A to JazZ Talks 2019: The Road To International Stage

Ian Patterson By

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Figure out where you want to be a year, two years, three years from now. You need to figure out the steps needed to get you there. This is a critical thing to do —Katherine McVicker, professional music agent, Music Works International
A to JazZ Talks: The Road To International Stage
Literature Club Peroto
National Palace of Culture
Sofia, Bulgaria
July 5, 2019

For the majority of young musicians, the very notion of pursuing a career in music can be daunting, to say the least. Admittedly, it is perhaps easier than ever before to make and record music, but what then? How can a musician get reviews for their CD in the media? How can a band attract promoters and get gigs in clubs and on festival stages? How can a band build a fan base? What's the best way to approach a record company? Is a manager necessary in this DIY age? What funding opportunities exist? In short, what are the steps required to make it professionally?

The A to JazZ Talks, part of the A to JazZ Festival 2019 (see separate article) is the brainchild of Mila Georgieva, International Relations Manager, and is designed to answer just such questions.

The Literature Club Peroto, a cosy café/book-shop in Sofia's National Palace of Culture, was the venue for a series of panel discussions and Q&A sessions with industry professionals, whose aim was to encourage Bulgarian jazz musicians—and musicians in general—in their careers.

Alongside the author—representing All About Jazz—were Virgo Sillamaa of Music Estonia and Katherine McVicker of Music Works International. A special panel/presentation saw German musician/composer Ulrich Beckerhoff share his insider's knowledge on Jazzahead!—the world's largest jazz fair.

The talks were filmed and broadcast by Mezzo, an international TV company specializing in classical music, jazz and dance.


Moderator Dimitar Bodurov—one of Bulgaria's most celebrated contemporary jazz musicians—began by asking what the jazz markets are currently looking for. Are there, he asked, obvious trends or preferred formats?

Katherine McVicker, a professional agent since 1987, the last twenty of those in Europe, began by recognizing the diversity of markets. America may be one country, but smooth jazz may dominate in California while New York or Washington would be used to more sophisticated forms of jazz. Likewise, she said, every country in Europe represents a different challenge. "Every market has to be taken on its own terms."

The biggest change in the music industry has been the collapse of the record industry, which has meant that musicians have to tour extensively to make a living This means, it follows, researching and knowing the markets they are aiming for. The agent, therefore, has become a central figure in the music world. In short, McVicker emphasized that the markets are looking for artists "who have all their business stuff together."

Fielding the question on the openness of markets from a global perspective, the author noted that whilst American jazz artists have long made their living from touring Europe and Asia, the traffic is nearly all one-way. The web of red tape and visa costs generally prohibits the majority of European and Asian jazz artists from touring America.

More specifically, European jazz festivals in particular like marketable projects from an artist, as opposed to artists touring to simply plug their latest record. One only has to look at Herbie Hancock's records/tours over the past couple of decades—The New Standard, Gershwin's World, River: The Joni Letters The River, The Imagine Project, etc to see this in action. Jason Moran is another artist who has thrived with specific projects, such as his theatrical Fats Waller tribute.

Bodurov made the point that American jazz artists still exert a great pull, and that there is perhaps more pressure on European jazz musicians, competing for gigs, to find an original, marketable voice.

For piano trios and small ensembles, it is difficult to carve an original path within the jazz tradition. Consequently, following the lead of the now-defunct E.S.T., groups have tended to embrace a greater pop sensibility, adopt more urbane rhythms (hip-hop, break-beat etc) and channel the latest technology. Turntables, [think Pawel Kaczmarczyk or Aki Takase], loops, sampling and audio-visual effects are all commonplace.

As a former jazz musician, and now someone who helps musicians build their careers, Sillamaa sees the bigger picture. Whilst it is perhaps primarily the festival directors, club owners and agents—with their power to present acts—who effectively shape the markets, Sillamaa cautioned against underestimating the audiences. An audience survey at Jazkaar, Estonia's major international jazz festival, revealed that the audience had no fear of long solos, and furthermore, that they appreciated hearing the artists talk about their music onstage. They looked for an immersive experience, where the music is central, but is not the only thing to enjoy.

Whereas a fifteen-minute drum solo might work a treat in a club, it mightn't go down quite so well at a festival or in a concert hall, McVicker noted, urging musicians to be mindful of how best to engage audiences in different spaces.

Sponsors also play into the narrative of the marketing of jazz, McVicker added, with the worldwide trend for jazz to fuse with other musics often a response to commercial demands. Such fusions are nothing new, McVicker said, citing the examples of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joe Zawinul in the 1970s.

Sillamaa observed that we are living in a post-genre age where young audiences do not perceive genre differentiation in the same way as people in the past. New musical platforms, the changing nature of music distribution and how music is consumed, have all altered perceptions of genre. In fact, musical tastes for the Spotify generation are not defined or restricted by genre.

The notion of genre and identity in music tied in with Dimitar's question, directed first to the author, on whether or not it is possible to talk about a Bulgarian jazz identity. It is of course possible to recognize Bulgarian rhythms-some of the fastest in this part of Europe—and Bulgarian folkloric melodies in certain jazz musicians, just as it is possible to hear certain rhythmic and melodic traits in much Cuban jazz, for example. But it would be odd, not to say rather contrived, if all the jazz musicians of a given country felt the necessity to adopt their national rhythms and melodies.

A number of individuals have done so brilliantly, however, and one thinks of Lars Gullin and Jan Johansson in Sweden, Isfar Sarabski in Azerbaijan, South African Abdullah Ibrahim, Indonesian group simakDialog, Serbian pianist Bojan Z, and Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde, to give just a few examples.
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