"Dancing:" It's A Dirty Word
JazzLife UK continued apace during May and June 2010, adding many more photographs to the project and hearing more great jazz in yet more odd and unusual venues. Early May brought more indications of summer to the British weather, and ushered in a General Election. JazzLife UK can now revealas promised in my previous articlethat the winner of this era-defining event was: Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg. Britain's first coalition government for decades brought Clegg power, fame and influence far beyond anything he could have gained by keeping his party independent. After 13 years of Labour, the UK is now in the charge of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democratsa LibCon coalition, or, my particular favorite, ConDem.
It's too early to say what impact the new government will have on the arts in general, and music in particular. Early indications look hopeful that the licensing regulations that have stifled many performance opportunities for local bands will be relaxed, but wholesale cuts in subsidies may yet see more damaging losses. Cuts of up to 40% in Government subsidies for the arts have been discussed and if this figure is true then many organizations face severe financial difficulties and some venues and arts groups may be forced to close. If there is an upside for the jazz world, then it lies in the fact that jazz currently receives relatively little Government funding40% of a little isn't very much. However, the threat to small provincial venues could result in a reduction in places where jazz can be played, the withdrawal of grants for educational initiatives could mean that fewer young people get the chance to learn an instrument and less money for festivals or community groups could mean fewer commissions for new jazz works and a reduction in opportunities for more experimental work. Of course, there's always a strong traditionalist element in the UK jazz fan base that would see that last possibility as a benefit.
The picture for British jazz is a confused and potentially negative onea nation waits. It's notable, however, that a shortlist of my Five Favorite UK Jazz Venues would not feature a single venue in receipt of Government financial support. But JazzLife UK has little time for such minor mattersfor in recent months the serious issues of dancing, clapping and flooding have been center-stage. It's doubtful that the ConDems will bother to legislate on any of those.
JazzLife On Stage
Jazz performances have continued to pop up in some quite unexpected places. As well as the usual theaters and clubs, venues visited by JazzLife UK over the last couple of months have included a Victorian Pumphouse, an art gallery and the Terrace of the Houses of Parliament. The usual collection of bars, clubs and concerts have featured heavily, as usual, but in terms of atmosphere, innovation and value for money, some of the non-traditional spaces are ahead of the game.
Norwich Jazz Party, from left: Karen Sharp, Ian Bateman, Enrico Tommaso
The biggest recent jazz event was the 2010 Norwich Jazz Party, with over 30 musicians playing in many different combinations in the function suite of Norwich's main airport hotel during the May Day Bank Holiday weekend. The Party brings together some of the finest mainstream players in jazzfrom the USA, the UK and Italy this yearand produced some joyous moments, with veteran players like Bucky Pizzarelli and Marty Grosz clearly enjoying themselves as much as, if not more than, the younger players. The event went a long way in showing that mainstream jazz can still be innovative and fresh and featured some fine young British players like saxophonist Karen Sharp and drummer Steve Brown.
Other performance highlights came from different points on the jazz spectrum. At Kettle's Yard Gallery in Cambridge singer Christine Tobin and pianist Liam Noble played a set based on their gorgeous album Tapestry Unravelled (Trail Belle, 2010)a beautiful performance from the duo who invest Carole King's classic songs with new insights and fresh emotional power. JazzLife UK found the venue to be strangely unsettling, however. Many of the gallery's exhibits are extremely valuable and relaxation is hard to achieve with the knowledge that the slightest movement could result in damage to an irreplaceable work of art. The house lights stayed up for the entire night: probably a necessary action, but I always find the sight of fellow audience members adds little to my enjoyment of the music (they probably feel the same way).
Kettle's Yard does have a certain uniqueness as a jazz venue. I particularly liked the absence of any clear indication of the toilet facilities. In fact, unisex restrooms were available, through unmarked doors behind a hefty abstract sculpturejazz fans in need of relief were directed to "either side of the Henry Moore."
While Kettle's Yard is packed with antiques and art, the Aldeburgh Pumphouse is a barren and isolated reminder of the great feats of Victorian engineering, sitting on the edge of Suffolk reed beds and close to a collection of allotments filled with vegetables and summer fruit. But it's amazing what a few tables, chairs and candlesplus a bar within easy accesscan do to create atmosphere. For Aldeburgh Festival's jazz night the Pumphouse became a warm and friendly venue that could almost have been purpose-built for jazz. Pianist James Pearson's trio, veteran tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins' quartet and singer Georgia Mancio's band took advantage of the intimate feel of the place to engage with the audience and produce some great and entertaining music.
In the more traditional performance space provided by the Norwich Playhouse, Jason Yarde's Trio WAH! created some impressive work as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Trio WAH!'s music can seem rather introspective at times, but it's never self-indulgent and even though Yarde (pictured, left) and his fellow band members get to perform together only rarely there is a real understanding between them. After 10 years together, their first album is yet to be completedan indication of how busy their individual careers are, but a loss to the many jazz fans who have yet to hear the band.
Here Comes The Flood
The Milestones Jazz Club, run by Stephen Mynott, is always a good bet for innovative and high quality jazz at its monthly events in the basement bar of Lowestoft's Hotel Hatfield. June's performance by the underrated Compassionate Dictatorship was another great night of jazzbut only just.
The first indication that something was wrong emerged during the sound check. Bassist Jasper Høiby, asked if his sound was OK, mentioned that he was alright "in the wet bit." This puzzled me at first, as "wet bits" are not established jazz club facilities. Seconds later, the bassist's position became clearer, as the sound of rushing torrents of water emerged from behind a curtain. The Hotel Hatfield sits on the Suffolk shoreline, staring across the North Sea to Holland and tonight, thanks to a torrential rainstorm, a large proportion of the North Sea decided to check out some jazz. As the rest of us gazed impotently at the water pouring down the interior wall of the bar, Høiby realized the potential implications of a large double-bass and its electronic amplifier sitting in a wet patch of carpet and moved into action.
Compassionate Dictatorship, from left: Jez Franks, James Maddren
Jasper Høiby, Tori Freestone
Eventually the rest of the band, plus Mynott and myself, followed Høiby's lead. Minutes later, bass, drums, PA system and assorted boxes, bags, instrument stands and cases were safely stowed in a far corner of the bar and a new performance area took shape. After only a few minutes delay the doors opened and the jazz lovers of Lowestoft were able to enjoy their monthly fix.
To Clap Or Not To Clap?
It's a conundrum, make no mistake. The thorny subject of the clapping of solos emerged as a topic for heated debate on BBC Radio 3's Jazz On Threeone of the best of the regular radio jazz shows, which often features concert recordings of some genuinely experimental ensembles. The origins of the Jazz On Three debate are lost in the mists of time, but the issue is a troubling one. Does a solo demand the audience's applause simply because it happened?
Certainly, at many jazz performances it seems to be standard practice to applaud at the end of each solo, however briefly. But why? Where is it written in the Book Of Jazz that applause must follow solos as night follows day? It's true that the ritual has its useson more than one occasion polite but desultory clapping has woken me from a slumber induced by an over-long but under-ambitious ocarina solo. But that isn't what it's supposed to be for. And, as I'm usually awake throughout a performance, I seldom make use of the Applause Alarm Clock. In fact, I often find myself irritated by the cursory rounds of applause that accompany the closing notes of a soloand even more irritated by the band leader's disgruntled cry of "Jakey McFlick on sopranino trombone Ladies and Gents, let's hear it for Jakey!" when the audience's response has been insufficiently excited.
Clapping is an expression of appreciation, a "thank you" for a job well done, an acknowledgement of the musician's improvisational talent and the positive effect it created within you. Clap every solo and you may as well clap none. Routine, automatic, clapping after every solo is not a display of respectit's a display of disinterest, a demonstration of a lack of critical appraisal, perhaps it's even insulting.
To be honest, I have often found myself slipping into auto-applause mode. It just happens. But in recent months I've made a conscious attempt not to applaudunless I actually enjoyed the solo. I get less exercise this way, but that's balanced by a slightly smug feeling that in doing so I may actually be more engaged with the performance. Mostly, my new approach has had no discernable impact on proceedings, especially if I'm sitting at the back, in the dark. But on a couple of occasions my apparent reticence to participate has been spotted by a couple of eagle-eyed traditionalists and I've received disapproving looks and, on one occasion, I'm sure that a "Tut" was sent in my direction.
Of course some jazz bands, especially the younger ones, refuse to conform to the solo-clap-solo-clap tradition. They rattle through a string of hot boogie tunes in ensemble form, resolutely refusing to give in to the alto player's egotistical demands for 32 bars and apparently play no less enthusiastically or skillfully in the absence of mid-tune applause. Their audiences don't seem to have a problem with thattheir appreciation is delivered in a series of cheers and whoops at moments apparently unconnected with any individual display of musical skill, and seems all the more genuine as a result.
James Pearson Trio at the Aldeburgh Pumphouse
From left: James Pearson, Arnie Somogyi, Chris Dagley
Dancing In The Dark
Terpsichorean matters have also been in my mind over recent weeks. I'm normally an acutely self-conscious kind of person, maintaining decorum even when all around me are throwing theirs out of the window. However, if I'm photographing a particularly enjoyable gig my self-awareness can drift away as I lose myself in the act of photography and let the music flow into my conscious. If the music is danceable in nature, then I may find myself cutting a rug, moving with whatever groove the band is creating and generally developing the sort of limited rhythmic movement that still renders me capable of taking a reasonably unblurry photo.
In my days of photographing guitar bands, or techno outfits, or folk groups, such overt displays were never a problemif I was attempting a soft-shoe shuffle then the chances were that most of the audience would be doing something similar, at least around the front of the stage. But such a spontaneous display seems to be much harder to achieve at the typical British jazz venue.
OKyou can't dance everywhere. At the aforementioned Kettle's Yard, for example, an up-tempo foxtrot would cause havoc, never mind a brisk Mashed Potato: the Henry Moore would survive, but the more delicate artifacts wouldn't make it. And you can't dance to everything, as anyone who has attempted to shake a leg to the sounds of late-period John Coltrane can attest. But there is plenty of jazz that you can dance to.
Of course, it isn't hard to find an event that brings jazz and dance together. But in the UK such events tend to be planned as suchthe audience expects, and is expected, to dance. Perhaps it says so on the ticket. Spontaneous dance is another thing altogether. The sudden, unplanned and unpredicted outbreak of rhythmic movement might only happen for a few minutes, or might only apply to a few members of the audience, but happen it mightand why shouldn't it?
Well, because so many venues insist on seating the audience, often in such close confines that moving more than one limb at a time is fraught with danger. In some cases, the venues are keen to sell foodand I don't have a problem with thatand in others the seating is fixed. But I also visit plenty of venues that could easily create a bit of a dance floor, just in case. Indeed, one regular music venue of my acquaintance is usually a large-ish, empty space with plenty of room to movebut when a jazz band comes to town, out come the uncomfortable chairs in serried ranks.
Is there an anti-dance conspiracy? Is dancing no longer hip? Is it because too many British jazz fans no longer have their own hips? Whatever the case, in the last couple of months JazzLife UK has visited just one jazz gig where the audience was not seated. Admittedly, no-one danced there, either.
The Parliamentary Jazz Awards
The one exception to the all-seated gig was the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Held in the Terrace Bar of the Houses of Parliament (pictured above) on a warm and pleasant early summer evening, the Awards night was a relaxed, jolly, affair attended by some of the finest musicians in the British jazz scene, some of the country's best-known Parliamentarians and assorted riff-raff and hangers-on such as myself.
Members of the general, non-jazz, media were conspicuous by their absence and there was a splendid lack of pretension about the evening. The mainstream British music scene runs its award ceremonies in a desperate and doomed attempt at rivaling the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. British jazz's pre-eminent awards event more closely resembled a school fête. Mums, dads and teachers made polite, if occasionally hesitant, conversation in the marquee while many of the cheekier young pupils spent their time outside, out of sight of the grown-ups, where they could sneak a few crafty cigarettes and, possibly, tell a few risqué stories.
The dress code was relaxedextremely relaxed in one or two casesand there was a general air of irreverence about the evening. Award winners were all warmly congratulated by those present, but most of the speeches received little attention from the assembled jazz people. The Parliamentarians who attended, from the Commons and the Lords, seemed to have a real love for the music. It was gratifying to hear that most of the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group's members held their seats in the recent election and equally gratifying to see that one or two new MPs have an interest in jazz.
Live entertainment was provided by the Phil Robson Trio, joined as the evening progressed by a succession of guests including vocalists Christine Tobin and Cleveland Watkiss. It was particularly pleasing to see genuinely influential musicians like Stan Tracey and Norma Winstone enjoying the night. Musicians like these have spent decades in the UK jazz scene, often working with the slimmest of budgets yet still creating some terrifically innovative music. Creative and innovative, even with limited financial resources...I think that's where this article started.
All photos: Bruce Lindsay