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European Jazz Conference 2016

Ian Patterson By

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Concerts for kids is one thing, working with kids is quite another. Increasingly, however, jazz festivals and jazz organisations are looking at ways to introduce children to improvised/creative music. The criteria is the all-important thing. Is the primary motive to grow audiences at jazz festivals? Is it to gain easier access to the resources of funding bodies? Or is it for the benefit of the kids?

This workshop, co-led by Nina Torske from Vestnorsk Jazzsenter, Norway, and Wim Wanbbes from the Handelsbeurs Concert Hallhe, Belgium, addressed such questions and debated whether it's even necessary to 'tailor' music for young children, as opposed to introducing them to the same music adults enjoy.

In a The Jazzline news item that quoted statistics from the 2014 Nielsen Music US Report, children's music was at the bottom of the heap, representing just 1% of total sales, propping up jazz and classical music, which both held 1.4% of the market. It's a glass half full/half empty scenario, as clearly for children's music the only way is up.

One positive project which hopes to use music as a tool to enhance children's social skills, improve confidence and tap into their creativity, is Twist and Shout. Currently being developed by Handelsbeurs Concert Hallhe, the aim is to create a language that children from all backgrounds will be able to use to create music, with their voices, clapping and using hand-made instruments. As Wabbes explained, a combination of sign language and graphic language could be implemented.

The first workshops begin in October and it's hoped that the project—a musical language research project essentially—will attract the support of interested partners on a Europe-wide scale.

The question of presenting music for children raised animated discussion, with Nigel Slee of Jazz North advocating a common sense manifesto that stipulates high standards of musicianship, a quality sound-system and a commitment to safe volume. Some people suggested that children's showcases at key festivals/events would be a good way to promote their wider implementation. Veteran music programmer/promoter Nod Knowles, however, disagreed, saying: "We need a big statement, not lots of little sideshows." He went on to propose a showcase at the EJC, and suggested that instead of inviting journalists it would make greater sense to invite teachers from around Europe. Listening to teachers' voices—the gatekeepers themselves—might make an awful lot of sense.

Ben Ratliff Interviewed: Every Song Ever

Why do we need a book about how to listen to music? It was a reasonable opening question from interviewer Agnieszka Antoniewska to music critic Ben Ratliff. After all, it's something we all do.

Few, however, have listened to as much diverse music with such a finely attuned critical ear as Ratliff. Pop and jazz critic for the New York Times and author of several books, including Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), Ratliff's latest book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016), is an attempt to think about music not in terms of genres, but in terms of effects.

For Ratliff, the underlying premise of the book is about how we listen to music today compared to how we used to listen to music in the pre-internet age. For the author, the choice boils down to becoming increasingly subservient to streaming services such as Spotify, or attempting to make our own sense of the vast, sometimes overwhelming amount of music available at the click of a button. "Good listening is about you and about how you think about music, your own curiosity and your own originality," Ratliff said.

Antoniewska was quick to take Ratliff up on the seemingly contradictory fact that the suggested listening lists at the end of each chapter of his book are available on Spotify (about sixteen hours of music), to which the author replied that this had been his publisher's decision. Spotify and other streaming services are today's reality, for better or for worse, and Ratliff's book, as he attempted to get across in this interview, is all about listening to and making sense of music in today's reality, using all the tools at our disposal.

The interview got a little bogged down on the pros and cons of Spotify and its business practises, drifting away from the message of the book; the message being that there are multiple ways to listen to music and ways to make connections between seemingly disparate styles that may enhance our understanding of and appreciation of diverse music, beyond the constraints of genres.

On Antoniewska's point regarding shorter attentions spans, Ratliff noted: "Yes, we're at a moment when it seems to be that we have shorter attention spans, but at the same time we seem to be able to watch an entire series of a television show in one day, or one evening—straight, end to end. We can absorb it whole."

There was plenty to absorb in the Ratliff interview, and more still in the Q&A that followed, including the observation by John Cumming of Serious/EGF London Jazz Festival that the modern means of transmitting music [i-pods, smart phones, streaming services, live streaming of concerts, podcasts, social media etc] are crucial in informing and expanding the audience for live music.

Whether the live music experience leads people to be more curious about recorded music or vice versa is a moot point, but the role of technology is vital, Cumming emphasized, when he spoke of the need to find new audiences and reinvigorate the older jazz audience demographic in how they listen and how they find out about creative artists.

This interview with Ratliff, whilst touching upon many points, touched only lightly on the content of his book, which is recommended for anyone looking for guidance or suggestions on how to make sense of the enormous, ever-growing library of music now at our ready disposal.

Parallel Working Sessions: European Research Group

In the afternoon of the final day, conference attendees split up into groups according to typology of organisations—festivals, clubs/venues, managers/agents, national organisations etc. These sessions provided an opportunity for more specific sharing of ideas and potential collaborations.

The session dealing with European research was led by Tony Whyton, Professor of Jazz Studies at Birmingham School of Media and author of Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album (Oxford University Press, 2013)—highly acclaimed books that challenge and question accepted notions of jazz history/mythology.

Whyton is also a leading figure in the groundbreaking Rhythm Changes project—a pan-European research collaboration that has gone from strength to strength.

Around twenty people attended this session, and one by one they introduced themselves, their projects and areas of expertise, which took up a sizeable portion of the session. The time might have been more productively used had it been possible to sign up for the session prior to the commencement of the conference, with each person submitting short bios/outlines of their work on-line.

That said, the range and breadth of research going on across Europe was most impressive. Studies/projects, both country-specific and pan-European, covered: musical archiving; Cuban elements in jazz; cultural politics in jazz; marginalized figures in jazz history; jazz and disability; the impact of jazz festivals; the numbers behind the Europe Jazz Network; audience development/audience data; peripheral actors in jazz; world music, and more besides.

Arguably the most ambitious project, driven by journalist/promotor Francesco Martinelli, is the European Jazz Network's undertaking to write a history of European jazz encompassing thirty five countries. It's a huge task but one nearing its conclusion. Martinelli will shed more light on the book and its contents during a talk at the EFG London Jazz Festival in November.

What are the benefits of academic research into jazz? In a nutshell, outward-facing research—advocacy of another kind—provides better understanding of the multiple forces that move jazz and its audiences, therefore helping promotors to offer more meaningful programs, and perhaps helping organizations/musicians to access funding. Research into jazz also allows insight into the cultural links uniting countries, highlights the key differences in the meanings associated with jazz from one country to another, and in the process, enables the opportunity for better international co-operation between musicians, agents, festivals and organizations.

The key for the academics/researchers in persuading others of the importance of their research, whether other EJN members or funding bodies, lies perhaps in the language used. There's no greater turn-off for the lay person than being subjected to insider technical jargon.

The academics/researchers present at the EJC 2016 are all enormously passionate about jazz and in promoting better understanding of the forces that shape the music—not only its production, dissemination and consumption, or the demographics and trends, but the sometimes thorny issues that jazz histories have tended to overlook. Time to listen up indeed.

Wrap-up

EJC 2016 flew by in the blink of an eye. An intense few days generated a lot of talking that required a lot of concentrated listening. The lessons imparted during the conference, the suggestions for future projects/creative strategies to promote jazz and grow its audience, will no doubt take a while to digest.

What was easy to see, however, is that the members of the European Jazz Network are tremendously passionate about the promotion of live music. Jazz, like the societies we live in, is experiencing rapid evolution and it takes effort to understand the forces that bring about these changes and the knock-on effects. How jazz will continue to evolve—the music, the audiences, the technology and the spaces—is unsure, but understanding the multiple currents of jazz' history, as any academic/historian will tell you, should you care to listen, is key to predicting what the future holds.

The EJC 2017 will be held in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Photo Credit: Lukasz Rajchert

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