What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership, Performance

Monday, January 25, 2010

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

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?

Friday, January 22, 2010

From workshop to festival gig ... - Mark Doffman

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 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.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cosmic RawXtra: the Net Widens - Jason Toynbee

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 maestrom 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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jammin’ at the Margins? Jazz as Cultural Industry – Mark Banks

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.

Ethnomusicology: really it's all practice

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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Brecon Jazz: a festival reborn - Mark Doffman

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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Jazz dance thing

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 … .

Catherine Tackley

Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. See Arts & Humanities Research Council website.