz was still hip and the R&B pop stylings of his band were rather looked down upon by the cognoscenti. ‘It’s come full circle’ he declared, visibly pleased to receive the award; how are we to interpret that remark?

    To many jazz fans and performers of their era, the Stones were at the forefront of the musical revolution that swept their scene away, closing the clubs, bankrupting the record labels and putting the artists out of work.  Interviews from the period seethe with resentment at the way that rock and roll took over as the dominant popular music of the day, and at it’s perceived coarsening effect on the nation’s musical culture. Jazz in its early days had attracted exactly the same opprobrium and had been described in exactly the same terms – ‘primitive’ music appealing to the lower instincts – but this was forgotten as the effects of the bop innovators took over and jazz moved out of the dancehalls and into the hipster clubs. The Stones had helped kill jazz – were they now to be honoured, already garlanded with awards and material success beyond measure, with a trophy that surely belonged to a jazz artist? Which raised the long-standing and ever-unresolved question – who would qualify as a jazz artist nowadays anyway? 

    A look at some of the other, uncontroversial winners gives us a clue to how the latter question would be answered by Jazz FM – awards were handed to Shabaka Hutchings, Orphy Robinson, Norma Winstone and Nikki Yeoh, among nominations includingBrad Meldhau, Wayne Shorter, Julian Arguelles, Laura Jurd, Tim Garland, Soweto Kinch and Gwilym Simcock. Other nominees contesting the Stones for Album of the Year included Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling and Donny McCaslin – and alsoMadeleine Peyroux and Anderson .Paak whose status as jazz artists is perhaps more debatable. Despite the presence of many artists whose relationship to jazz is tangential at best – and the inclusion of ‘Best Soul Artist’ and ‘Best Blues Act’ among the categories – there were rather more incontestably jazz acts among the nominees than can be typically found on a Jazz FM playlist. 

    Defenders would argue that Jazz FM is a commercial radio station, and in the ancient battle between art and commerce, jazz has usually come off badly. By nominating the Stones, the awards ceremony secured far more of the valuable oxygen of publicity. The award was voted for by the listening public, and so reflects what a majority of them actually like to listen to – and perhaps some of their attention, once gained, might be diverted onto the rest of the fertile UK jazz scene as represented by the other, less famous nominees. At the end of the day, everybody has to make a living, and critical accolades and esoteric artistic ambitions often don’t pay the bills. This attitude, however, is anathema to some. There will always be those uncompromising jazz fans for whom any stylistic development later than 1959 is highly suspect, or who see the purity of the free-improv scene is the only true representation of the music – JazzFM and all it’s works will have little appeal for them. But in addition such respected and forward-thinking players as Cleveland Watkiss and Kit Downes also raised their voices on social media to portray this as simply another example of jazz being sidelined, marginalised and diluted by a musical establishment that pays lipservice to the idea of jazz music, hoping to borrow some of it’s cultural cachet, while actually ignoring anything outside the tried and tested commercial mainstream. This is not an isolated complaint – many of the larger jazz festivals have attracted criticism for their policy of booking non-jazz popular headliners – the same complaint has been made against the Jazz Cafe and even the venerable Ronnie Scott’s. As we’ve noted before in this column, it’s easier to find agreement on what jazz isn’t than on what it is. Yet the label persists, with all its baggage, and seems increasingly to be deployed for its positive connotations – who shall be its guardian and gatekeeper?

    A look at the full list of nominees shows a scene bursting with original talent, steeped in the tradition and unafraid to carry it forward. Jazz is enjoying a period of expansion in the UK at the moment and part of this will surely depend on the extent to which it can move beyond a limited set of true believers and find its position within the mainstream. A generation of musicians is emerging in the UK who draw part of their musical sustenance from the jazz tradition but who see no conflict in mixing up their music with influences discovered elsewhere. Robert Glasper’s credentials as an important jazz figure are frequently, and perhaps justifiably, called into question by the establishment, but his name is constantly invoked by young players in the process of developing their own voices, in large part because of his cross-genre appeal. In the past the devastating effect of rock music on the jazz community has resulted in a tendency to develop a bunker type of mentality, as if jazz can only exist in isolation from other musical forms, and a zero-sum type of thinking where the advance of any other music is seen as detracting from jazz’s precarious position. There are historical reasons for this, in which the Stones have unwittingly played a part, but there is something incongruous when an artist deliberately chooses a musical path that defines itself by its complexity and esoteric or venerable appeal, then complains that other, easier music is getting all the attention. If jazz is to thrive beyond the conservatories and the arts centres it will have to find its place alongside the rest of the current soundscape – it’s all music, after all. Let’s hope that at the very least the JazzFM award is placed in a prominent position on Mr Jagger’s already crowded mantlepiece. 

 

It don't mean a thing if it ain't challenging patriarchal norms

This column has touched before on the relations between jazz and politics, and we’re about to plunge headfirst back into those bracingly icy waters by drawing attention to a controversy that flared up this month and has continued to flicker fitfully ever since. As the focus of the Left has shifted from issues of class dialectics to issues of personal identity, so has the focus of jazz’s political debate increasingly centred around issues of identity and ownership. This was brought to the forefront as a result of comments made in the course of a conversation between two pianists on a Blue Note Jazz Cruise ship. The ivory ticklers in question were Ethan Iverson, primary composer for gymnastically virtuosic trio The Bad Plus, and Robert Glasper, much lionised bandleader famed for his ambivalence towards the existing status quo of tradition and his enthusiasm for cross-over experiments into funk and fusion. The conversation was published by Iverson on his blog, and one comment in particular attracted a great deal more attention than either participant had anticipated. 

The conversation had turned, as conversations with Glasper often do, to the relationship between the jazz tradition and other currents of contemporary black music. The talk then turned to other pianists, scurrilous allegations against Cecil Taylor and Richie Beirach, and some of the minutiae of performance practice, but not before Glasper had dropped the following bombshell – readers of a sensitive disposition may want to look away now:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”

No sooner had the interview been posted then comments started to fly. Glasper was taken to task for sanctioning misogyny, perpetuating condescending stereotypes, objectifying women and denying them the right to any meaningful place within jazz, or even within the entire sphere of artistic endeavour, due to his apparent assertion they are primitive, elemental beings unable to transcend the immediate urgings of their physical bodies. Iverson was attacked for publishing his comments unedited, thus giving Glasper’s unacceptable views a platform. He attempted to defend himself on this charge, but only dug himself into a deeper hole by suggesting that his critics were indirectly responsible for the election of Donald Trump. His wife, the author Sarah Denning, also weighed in, though her input was muddied for some by her insistence on tying the issue to her perspectives on the world of women’s featherweight boxing, with which many readers may be unfamiliar. Iverson then recanted on his recantation but the damage was done and the furore of internet outrage continued.  Glasper has not taken the high road in his response. 

The issue is a fascinating one, laden with many layers of significance. While few would agree that Glasper’s comment deserves to go unchallenged in the public sphere in itself, there was also a lively debate over the level of significance it should be accorded. Some defended Iverson’s decision to publish it – others attacked it, on the grounds that publishing was an endorsement or at very least a perpetuation. It was pointed out that his blog had run interviews with over 40 male jazz musicians, but not a single female one.  There is the continuing issue of women’s representation in the musical world generally, and the jazz world in particular – who hasn’t encountered the expectation that the woman in the poster will inevitably be ‘the singer’, and the entire package of derogatory stereotypes that comes with that assumption? The Lincoln Centre has belatedly addressed these issues by starting to hold ‘blind’ auditions for posts in its orchestras – similar procedures in the classical world have seen the representation of women in US symphony orchestrago from 5% to 50% since the 1970s, graphically illustrating how wide the gap in opportunity had been. There are also wider issues of racial stereotyping and the portrayal of women in the hip-hop and R & B cultures that Glasper admires – and, historically, in the jazz world as well. Some educators demanded that Glasper’s work should be removed from studies curricula, although if every sexist or misogynist were treated accordingly the jazz archive would be slim indeed – the autobiography of Miles Davis is a prominent, but by no means unique, repository of hideously chauvinistic attitudes, and Art Taylor’s fascinating series of interviews published as Notes And Tones contains numerous examples of revered jazz authorities voicing challenging opinions. One factor that has been underplayed is that Glasper is talking about women in very similar terms to those that were once used to describe black culture in general and jazz music in particular. The 1933 OED defined jazz thus:

“To play jazz; to dance to jazz music, a type of music originating among American Negroes, characterized bya regular or forceful rhythm, often in common time, and a ‘swinging’ quality …

… to move in a grotesque or fantastic manner; to behave wildly; to have sexual intercourse” 

If the common package of negative stereotypes in early 20th Century American and European society included ideas that black people were ‘primitive’ and in touch with ‘elemental’ human urges but unable to attain higher cultural achievements, then Glasper’s view of women seems to coincide with this at many points. 

Beyond these ramifications, we can also glimpse the continuing unease at the way jazz has moved from being popular music of the dancehall to esoteric music of the concert auditorium. If the Bad Plus’s rigourously intellectual oeuvre exemplifies the latter position, then Glasper seems perpetually caught between the two. He seems to be regarded with suspicion by someof his jazz musician peers, but among young fans there’s no question as to who has the higher profile. The infamous interview is an interesting read and has a number of valid points about matters musical that have been completely overshadowed by what seems to have been an episode of crass boys-together boasting of a sort that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time backstage. You can read it below and decide for yourselves what the appropriate response should be; and, if you’re minded, you can see Mr. Glasper in person when he visits Sussex as part of this year’s increasingly spectacular Love Supreme line-up.

https://ethaniverson.com/interview-with-robert-glasper/

Michelle Mercer writing for NPR

Jazz at Lincoln Center Adopts Blind Auditions

Sarah Deming’s blog post

United We Stand

 Sad tidings reach us that the Jazz At The Palmiera sessions in Hove are no more, having been abruptly terminated without notice. While it’s been heartening to see the abundance of new casual gigs springing up around town over the last couple of years, both players and aficionados alike will be wearily familiar with the precarious nature of these events, dependent as they are upon the landlord’s goodwill – a commodity that is all too often contingent upon the thirst of the patrons and their willingness to spend good money quenching it. Despite the best efforts of a hedonistic minority, jazz fans are no longer the big drinkers that they used to be in the rollicking days of prohibition, speakeasies and unrestrained gangsterism, and this has an impact on the economic viability of the back-room session. We can be thankful for the happy confluences of sympathetic landlords, popular venues and committed musicians that have resulted in several long-running casual gigs in towns across the South Coast, especially Brighton. 

    Of course jazz musicians are often free-wheeling types, well used to the peripatetic nature of the biz, and resilient enough to shrug their shoulders and move on in the face of adversity. The music industry is notorious for short-termism, casual employment, sketchy arrangements regarding pay and conditions, and other evils of an unregulated marketplace where the supply of labour exceeds the demand, and anyone who survives for any length of time learns to roll with the punches and read the small print of the contract, in the event that one is actually offered. There’s an informal network operating to let players know who the sharp operators are amongst agents, landlords and promoters, and it can be easy to forget that there’s a trade union for musicians as well, dedicated to promoting their interests within the industry. 

    The origin of the Musicians’ Union is tied in with the beginnings of the jazz age, but its relationship to jazz players themselves has never been straightforward. The story begins in the latter years of the 19th century, when rapid urbanisation and the birth of popular commercial entertainment – theatres and music halls – created a new class of professional musicians. Conditions seem to have been frankly horrific – confined to cramped, dirty pits, the players were usually at the mercy of managing directors – a class whose entrepreneurial thirst was seldom inhibited by human feelings – who saw them as a necessary but expensive evil, and tried to drive down costs at every opportunity, or would cancel at a whim or whenever poor ticket sales occurred. Contracts, paid rehearsals, and backstage riders were unknown, to say nothing of Arts Council funding. Such musician’s organisations as existed, descended from the old system of guilds and town waits, were more concerned with protectionist strategies to exclude non-members undercutting their rates and restricting the ability of foreigners to work in the UK than negotiating better conditions. Then as now, the contingent nature of the work, the unclear distinction between part-time and full-time, professional and amateur, and the over-supply of labour made collective bargaining difficult. A petition of 1469 complains of “rude countryfolk and workers at various crafts who have pretended to be minstrels”  – another of 1653 tried to insist that a minimum of four musiciansbe employed for “banquets, feasts, weddings, revels or other assemblies”. Job insecurity in the London theatres of the 1760s led to musicianstaking on more work than they could actually perform, then creating a system of deputies or ‘deps’ to cover the less well remunerated engagements, both a product of and a contribution to chaotic working conditions.  A letter to the Orchestral Association Gazette of 1875 complains of managers who have “not a note of music in their heads, yet they dictate what is and is not good in music”. These give us fascinating glimpses of how little some aspects of the musician’s life has changed. 

    Come the 20th century, serious attempts were underway to regulate and protect the burgeoning growth in musical employment. It’s estimated that while the UK’s population doubled between 1870 and 1930, the number of musicians increased sevenfold. All kinds of specialisms emerged – brass players were heavily in demand at ice rinks, apparently – but the real growth areas were down to two epoch-defining innovations – the cinema, and the arrival of popular dance music in the form of American jazz. Cinemas were the largest employers of musicians by the 1920s, but hot on their heels came the new wave of massive dance halls, such as the famous Hammersmith Palais and the Empire chain run by Sir Oswald Stoll, of which the Shepherd’s Bush and the Hackney branches are among the best-known survivors. The effect on musical employment was sudden and drastic; attendances at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concertsdropped to less than 100 in 1924, while 4,000 were at dances ‘the same night’. This created tensions which the newly-formed Musicians’ Union tried to resolve; a letter in the Musicians’ Journal of 1925 describes the incoming jazz musicians as “an entirely new breed – their demeanour crass, their comportment uncouth, their training inadequate or non-existent” . The writer was particularly incensed at the way the parvenus were suddenly making more money than ‘proper’ musicians were, so that “respectable baton musical directors are assessed at a fraction of the worth of jazz solo-saxophonists, or even jazz drummers”. So did jazz-trained players come to describe rock musicians in the 1960s, and rock musicians in turn decried DJs in much the same terms in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The union struggled with the jazz players because they were making good money, didn’t belong to the establishment, and saw no reason to join. A further blow came with the introduction of talkies into the cinema. Silent movies, of course, were not actually silent at all – they all relied on live music, from solo piano to full orchestras. Minutes of a 1929 Union meeting complain of “the American capitalists trying to install talking pictures on threat of the supply of pictures being cut off” but predicted confidently that their power would be thwarted as sound in cinema was an un-natural, passing fad which the public would soon reject. We can perceive a foretaste of the Union’s struggles with the impact of changing technology on musical employment, from backing tracks to file-sharing to streaming. 

     Though both jazz and the MU developed alongside each other, the essential nature of the jazz-player’s life has kept them at arm’s length from each other as often as not. The challenges facing musicians as workers in the capitalist system have changed in their particulars over the years, yet the nature of the problems – how to assert their right to fair terms and conditions, and how to safeguard their employment from the vagaries of the wider economy – has remained constant. How could the Union address them? Answers on a postcard, please, and don’t forget to keep coming to the gigs – that’s the surest way to aid their survival. 

All source material from:
‘Players Work Time – A History Of The British Musician’s Union’ by John Williamson and Martin Cloonan.

Comrade Swing

Look at the wider world today, both abroad and at home, and you find yourself inundated with depressing headlines recording a global situation in which chronic divisions are increasingly being exploited and exacerbated by a political realm in which the best seem to lack all conviction, while the worst are unfortunately fuller than ever of an opportunistically passionate intensity. It’s been a relief to set aside the newspaper, log off from Facebook and immerse yourself in the feast of music spread out for us courtesy of the South Coast Jazz Festival as it returned for a third year, bigger and better than ever before. While so many of our political leaders seem intent on building walls and fostering disunity as hard as they can, festival supremos Claire Martin and Julian Nicholas are setting an inspiring counter-example by reaching out to involve and include as many aspects of the local scene as possible. In addition to the twelve events scheduled at the Ropetackle in Shoreham, theytook the potentially risky decision to program an additional twelve events at The Verdict in Brighton. Many on the scene were alert to the possibility of the audience being disastrously split between such an array of choice, but happily enthusiasm and commitment won the day, with record crowds and consistent sell-out shows throughout.  The open-minded spirit of collaboration that saw SCJF link arms with the New Generation Jazz project to bring the outstanding youngsters Jam Experiment, and with Safe House Collective to bring Rachel Musson’s freewheeling experimentalists, and to sell out both shows, can serve as an inspiring example of how unity can deliver results where narrow partisanship cannot. There was a great representation of oustanding local talent as well, and all kinds of well-attended and inspiring workshops and forums – here’s looking forward to next year.

    A couple of months ago this column commended the writings of poet, jazz enthusiast and political and cultural arch-conservative Philip Larkin to your attention. In the interests of balance it seems right to spend a little time this month with the writings of Larkin’s near-contemporary Eric Hobsbawn. Like Larkin, Hobsbawn was renowned in a different area of intellectual attainment, in his case historical analysis – like him, he maintained from his youth a passionate interest in jazz, and like him he indulged this passion by writing reviews which he initially published under thepseudonym of ‘Francis Newton’. Both in their own ways pillars of the British intellectual establishment, the two men couldn’t have been more different in their political convictions. Larkin, writing for The Daily Telegraph, was determinedly provincial, politically reactionary, and his jazz writing was an extension of his rejection of modernism – Hobsbawn was an archetypically cosmopolitan Marxist intellectual, and his reviews were published in that house magazine of the British left wing, The New Statesman. His career as a jazz writer, starting like Larkin’s in that annus mirabilis of 1959, was far longer than Larkin’s, encompassing the revival of the 1980s – you can find an excellent selection of it in the Faber paperback The Jazz Scene

    As you would expect, there are marked contrasts between the two men. Hobsbawn was politically and socially committed to progress as he understood it, just as Larkin was committed to conservatism, and this informs his writing. Hobsbawn was aware of jazz as a cultural phenomenon within a social context, and this led him to examine aspects of the scene that Larkin wasn’t interested in. His breakdown of the economics of jazz business in the 1960s gives an informed opinion of a little-regarded but essential aspect of the underpinnings of the scene; his sociological analysis of typical British jazz fans of the era is equally fascinating and perhaps surprising (the most represented occupations are ‘engineers and electricians’ – what would a similar survey reveal today?). Hobsbawn saw jazz as a music of protest, and the musicians and fans as placed within a framework of class and racial struggle, but he was also a fan and, as a white Englishman and a non-musician, an outsider in the same way that Larkin was. His 1963 history of jazz shares some of the self-conscious earnestness in categorising the music into ‘schools’ and evaluating their relative importance that was typical of his generation, and some of his judgements seem eccentrically at odds with today’s accepted canon –  writing in 1960, he classed Miles Davis as ‘a player of surprisingly narrow technical and emotional range… even within that range most of his records are not very good” – though he conceded that ‘some of Kind Of Blue contains genuinely imperishable stuff’. He shared some of Larkin’s distrust of the “excessively long, loud and undisciplined doodling” of the avant-garde – though he was an early supporter of Ornette, he thought Coltrane to be ‘in urgent need of sub-editing’. As befits a major analytical thinker, his work is full of detailed socio-cultural insights that Larkin, the poet, lacks. Yet despite their differences, both men came from the same social and cultural milieu – just as Larkin’s pathway to jazz started at his local Hippodrome, Hobsbawn remains the man who “at the age of sixteen, lost his heart for good to the Ellington band at its most imperial, playing what was called a ‘breakfast dance’ in a suburban London ballroom to an uncomprehending audience” – one of a generation who became entranced by a music that seemed so vital and exciting in the context of pre-war England,  but which remained impenetrably ‘other’ – admired, cherished and critically evaluated, but never owned. For an insider’s view of jazz as it progressed through the UK in the later years of the 20th century, we shall have to turn to another major writer, Val Wilmer – but that can wait for another edition. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the listings and keep going to the gigs!

Forward To Victory

2016 has certainly been a year to remember – good for right-wing demagogues, but bad for europhiles, pollsters and political pundits, though their discomfiture pales to insignificance compared to the travails endured by the unhappy citizens of Syria and Yemen.  The Grim Reaper seems to have been unusually active amongst the denizens of the world’s artistic communities, and the jazz-playing cohort has not been immune to his unwelcome attentions. We’ll be entering the uncharted waters of 2017 without the leading lights of such veterans of the tradition as Rudy Van Gelder, Mose Allison, bassist Bob Cranshaw and Toots Thielemans to guide us, while the progressive edge has lost the inimitable voices of  Bobby Hutcherson, Paul Bley and Alphonse Mouzon, and the wider international community is diminished by the loss of Nana Vasconcelos and Gato Barbieri. Jazz was also well served by the contributions of Billy Paul, Earth Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, and of course the inimitable and multi-monikered artist best known as Prince.
    Closer to home, the sad loss of Bobby Wellins is to be lamented, even as his imperishable legacy of world-class music making is to be celebrated. Another local legend of the same generation,  Pete Burden, equally respected by all who heard his bop-inflected alto playing, also sadly left us shortly after Christmas.  It makes the survival of such genre-shaping innovators as Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter – the latter returning to London in November to perform at the EFG Jazz Festival – all the more to be treasured. Shorter of course has a famous association with another veteran, Herbie Hancock, and the latter’s confirmation as a headliner for the 2017 Love Supreme Festival, along with the king of smooth grooves, nifty fretwork and pencil moustaches George Benson, is a real coup for the festival as it celebrates its fifth year.  What aspect of his prodigiously long and varied career will Herbie be presenting? There was plenty of debate over the viability of a greenfield jazz festival when Love Supreme started back in 2013, so it’s a real pleasure to see it thriving. The Bandstand Stage will be returning as well with its customary mix of the best of local and up-and-coming artists – we look forward to news of more acts as it arrives, and send out a request for clear skies, warm winds and, much as we love the open, cross-over vibe of the booking policy, perhaps a little more ‘straight’ jazz on the bill this year. The challenge is to get jazz players and fans engaging with different aspects of the current music scene, re-contextualising jazz as a part of the mainstream without diluting the essence of the music so much that it loses its identity, and despite the naysayers Love Supreme continues to lead the field in having a good old go at doing exactly this. 
    Returning indoors for a look around, the Verdict continues to bring us a weekly dose of the very best of UK jazz, with ever more international artists beating a path to its door as its reputation continues to spread. Something else to celebrate is the extension of the Arts Council’s support for the New Generation Jazz programme, bringing the best of the UK’s new jazz artists to the Verdict once a month for a gig and a workshop – that’s now set to run all the way through 2017 and beyond, so prepare to be dazzled by the impetuous brilliance of youth on a regular basis. Heartening as well to see how the Verdict has now enfolded both the noble traditionalism of Small’s Jazz Club and the fearless experimentalism of Safe House Collective beneath its ever more splendidly accommodating wings – the key to survival is surely to reject factionalism and embrace as many aspects of the ever-diversifying legacy as possible. 
    2017 is already set for something of a theme of triumphant returns – let’s hear it for the South Coast Jazz Festival, back for the third year running and now spreading its welcome attentions away from its home-base in Shoreham’s Ropetackle Centre to bring a whole host of exciting events to Brighton including a great spread of local talent. It’s a real achievement for Julian Nicholas, Claire Martin and the team, and another welcome sign of the willingness of the Arts Council to support jazz after the demise of Jazz Services.
    Meanwhile for your quotidian needs there’s a host of grassroots gigs on offer as well on most nights of the week, from bar gigs to jam sessions – check the back pages of this publication for more details. Let’s not be tempted to rest on our laurels though – 2017 promises to deliver a hefty dose of political and economic uncertainty, and the arts will need continued support. There’s more diversity and vitality in the South Coast jazz scene than there has been for a long time – let’s not forget to mention the burgeoning scenes in Hastings, Margate and Rye as well, as some of our finest players seek refuge there from the increasingly unaffordable cost of London living  – but if we don’t use it, we’re going to lose it, so keep coming to the gigs!
 
South Coast Jazz Festival
16th – 29th January 2017

Love Supreme Festival
30th June – 2nd July 2017

 Rye Jazz Festival

Margate Jazz Festival

Deal Festival

New Generation Jazz

 The Verdict, Brighton
 

Larkin' About

The autumn touring schedule has made it impossible for me to attend a single one of the many amazing gigs that comprise the EFG London Jazz Festival, and all that I’ve had to console for missing (yet again) the priceless opportunity of seeing Wayne Shorter is the chance purchase of a copy of Philip Larkin’s All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71, comprising record reviews that he wrote for the Daily Telegraph. Jazz critics, and critics in general, find themselves in an equivocal situation, trying to sustain their careers by gleaning crumbs dropped from the table of actual artists, with such creativity as they can muster entirely employed in assessing the creativity of others. Larkin is an exception – the writer of The Whitsun Weddings, who was offered and refused the post of Poet Laureate, has a claim to artistic stature in his field equal to those of the great musicians of the Golden Age whose seminal albums he reviewed – usually unkindly. 
    His personal reputation is rather another matter – there was a mixture of consternation, and probably some schadenfreude from vindicated modernists when Larkin’s personal correspondence revealed a morass of unpleasant opinions that were all firmly on the wrong side of what’s currently acceptable in those most fraught of contemporary subjects, racism and misogyny. At the very least, the epistolary light shone upon a man whose views were very typical of someone of his age, class and gender; his shortcomings in these areas were widely shared in the contemporary attitudes upon which so much effort has since been expended in our efforts to build a better society. Larkin’s writings on jazz give us an insight into how that music was received into unexpected areas of British society in the early years, and reveal a window into a very different world. 
    Larkin started reviewing in 1961, when he was nearly forty. In his youth he had been a passionate jazz fan and an amateur drummer – ‘few things have given me greater pleasure in life than listening to jazz’ declared this man who built his reputation upon an unsparingly incisive dismantling of the supposed joys of material existence. He discovered jazz in the first golden age of the 1930s, when Armstrong was contemporary and Basie, Goodman and Ellington were the avant-garde. The war and the American Federation Of Recording Musicians intervened, and like many of his generation he lost touch with jazz in the 1940s and early 50s;  but when he was offered the review column in the Telegraph he approached it as ‘a jazz lover, someone unquestionably on the wavelength of Congo Square…. though I knew jazz had been changing, I didn’t believe it could alter out of all recognition any more that the march or the waltz could’.  
    Larkin thus came into the era of Coltrane, Coleman, Miles and Cecil Taylor with expectations shaped by the era of Bix Beiderbecke and Muggsy Spanier and was utterly horrified by what he found. It’s standard practice now to present the development of jazz as an apostolic succession, so that echoes of King Oliver can be traced in Freddie Hubbard and Sidney Bechet in John Coltrane, and each new generation of musicians is careful to show due reverence for the past; this attitude was not always so prevalent. Larkin considered what he found as ‘modern jazz’ to be utterly alienated from its roots – claiming that ‘nearly every characteristic of the music had been neatly inverted’ in the progression from the hot, syncopated dance music of the pre-war era to what he saw as the enervated intellectualism of the modernists. 
    Of course, Larkin had a general dislike of Modernism in all the arts, which he saw as an artificial fixation with experimenting with form at the expense of content. His critique of modern jazz in particular was echoed by many jazz fans of his generation in the UK though, and displays a socio-cultural undertone. What attracted them to jazz was its ‘hot’ character – the vigourously upbeat mood, the simplicity of form, the primacy of rhythm over harmony, the wide, almost-human vibrato and tonal exaggeration of the soloists that set the music firmly apart from the European classical tradition. You could uncharitably describe it as a fetishisation of a supposedly primitive ‘other’ which appealed precisely because it had none of the restraints of ‘high’ culture, and which could be safely appropriated by a dominant elite – such as Oxford-educated Larkin would neatly embody. The haughty intellectualism of Miles, the audible rage of Shepp and the spiritual ambitions of Coltrane were a direct challenge to this attitude. Duncan Heining has described in his excellent Trad Dads and Free Fusioneers how older British fans felt alienated by the way that, as they saw it, the music that they loved had been turned against them. The overt black nationalism of the radical 1960s generation seemed to deliberately exclude them even further. Yet, like Larkin, they genuinely loved jazz as they understood it, and felt a deep connection with the music of their youth; it seems unfair to dismiss them entirely as privileged cultural appropriators. Larkin tried to swallow the modernist pill, and though he’s famous for his hatchet jobs, his reviews also contain many sympathetic and positive insights. He was also perceptive enough to realise that many of the qualities he looked for in jazz had migrated into rock and roll; and any artist today struggling with their grant application, or trying to wrangle a decent fee out of promoters, will surely recognise his prescience when he wrote “the jazz band in the night club declined, and jazz moved, ominously, into the culture belt… concert halls, university recital rooms and summer schools …. this was bound to make the re-establishment of an artist-audience nexus more difficult, for universities have long been recognised as the accepted stamping-ground for the subsidised acceptance of art rather than the real purchase of it”.
    The consequences of the cultural schism that opened up when the be-boppers stopped playing to the paying customers and set their sights upon a loftier cultural and artistic status are still not resolved, and Larkin’s writings give an insight into a perspective that is seldom heard today, but still contains a framing of issues that cannot be completely dismissed. Though how many today would agree with his assessment of Monk – “a not-very-successful comic, as his funny hats proclaimed; his faux naif elephant dance piano style, with its gawky intervals and absence of swing made doubly tedious by his limited repertoire” ? Or Coltrane – “metallic and passionless nullity giving way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions on not-especially-attractive themes upon which all possible changes were wrung, extended excursions of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity” ? 
    The old grouch certainly had a way with words, though I’m not sure I can forgive him for his comments on bass solos – “arid stretches of thirty-two or even sixty-four bars when some fervent bassist, aware that his instrument was ‘set free’ by Jimmy Blanton, demonstrates its half-audible limitations while the rest of the band rest their lips. Why? The bass is not an elephantine guitar – to make it sound like one is to use the foundation stone for the cornice”. Is nothing sacred?