The BBC and Jazz: Do Old Whines need New Bottles?
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?