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European Jazz Conference 2016

Ian Patterson By

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It is important for musicians today not only to play an instrument, but to become an instrument of change. —Danilo Pérez
European Jazz Conference 2016
National Forum of Music
Wroclaw, Poland
September 22-25, 2016

We have two ears and only one mouth so perhaps we should listen more than we speak. This old maxim is often credited to Hellenistic philosopher Zeno of Citrium, though who's to say he didn't pinch it after being admonished by a fellow Stoic for not listening enough himself? We'll never know.

What we do know, however, is that the way we listen to music has changed significantly in the super-technological age that sweeps us along at dizzying speeds like leaves in a storm, or that blows over us like a hurricane meeting a tree, leaving us overwhelmed and bedraggled.

The fourth European Jazz Conference, held in the magnificent National Forum of Music in the historic Polish city of Wroclaw, was all about listening. Entitled Listen Up!, the conference addressed—both directly and indirectly—notions of how we listen to music, how we listen to each other, and how we might do both better.

Two hundred delegates—jazz festival directors, promotors, agents, musicians, academics and journalists of the Europe Jazz Network—from thirty five European countries, plus distinguished guest speakers including Danilo Pérez, Georgina Born and Ben Ratliff, put heads together and traded back and forth for three days, with the intention of deepening mutual understanding, addressing common challenges and collaborating along numerous lines.

Eleven Polish jazz showcases across the three evenings gave a taster of the tremendous depth and talent that exists on the Polish jazz scene. These concerts will be reviewed in a separate article.

Background

The way we listen to music—the food of love—is evolving fast, moving away from a communal experience to an increasingly hermetic one, with legions of ear-plugged individuals on trains, buses and planes locked in their personal sonic worlds, oblivious to those around them. Legions more walk, run, cycle or rollerblade to a personal, carefully crafted playlist that acts as a soundtrack to the rolling panorama.

And of course, we are able listen to far more than we ever did. Youtube and music streaming services have together created a musical library of infinite proportions, one we can access from almost anywhere at any time. The past has become the present.

Increasingly, music takes up less and less physical space in our homes as vast quantities of music are stored digitally, consigning the good old second hand record store to the collective memory. Clouds on the horizon indeed.

For far too many people these days, music is consumed for free. Few will stop to consider, as they download and share files, how the musicians are supposed to continue making music if they aren't paid. The rapid demise of the value of recorded music (in a certain sense) has had the effect of increasing the necessity of musicians to tour. Incidentally, it's difficult to think of too many other professions where men and women in the eighties and some in their nineties have to travel frequently and often for extended periods of time to keep body and soul together.

Paradoxically, at the same time that live streaming can bring a performance to people around the world, it also negates the necessity, for some folk at least, to bother attending the gig at all.

As promotors seek to offer new live listening experiences for their audiences, new types of settings for music are increasingly the norm. Classical music in car parks (Multi-Storey Orchestra), jazz in volcanic mountains (Jazz Gunung, Indonesia), festivals in deserts (Burning Man, Nevada) or rainforests (Rainforest Music Festival, Borneo), to cite a few examples, have taken music out of its habitual environments.

Venues as diverse as abandoned train stations, factories, warehouses and squats (think Centri Sociali in Italy) are commonplace throughout Europe, offering ever-more alternatives to the club, concert hall and auditorium.

Concerts at 33,000 feet (Jamiroquai's 2007 Boeing 757 gig), at 300 metres below sea level (Katie Melua, 2006, Norwegian off-shore gas platform), from space (Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013) and at historic sites (Grateful Dead at Giza, 1978, Placebo at Angkor Wat, 2016) provide exotic backdrops to familiar music.

Even the exotic, however, slowly becomes standardized and institutionalized with repetition. The challenge for jazz promotors, in the main, is less about dramatic settings and more about meaningful ones. The spaces in which we listen to music was one of the central, recurring themes of the EJC 2016.

Music as never before is ubiquitous—interminable sonic wallpaper in lifts, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants, trains and shops assault our overworked ears at every turn, at every step. It's everywhere, whether we like it or not, all the time. Little wonder that the acoustic overload of urban spaces, the decibel mayhem, provokes sonic isolation—if not silence—through ear-plugs.

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