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JazzLife UK

There's No Such Thing as a British Jazz Scene

By Published: June 14, 2010
Beyond the world of musical performance JazzLife UK experienced a few other events with high impact potential. In broadcasting the BBC played hero and villain. Firstly, it announced that as a cost-cutting measure it was considering shutting down two of its digital radio stations: the Asian Network and BBC 6 Music. The music world focused its attention on 6 Music, a station which offers some of the most innovative programming on radio. Jazz isn't a strong feature on the station, but Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone often highlights new and classic jazz performers—few other radio shows would play an entire Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
album, for example, as Maconie has done. A concerted campaign to reprieve the station was well under way by the end of April.

Jazz Services, an organization devoted to the promotion of and practical support for jazz in the UK, also drew attention to the BBC's lack of involvement with jazz and began its own protest—Jazz Off Air. Once again, the jazz community got behind the campaign.

It wasn't just the BBC that came in for criticism. An anonymous correspondent put me straight on a couple of errors I had made in some recent articles. So, fingers crossed, I hope nothing in this article will embarrass anyone by over-stating their talents—and hopefully nothing in it embarrasses me by revealing my own lack of musical discernment.

But it's not all bad news—at least, not for the BBC. In April BBC4—the BBC TV channel devoted in the main to arts and culture—broadcast a series of programs on the Great American Songbook, including a live concert featuring vocalists including Claire Martin (pictured left), Gwyneth Herbert and Jose James. BBC Radio 2, the most popular radio station in Britain, began a series of weekly early evening shows hosted by Jamie Cullum
Jamie Cullum
Jamie Cullum

vocalist
. Cullum is probably the best-known and most commercially successful of Britain's young jazz performers. He's been much-maligned by some members of the British jazz community—popularity and success are not always celebrated here—but he's a talented performer and is both knowledgeable and passionate about jazz. His program has already given wide exposure to other young British jazz musicians while not forgetting the great performers of yesteryear.

There Is No British Jazz Scene

Time for the Major Paradigm Shift I referred to earlier. When I began planning JazzLife UK, from my rural idyll in East Anglia, I glibly referred to "The British Jazz Scene." Perhaps I remembered too much of The Monkees, or The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
in Help, but I had visions of every jazz musician in Britain living together in a splendid Jazz House, sharing reeds and strings and teaching each other about all the hip new sounds. Had I given the idea sufficient thought it would have been obvious that this wasn't the case and as JazzLife UK builds its interview collection the concept's inherent fallibility is clear. There is no British Jazz Scene—there are lots of British jazz scenes.

The idea of multiple jazz scenes is a healthy one—it suggests a wide-ranging set of musical variations with the attendant attractions for innovative musicians and audiences willing and eager to explore this variety. There are inherent problems as well, of course. While many musicians have told me that they see British jazz as being in a healthy state this is not a constant across all styles. One first-call player, who asked not to be named, said that jazz may be healthy overall but the mainstream scene is struggling, with fewer and fewer places for melodic, swinging, music. Most professional players need to be able to play across a range of styles in order to make a decent living and few can devote themselves to a single band or ensemble.

In the main, adaptability is something British players have in abundance, but only a small number play across the entire spectrum of styles. Most play across part of the spectrum and their contacts and playing partners tend to come from similar parts. As a result, musicians are perhaps less aware of what's happening in the wider scene than many fans are. What impact this has on the health of the British jazz community as a whole I'm not sure, but it has given me food for thought.

The idea of multiple scenes doesn't automatically mean that there are multiple opportunities for jazz players. Claire Martin, whose own view is that there is an overarching British scene albeit with some pockets of the country better served than others, recognizes that survival as a jazz player isn't easy and cites pianist Tom Cawley
Tom Cawley
Tom Cawley
b.1975
piano
as one player whose success has come from an ability to operate outside jazz—in his case, as keyboard player with Peter Gabriel. However, the influx of new music from Europe and North America as well as within the UK is something that she has great enthusiasm for.


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