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JazzLife UK

There's No Such Thing as a British Jazz Scene

By Published: June 14, 2010
April saw three excellent gigs in three very different Norwich venues. First up was a solo performance from American guitarist Richard "Duck" Baker, now based in the UK. Baker has played in many genres across his long career, from folk and blues to free improvised music with musicians such as John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
and Henry Kaiser
Henry Kaiser
Henry Kaiser
b.1952
guitar, electric
. On this tour, Baker was performing in a series of independent cinemas and, while Norwich's Cinema City provided me with by far the most comfortable seat of any venue, it did seem rather incongruous to be watching Baker play guitar in a movie theatre. Baker's show, The Roots and Branches of American Music, combined his stories and anecdotes about the music with his dexterous and intricate demonstrations of each style. Jazz featured heavily, with Baker playing Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
's "Blue Monk" and "'Round Midnight," and encoring with Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
's "Take The A Train."

Baker's cinema-based performance seemed even more incongruous when I returned to the Norwich Arts Centre to see Cipher performing a live soundtrack to the great German psycho-mystery silent movie The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Cipher—Theo Travis
Theo Travis
Theo Travis

sax, tenor
on saxophones, flutes and looping; Dave Sturt on bass and programming—creates beautiful, haunting, soundscapes with a big element of improvisation and the music was so effective that at times the band and the movie seemed to meld into one single entity.

On a more straightforward note, the wonderful vocalist Claire Martin
Claire Martin
Claire Martin
b.1967
vocalist
played Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre. But perhaps it's not so straightforward, for while Martin certainly covers the standards she also has an excellent ear for songs from beyond jazz and readily puts her own personal stamp on the work of writers such as Nick Drake, Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
b.1948
keyboard
and Walter Becker
Walter Becker
Walter Becker
b.1950
guitar
, and the underrated David Cantor. Martin's enthusiasm for the music comes over on stage, and while she's well aware of the practical problems for jazz in Britain she is also optimistic. "I think we could do with a few more venues, definitely. I think it's a struggle and everybody supplements their income by teaching or arranging," she says, "But there's young people coming out of universities with degrees in jazz now—it's a fantastic thing."

So, live jazz is certainly being delivered by talented musicians—but who are they delivering to? Audiences are crucial for any live art and the nature of the "jazz audience" is a regular concern. Stereotypically, it has an older-than-average age profile, is mostly male, with a higher-than-average level of income and of education. In reality many members of the jazz audience do fit this stereotype, but many do not. The audience is as varied as the many styles of jazz and the musicians that play it. Audiences at the gigs JazzLife UK attended during March and April ranged in number from a few dozen at a couple of club nights to around 300 for the Steve Howe Trio. They ranged in age from teenagers to octogenarians. They were predominantly male, but The Invisible attracted a relatively high proportion of women. I recognized lecturers, business owners, nurses, students, musicians, writers, jobless people, retired people, artists and shop workers among the crowds. Many were very knowledgeable about jazz; some knew little about it and probably would not even have considered themselves to be at a jazz gig.

Many at the concert by Steve Howe (pictured left) were there because of his progressive rock work. Much of the Cipher audience was film buffs rather than jazz lovers. Theo Travis acknowledges this, although he's aware that this is changing: "It is primarily a film audience, but recently we're getting a lot of Gong fans [Travis has been a member of the band for some years] and we both play in so many different groups that there is cross-pollination." Duck Baker attracted lovers of folk and blues as much as he did jazz fans— Baker is not surprised by this, as he's positive about the ability of the audience to take on board different types of music: "Most people just like good music and if you put it before them they respond to the music itself." Cipher's Dave Sturt also turns the discussion around, to question whether there is a "jazz audience." "Do audiences these days just listen to jazz? I think most people would listen to all sorts of different things."

While waiting to go in to the Baker concert I heard two audience members discussing whether or not this was going to be a film or a live musician—so even that distinction was not central to this particular couple's perception. What united all of these audience members—or at least most of them—was that they liked what they heard, whatever its label.

Out In The Big Wide World


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