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BBJ blog archive, Part 1 (May 2009 to January 2010)

To infinity and beyond with black British Jazz

By Jason Toynbee, 26 May 2009

For years it seemed the academy was dead set against the study of popular culture. Or to put it in a more neutral way, there were just no resources to do research into it. Finally, that’s beginning to change. The idea that it might be important to document and interpret the creative expression of ordinary people, beyond elite culture, is gradually gaining acceptance. And I’d say that the AHRC’s Beyond Text programme is playing a key part here. All good, as the young people say. The trouble is, once you do get a grant to research a popular culture topic like black British jazz, the ‘beyond-ness’ which attracted you in the first place threatens to leap out of control. Let me explain.

Our approach on the research team has been to organise the work in strands. To take one of them, in Routes we deal with history and geography: where black musicians and communities came from, where they went to in Britain, and then how the identity of both people and music has changed over the years. There are important ‘beyond text’ issues here because jazz is both an oral and a recorded tradition. Improvised solos and sublime grooves are quintessentially performative and depend on an aesthetic of presence – the notion that the musicians are playing right here, right now. Yet the capture of performance on record has also been a crucial means of documenting the music, and spreading new ideas and shifts in style. Recordings are like photographs of jazz, snap shots of a tradition in the making. At the same time they are an aspect of what jazz is, part of its very being.

For black British jazz this ‘phonographic-oral’ character of the music brings particular problems for researchers. The biggest, perhaps, is, where do you stop? How far back should you go, and to which parts of Africa or the African diaspora? Musicians from the Caribbean have played a crucial part in the development of jazz in Britain. After they arrived many recordings of them were made (for the 1930s and 40s listen to the CD Black British Swing). But the range is patchy and generally doesn’t cover the work of the players who didn’t come to London.

In Cardiff, for instance, there was – and still is – a flourishing black jazz scene. As Catherine Tackley, leader of the Routes strand, has been finding out there seems to have been a very strong representation in this city of string players, mainly banjoists and guitarists. Occasionally they did go to London and got recorded. The Deniz brothers were stalwarts in the 40s and 50s. But many never went beyond the clubs and pubs of Cardiff. What did these people play, and what did they sound like? Through oral history we can start to approach that problem, but without recordings we can’t recover the particular inflections that marked the Cardiff scene in the mid-twentieth century.

If we shift to the question of ‘routes from …’, there are slightly different issues. In Jamaica, for instance, there was a flourishing jazz scene in the 1940s and 50s when swing bands played at the colonialists’ ‘society’ events as well as black people’s weddings and dances. However there are no recordings of this music. There are extant recordings of what the Jamaican music historian Garth White calls ‘proto-ska’, in other words records made for the dancehall sound systems of Kingston in the late 50s. They are in a broadly rhythm and blues style. Over the course of one of the most extraordinarily creative episodes in popular music history, this music would evolve into ‘reggae’. As such it would play a key part in the musical education of the generation of black players (sons and daughters of the post-War migrants) who during the 1980s reinvigorated British jazz through the hugely influential big band, the Jazz Warriors.

What, then, are we to make of these looping traditions and lines of influence, some moments represented on record, others not; some moments definitely belonging to the style we call jazz, others much less clearly so? Can we handle all the ‘beyond text’ implications which arise here and, above all perhaps, can we control the ever receding boundaries of what we’re trying to research? As I write these questions, I’m looking over my shoulder at our funders the AHRC, and Evelyn Welch the director of the Beyond Text programme. Perhaps they might think we can’t do it. But actually we can … and we will. For doing justice to the extraordinary music making practices and lives of black British jazz musicians is not just a set of problems, it’s what this research is all about.

Recording blues

By Jason Toynbee, 20 July 2009

7.40: I’m awake and out of bed … and it’s a Sunday morning. Damn. Forty minutes later I’ve showered, had breakfast, and am swinging out of my street on the road to London to record Tomorrow’s Warriors. It’ll be our first proper concert recording session.

9.30: A knock on a Milton Keynes door brings out my colleague, ethnomusicologist Byron Dueck. He jumps in the car and we start talking about the day ahead. I’m a little nervous because while Byron is experienced with camera and mic, I know next to nothing.

10.50: We sail down Gower Street and the nightmare that is the West End of London in a car begins. All the streets are one-way, all the junctions have restrictions on turning, all the lights are against us. We get within a block of Cambridge Circus twice, do a little tour of Bloomsbury and end up circumnavigating Trafalgar Square in the bus lane before we finally reach The Spice of Life.

11.15: By the time I’ve parked the car, Byron and project Research Fellow Mark Doffman (who we meet outside the pub) have already humped the gear downstairs. There’s plenty of it. But Byron and Mark give the strong impression they know what they’re doing. I get instructions to set up the mic stands, and forty minutes later I’ve managed to do just that. Now I wait for the smallest task while the other two complete preparations.

12.45: The first musicians arrive, and we’re ready to put the mics in place and start testing the audio gear. There’s a glitch … . Fear strikes, but Mark has it covered and soon we’re getting a signal on all channels.

1.10: The band start playing. Eddie Hicks on drums, Adrian Acolatse on bass, Alex Ho on piano and Binker Golding on tenor sax. They make a glorious noise: late bop with plenty of references to Coltrane and Tyner, but also an ineffable lyricism mixed with dry humour that can only be – well – British.

1.20: I look round at the audience as discretely as I can. Mainly white, mainly male, mainly middle-aged. A jazz gig in other words.

1.50: But more people are arriving now. More black and young people too. What’s happening? The band stops and Binker announces the jam session. I’d completely forgotten about it. It’s a Gary Crosby inspired idea - a way of enabling young musicians, out of town jazzers, or just anyone who’s got the urge to play with top flight instrumentalists in a ‘real’ jazz setting, to do their thing.

2.00: Gary arrives and we chat for a few minutes. There’s been a death in the family which is why he hasn’t been playing bass. But he’s keen to get stuck in on the jam session and very soon he’s helping a 14 year old prodigy on piano with a yen for Thelonious Monk sync up with an older drummer who has a vigorous swing style and an idiomatic sense of time.

3.25: The jam session is over. There’ve been more combinations, more sublime moments, more crush collisions. Altogether this is a great institution. It’s been especially rewarding to watch younger player grow in confidence before your eyes and ears.

4.02: The band finish their second set and Mark is smiling. It’s all in the can, or more accurately, it’s all in the zeroes and ones because this is a digital recording. Byron has managed to get footage on two cameras, and juggled putting in replacement tapes with keeping a steady focus. We’re all beaming because it’s a difficult job done – though god knows I can’t claim any credit.

7.23: I swing back into my road in Coventry starving, but still with happy thoughts. We’re not only going to have some great material to analyse, but we’re producing an important archive of audio-visual recordings of black British jazz: flights of the imagination frozen in time for posterity - as long as those zeroes and ones shall live.

Jazz dance thing

By Catherine Tackley, 31 July 2009

Dance is not a popular subject for jazz scholars. Writing in the Grove Dictionary of Music, Howard Spring suggests that one reason is because they can’t dance, and in my case he’s pretty accurate! Growing up in South London during the jazz dance boom, although I was too young to participate I became aware of the commercial side of the movement with bands such as Jamiroquai and The Brand New Heavies. Returning to London around the Millennium, I joined a new band playing rare groove that in the hands of Gilles Petersen and others had rejuvenated clubland, and to an extent the jazz scene too. Meanwhile, in my academic life I was researching the very earliest appearances of jazz in Britain. Even before the First World War the word was fairly widely understood – but often appearing as a verb - ‘to jazz’ - meaning ‘to dance’. Preoccupied with the public response to jazz in the 1920s, I scoured contemporary accounts, reminiscences and police files finding evidence for ‘jazzing’ all over the capital and beyond, which resonated with the resurgence of jazz dance in more recent times.

As I pondered developing jazz dance as an aspect of my work on the BBJ project, ‘Beyond the Ballroom: A celebration of UK Jazz Dance’ - part of the Barbican’s Blaze festival - was irresistible. So it was that I turned up at a club under the railway arches a stone’s throw from the trendy ‘hangs’ of Hoxton Square in London in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. The timing of the event was traditional for the genre - the ‘chill’ after Saturday night excesses - but a stall selling Swifty memorabilia and a book on the jazz dance scene by DJ Snowboy from the publisher of the iconic ‘Straight No Chaser’ magazine belie the passage of time - this is now a scene with a history, extremely significant to our study of BBJ.

I join the crowd in a bamboo-planted yard with bright painted murals to listen to the Afro-Cuban group Dilanga. A little later a crowd begins to gather in the dark, exposed brick main room for Snowboy’s set. Dancers, mostly black and male, many impeccably dressed in spats, waistcoats and ties, greet each other warmly, unable to resist trying out the dance floor especially laid on top of the industrial concrete for the event. There’s music in the background – some bop, some Latin, and everyone is literally finding their feet. Suddenly the volume increases and the set begins, the dancers increasing steadily in number and in the complexity of their movement – virtuosic sometimes to the point of acrobatic, but always undeniably stylish.

A pause and Snowboy announces Dick Jewell’s film ‘The Jazz Room’ – people pack onto the dance floor and turn to watch footage from The Electric Ballroom in the 1980s. As Jewell built up the film on successive nights, he showed his ‘work in progress’ to the dancers in the club. Now twenty years later some of the same dancers watch themselves for the first time since those days - there is laughter at some outdated moves and fashion, and applause at some exceptional sequences of steps. The film finishes, the dancers return to the floor, and the beat goes on … .

Brecon Jazz: a festival reborn

By Mark Doffman, 28 August 2009

On 9th January this year, Brecon Jazz Festival Ltd went into liquidation. Twenty five years of jazz in the mountains seemed to be at an end after the 2008 festival suffered considerable financial losses. The scale of loss seemed to take everyone by surprise and says something about the fragility of the jazz economy.   However, just as Brecon’s obituary was being written up, the Hay Festival stepped in and the project was reborn this August.

This rebirth is really welcome on a number of levels. There are relatively few jazz festivals of this scale in the UK where the town itself becomes the platform for the music and where the staging of the music moves away from the large urban settings that we tend to associate with jazz. Of immediate value for our project was the opportunity for an uninterrupted weekend of recording performances by black British artists.

Our focus was on three performances: Empirical, Dennis Rollins' ‘Griots to Garage’ and Badbone. Each concert, in rather different ways, developed narratives of black history as the backdrop for the sounds coming from the stage, explicitly so in the show by Empirical and Dennis Rollins ‘Griots’ project. Empirical celebrated the political life and music of Cannonball Adderley with a set of numbers associated with the saxophonist ending with drummer, Shaney Forbes, ‘duetting’ with one of Cannonball’s political raps. The gig began with an excellent preamble by journalist Kevin LeGendre who laid out the great sax player’s contribution to the civil rights movement.

Within a much a much broader framework, trombonist Dennis Rollins gave a virtuoso solo performance in ‘Griots to Garage’, making use of loops and pre-recorded tracks which led the audience through an assemblage of black musical styles that highlighted moments and places within the history of the black diaspora.

Our final concert of the weekend was ‘Badbone & Co’, another Dennis Rollins project, but this time featuring the trombonist with an extremely fine band whose core material is drawn from the classic funk of the 60s-80s but whose work also nods and winks at most of the rhythms from the Black Atlantic. This was no history lesson but we, along with our tapping feet, were taken on an absorbing tour of the recent musical past. For this final gig of the festival, the choice of group was perfect. The music was sufficiently celebratory to send the audience home very happy and just funky enough to prompt the usual ‘but is it jazz?’ debate in the interval drinks queue.

A fine weekend of music and a great opportunity for the project.

Ethnomusicology: really it's all practice

By Byron Dueck, 7 October 2009

The weekend of September 17 marked the first time members of the BBJ team have come together to read papers as a panel at a scholarly conference. It was the annual meeting of the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology, this year held at The Open University right here in Milton Keynes.

Three members of the research team delivered papers. Mark Doffman developed the concept of ‘temporal power’, discussing rhythmic competence and its implications for the social standing of musicians. Jason Toynbee examined a number of key moments in the history of black jazz musicians in the United Kingdom, locating a number of transformations in the ways that race has been experienced in relation to music. And my own paper examined the social and musical roles enacted and occupied at jam sessions.

I thought the team’s diversity was well displayed, not least methodologically. The papers drew upon historical documents, interviews conducted with musicians, and experiences and encounters at jazz gigs and jam sessions.

* * * * *

Part of my own work on the project, as a longtime jazz fan but not a jazz musician, has involved hands-on experience of the music: sitting down at the piano and banging through standards in the Real Book, getting my head, ears, and hands around jazz harmonies, and trying to improvise around chord changes.

When I get back from a jam session or a concert I’ll work through some of the standards I’ve just heard – this week’s projects have been ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (Charlie Parker), ‘Footprints’ (Wayne Shorter), ‘Giant Steps’ (John Coltrane), and ‘Anthropology’ (Parker again). Good stuff. And arguably this is the most important literature survey I could be doing at the moment. Having a familiarity with the tunes is an essential part of the process of becoming attuned to the moment-to-moment interactions and role-inhabitancies of jazz musicians. It’s also incredibly helpful to have this kind of knowledge when conducting interviews with musicians or interacting in less formal contexts. In any number of respects, it just helps to know the tunes: which forms they use, which ones have eight-bar phrasing all the way through and which ones don’t, which ones make use of familiar structures like the ‘Rhythm’ changes – and of course which ones are difficult and which ones are tough.

This aspect of my own participant observation is entirely characteristic of ethnomusicology and other music-related disciplines and one of the things that makes them unique in the humanities: our scholarly objects tend to be experienced in particularly aural and embodied ways.

Jammin' at the Margins? Jazz as Cultural Industry

By Mark Banks, 16 October 2009

The growth of the cultural and creative industries has become one of the more pronounced features of contemporary economic life. But to what extent can we understand jazz as a cultural industry? If we wanted to find out we might choose to review the range of cultural and economic policy reports that promote the vital role played by the music industry in UK plc (think the constant stream of reports emanating from the DCMS, BERR, NESTA, Arts Council etc). Yet, if we did, we’d be disappointed (but maybe not too surprised) to find that jazz barely features, either in economic or cultural terms. 

At the economic level, the neglect of jazz is surprising given that in terms of production activity and audience size it ranks close comparison with an art form such as opera. However opera (not least through the receipt of generous public subsidy) has established a firmer footing as a recognisable cultural industry – contributing markedly to the creative economy of London and other metropolitan centres. Jazz is noticeably under-funded and under-promoted in comparison. Proponents of opera might argue that large opera houses and the scale of production requires investment in the way jazz does not. This has some weight. A further problem is that - notwithstanding the established venues, labels and performers - the jazz economy is informal, diffuse and difficult to measure and map, and so evaluating its economic significance is problematic (though see the excellent work done by Dave Laing and Mykaell Riley for Jazz Services [1] in this regard). The jazz economy is therefore not amenable to analysis in the same way as other (more formalised or integrated) branches of the music industry.

However the policy neglect of jazz is not just about the uncertain science of economics – but about culture.

Firstly, jazz is not part of the elite ‘establishment’. Jazz - to paraphrase an idea from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – could be characterised as the ‘dominated fraction of the dominant taste’. This means that while it is popularly perceived to be both ‘difficult’ and ‘intellectual’ (and thus ‘beyond’ mainstream taste). Within the upper strata it occupies it is also distanced and alienated from standard or elite bourgeois taste – namely opera and European classical music. Jazz is not deemed to be as ‘worthy’ of public support as the traditional or established art forms – even though this ‘tradition’ is itself a relatively recent (and socially constructed) invention. Nor does jazz have the elite cachet that would attract prestige private sponsors.

Secondly, despite its ambivalent 'consecration', jazz is also regarded a form of popular music. As such, given the way in which popular music has become central to the creative industries narrative we would imagine that jazz be included in some policy work.  But the evidence suggests this is not the case. Amidst the widespread promotion of popular music (predominantly Britpop, other UK pop, popular classics), jazz is relatively invisible. This might be an economic issue of popularity, but it also an issue of culture and the ways in which the ‘musical nation’ is selectively framed.  The music industries and the wider creative industries rhetoric remain focussed on a narrow set of artists and interests, and the strong British jazz tradition is not celebrated in the emergent ‘Creative Britain’ [2] rhetoric.

Thirdly, jazz is neglected in terms of utilitarian cultural policy goals of education and inclusion. Jazz is not typically perceived as a means for ‘reaching out’ to disenfranchised youth, marginal communities or the socially excluded (unlike the way hip-hop, pop or other popular arts often are). This is not to underestimate the (growing) role played by excellent jazz educators, promotional organizations and other social institutions in attempting to raise the cultural and educative profile of jazz – and the many vital successes they have had – but to further acknowledge the ongoing uncertainty regarding the status of jazz as an instrumental vehicle for carrying aspects of national and local cultural policy.

Finally, for us, there is the issue of black British jazz. Here we have a further level of limitation, since black British jazz is a music barely explored in terms of its relationship to, firstly, the creative economy; secondly, national culture policies and, thirdly, wider policies relating to civic participation and social inclusion. Our project aims to address some of this neglect. If one constancy of the jazz policy field is that jazz is always marginal - whether considered as an elite art, a popular form, or in social utility terms - then does it follow that there is further marginality within the margins? What role does black British jazz play in ‘Creative Britain’ and the wider cultural policy arena? Watch this space.

[1] Laing, D. and Riley, M. (2006) The Value of Jazz, Jazz Services.

[2] DCMS (2008) Creative Britain: New Talents for a New Economy, DCMS, London.

Cosmic RawXtra: the Net Widens

By Jason Toynbee, 30 October 2009

The King’s Place arts centre is a plate glass outpost of gentrification as it marches north and absorbs the once industrial zone of factories and warehouses at the back of Kings Cross station. You might say (I’m saying it) that Kings Place is a metaphor for the killing off of manufacturing, and the working class jobs and communities that go with it. That said, the venue also hosts the Out Hear concert series, featuring experimental music and multi-media performances. Last Monday (26 October) the BBJ team recorded an extraordinary concert in this slot by the 12 piece Spontaneous Cosmic RawXtra, assembled and conducted by Orphy Robinson.

Clearly the project references Sun Ra’s Arkestra. There is a similar switching back and forth between ambience and frenetic expression, and from pre-composed themes to free improvised sections. But the comparison ends there. For what made this gig unique was its peculiarly British mixology: vocalist Cleveland Watkiss scatting drum’n’bass breaks, Shabaka Hutchings blatting out high speed Stravinsky-esque clarinet figures, and the remarkable Pat Thomas on piano able to move between lyricism and fierce atonality to explosively expressive effect.

In the first and longer set Robinson directed the band using a technique rather like the ‘conduction’ pioneered by Butch Morris in the 1980s. Sometimes through gesture, sometimes by holding up a sheet of paper with cues on it, Robinson shaped and directed what was nevertheless an extraordinarily democratic music making process. Quite a few of the developments came from the floor. So, at one point a saxophonist (I couldn’t see which one) began playing on the offbeat in what had previously been a loose 4/4 swing. Others players began to join in, some smiling as they recognised the new metre. Then for five minutes or so the ensemble produced an improvised acoustic dub, a groove which was interrupted by drummer Steve Noble – his inspired clatter undermining the incipient reggae beat every time it threatened to take over.

Robinson moved across to marimba to finish the second set. And now, without any direction from the band leader, the final section of the concert moved up yet another notch on the intensity scale. Hutchings together with Ntshuks Bonga and Brian Edwards on saxes generated a maelstrom of free blowing towards the end.

This marvellous performance, full of uplift and positive vibration, was aided and abetted in no small way by the semi-improvised recitations of poet, HKB Finn – an almost Buddhist commentary on the one-ness of the universe and the security of our place in it. Yet there was never any sense of pomposity or sacred self-importance. For this was a wry and amusing gig as well as a passionate one, leavened with irony and musical wit. It was also (with two white musicians) a black British performance in its references to reggae, drum’n’bass and Jamaica. In Orphy Robinson’s outernational vision, cosmic jazz is filtered through red, gold and green on to a London b(l)ack cloth.I came away with this feeling: at a moment when we daily encounter the damage done by the destructive individualism of capitalism, it’s good to be reminded of the good that collective music making can do.

Reflections on the Windy City

By Catherine Tackley, 20 November 2009

The Center for Black Music Research occupies a prime spot on South Michigan Avenue, Chicago with a stunning view looking out to the left over towards the Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park to the skyscrapers of downtown beyond, and to the right towards the museums, but dominated by Lake Michigan which stretches to the horizon. This view might be profoundly distracting, if not for the abundance of riches contained within the CBMR’s holdings, and moreover, the knowledge and passion of its staff.

I was able to pay an all-to-brief visit to the CBMR to explore the collections of archival material, books and electronic resources under the helpful guidance of the collection’s staff, headed by Suzanne Flandreau, herself a mine of information. I enjoyed interesting conversations at CBMR, particularly with Ken Bilby, an expert on Jamaican music and an associate on the Black British Jazz project. Ken’s previous work has focussed on Jamaican session musicians, and he will be developing aspects of this further when he visits the UK early in 2010.

Ken’s interviews with musicians undertaken during many years of fieldwork in Jamaica have exposed jazz as a common and significant undercurrent in their musical development. In connection with the BBJ project, this raises interesting questions about the role which jazz plays in the working lives of black British musicians who may not primarily identify themselves primarily with jazz. Indeed it poses the issue of how far black British jazz musicians are active within other musics, and ways in which we might probe musicians’ discourses on genre.

In connection with my BBJ research, I was grateful to Ken for pointing me towards extremely interesting columns in the Chicago Defender, in which a series of correspondents wrote about black performers in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. I was able to search for and access these easily at CBMR. Although in most cases those mentioned are not specifically musicians, more usually theatre performers or variety acts, these columns make clear the extent of the presence of African Americans in the UK in the early decades of the twentieth century. Further, this helps to explain why Americans such as Adelaide Hall and Ike Hatch became involved in running nightclubs in London, venues which were important for the development of Black British jazz.

Some initial thoughts on how black British and newly arrived immigrants from the West Indies, in particular, developed jazz ‘chops’ in London form part of the paper that I delivered at the American Musicological Society conference in Philadelphia after my time in Chicago. The extent to which the musicians involved in Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s band learnt about jazz prior to coming to London, whether via the US, in the West Indies or in the case of Joe Deniz, in Cardiff is of great interest to me – how did their roots AND routes impact upon their musical development?

From workshop to festival gig...

By Mark Doffman, 15 December 2009

The London Jazz Festival burnt brightly this year over its 10 days passage through the concert halls and jazz bars of the capital and all venue types in between. The range of the programme was spectacular, covering about 50 venues across London and the organisers seemed to get the balance about right between showcasing less well known British jazz players and bringing in the big international hitters such as Chick Corea and John Scofield who can be relied upon to sell out the concert spaces. The opportunity to take your place within such a prestigious festival is not every day and many thousands of hours of practice will have led up to that point where a musician is ready to take advantage of that phonecall or email. But how do you prepare?

One of the interests within our project is how players develop on the scene to the point where they may be performing at an international festival like the one that has just taken place. How does shared cultural transmission across generations and between contemporaries play its part in the formation of a music scene? Part of our work over the second part of this year has been documenting some of the routes, internal to any music community, through which musicians come to take their place on the concert hall platform or club stage. As one example, Dune Records have been heavily involved in workshops and jam sessions at different venues in London and through these different sorts of sessions, young musicians slowly become inducted into the understandings and competencies that go towards jazz performance.

The stereotypical view of music learning, one that is usually associated with study within western classical repertoire, but one that also applies to jazz makes assumptions about learning taking place in a largely solitary way - musicians 'paying their dues' with respect to the traditions of the music, and developing the 'chops' to be able to play alongside others. Often quoted is the research statistic that musicians require about 10,000 hours of study (which represents about 3 hours per day, every day for 10 years) to become professionally competent. All this seems to undervalue the informal learning that takes place within a group environment which may be just as vital as the many hours of practising alone.

The work of Dune and Jazz Alive, to name two of a number of jazz organisations which offer opportunities for young musicians, attest to the value of working together as an ensemble in delivering high quality musical outcomes. In particular, Dune have developed a series of learning ensembles that take musicians through jazz to the point where they may be performing at an extraordinarily high level. This sort of group learning does not deny the importance of working by oneself with the guidance of a teacher but it does offer opportunities for music making in which collaboration and mutual support networks develop alongside more traditional musical skills. In a more subtle way, such learning forums offer young musicians the chance to negotiate their own sense of belonging to this musical tradition which for many people in this country remains an exoticism.

Musicians and researchers: the give and the take

By Byron Dueck, 22 January 2010

On the twelfth and thirteenth of December Mark Doffman and I completed what will be our last recording sessions for a few months. We’ll do a few more in 2010, but the majority of the work is done.

On the twelfth we did a little bit of recording for the Tomorrow’s Warriors Youth Jazz Orchestra, whose members were putting together an audition videotape for a competition. TWYJO is an ensemble run by Dune Music and coached by Gary Crosby and other members of the Tomorrows Warriors. Mark and I recorded several takes of two tunes: Charlie Parker’s ‘Cool Blues’ and a fun arrangement of Sonny Rollins’s ‘Oleo’. If I remember right Gary said he’d got the idea for the clever, disorienting rhythmic introduction to the latter while thinking about the musicians he had heard in west Africa.

After the shooting was finished Mark made a DVD of the best of the performances and sent it to Dune so they could submit it to the competition. It was a good opportunity to help out a number of the musicians who had been kind enough to let us record their performances and rehearsals. It was also an example of the kind of give and take that takes place during the course of ethnomusicological research.

Our fieldwork consultants and informants help us out in countless ways – including letting us get underfoot while shooting footage of their gigs, granting interviews, and getting us parking and entrance permissions to gigs. We pay entrance fees for the shows we attend but sometimes it feels like we should pay double. So coming in to do a quick recording for Dune was a way to even things out a little, although it certainly feels like we’re still in their debt.

The gig on the thirteenth of December, the last one before the break, was an enjoyable performance by Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles, and Ernesto Simpson at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, London. It was a great performance, marred only by the fact that the room was a little emptier than it usually is, including for other shows by the trio. I imagine the regular Sunday afternoon crowd was out doing a little last minute holiday shopping.

Mark and I spent part of last week making DVDs of the performance for the musicians. The idea is, I suppose, a kind of exchange of primary materials – allowing scholarly knowledge on the one hand and practical learning on the other. Mark and I will study these performances in the hope of learning something about the microdynamics of interaction between jazz musicians. But the musicians will be able to watch them for their own purposes: perhaps to get a more objective picture of how they interact with their co-musicians, to get a sense of how they come across on stage, to hear how they sound, or even to check what the balance was like in the hall. And if the recordings enable them to promote themselves or provide them with a memento for the future, all the better.

The BBC and jazz: do old whines need new bottles?

By Mark Banks, 25 January 2010

This week I attended a MusicTank seminar to showcase a new report written for Jazz Services entitled The BBC – Jazz Policy and Structure in the Digital Age. This report brings the BBC to task for its alleged failure to provide adequate coverage for jazz music on its main radio networks, particularly those with specific commitments to providing jazz programming (principally Radio 2 and 3). It also criticises the amount of jazz programming (too little), its scheduling (too late) and its content (too American). As it describes, British jazz (including the wealth of black British styles) is poorly represented, or, more often, ignored altogether. Thus, according to the report, compared to the lavish provision afforded popular and classical music (of both British and non-British varieties) jazz stands as a poor relation.

At the seminar, one of the co-authors, Professor Stuart Nicholson, underlined the claims of the report by accusing the BBC of failing to represent the interests and enthusiasms of the jazz community – and thus failing to uphold the terms of its charter which promises to ‘represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities’ and serve a diversity of tastes and interests. The BBC, it was alleged, is in deficit of its cultural responsibilities.

While I agreed with much of Stuart Nicholson’s argument, I felt somewhat uneasy about the terms under which it was being made. Indeed, as I listened to the argument I was thinking….haven’t we been here before? Recently I’ve been rooting through the archives of the Music Department of the Arts Council of Great Britain, based at Blythe House in London. In a rather dusty and aromatic file, exotically-entitled ‘BBC Jazz Crisis 1971-78’, I found a letter sent to the August 1971 edition of the magazine ‘Musical Opinion’. In this letter, co-signed by various jazz luminaries including John Dankworth, John Surman and Michael Tyzack (as well as the distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm) there is strong objection to a BBC decision to delete video tapes of jazz musicians recorded for a BBC2 TV series, as well as a more general articulation of displeasure at the ‘off-peak tokenism [of jazz] on (Radio) Network Three’. They conclude:

‘When, one is entitled to wonder, will the most important single benefactor of living music in this country begin to undertake its responsibilities to this form of art and entertainment with any continuing degree of serious commitment’?

When the authors of the new report suggest that ‘the BBC is not supporting British jazz to the extent it could’ and concerned only with ‘populist’ genres and is neglecting its cultural responsibilities, then we could be back in 1971 - our art is not valued, our culture is unrepresented. But while the argument carries some weight today, just as it did then, we might ask, are claims to representation and expressions of ‘cultural outrage’ ever going to be enough?

It seems to me that the BBC have long become used to complaints of this nature and are now very adept at deflecting them (‘our resources are limited’, ‘our role is to cover all tastes and genres’, ‘we’re doing the best we can’ etc) and, indeed, at the seminar, co-panellists Roger Wright (Controller of Radio 3) and Lewis Carnie (Head of Programmes for Radio 2) were able to offer well- rehearsed arguments of this nature. The BBC is quite used to defending itself against claims of ‘more please’ from the disgruntled minorities. So while ‘fair representation’ remains a compelling argument, it seems to me that in these times, jazz enthusiasts need more wide-ranging, or multi-stranded arguments as to why there ought to be more commitment to jazz from the BBC. But what might they be?

Perhaps one avenue involves looking holistically at how jazz is becoming more firmly rooted in culture, economy and the polity – that is, how it contributes as a creative industry in the ‘cultural economy’, how it aids urban consumption and regeneration, offers training and higher education opportunities, and provides the potential for enhanced ‘social inclusion’ for students and ‘creative careers’ for young musicians. In this way jazz can be flagged as more popular, more economically significant and more socially necessary. Of course, many jazz-types would baulk at these trendy terms and ideas – and it's true they will always promise more than they can deliver – but there is surely room for a more active engagement with the changing language and conceptions of policy? How might cultural and economic evidence (such as the much anticipated Value of Jazz 2) be harnessed to make convincing narratives that don’t simply replicate tried and trusted (but largely failed) arguments? A key question then is, how can we demonstrate the overall social value of British jazz in more compelling and irrefutable terms?