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Jazz Promotion Network Conference 2022

Jazz Promotion Network Conference 2022

Courtesy Nigel Slee, Jazz North

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As the two parts of Ireland face up to the increasingly likely prospect of unification, whenever that may be, musicians will likely be at the forefront of collaborative projects that bring together people from formerly divided communities—politically, culturally and geographically.
Jazz Promotion Network Conference 2022
The MAC
Belfast, Northern Ireland
November 3-4, 2022

Jazz Promotion Network's (JPN) annual conference saw over one hundred delegates gather at Belfast's Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC) for two days of talks, exchange of ideas and music showcases (see separate article). Founded around a decade ago, the JPN is the only organisation of its kind dedicated to promoting and supporting jazz across the UK and Ireland.

JPN's membership includes musicians, festivals, promotors, venues, regional networks, an independent record label, a music charity, jazz journalists and educators. Collectively, the membership boasts many years involvement in programming jazz, promoting musicians, organising national and international touring, teaching and outreach, not to mention navigating knotty funding application processes. The expertise is broad, the experience immense.

It has taken a while for the annual JPN conference to truly reflect the "five-nations" makeup of its membership, but the introduction of travel bursaries has been a positive step in helping ensure that England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and host country Northern Ireland were all well represented. The Sun Ra-inspired conference banner, "Where Pathways Meet," was therefore truly apt.

In the conference rooms of The MAC, delegates discussed and debated some of the most important issues in jazz today: encouraging youth to play jazz; examining the present and future ecology of jazz; the meaning of inclusion in jazz; funding for jazz; support for touring; audience development; showcasing artists.

Suffice it to say, talk, opinions and calls to action were all in plentiful supply.

Keynote Speech

Brian Irvine: Jazz as a Beacon of Hope

Belfast's first Music Laureate, Brian Irvine, is a true Renaissance man. From big-band jazz that sounds like a cross between John Zorn and Frank Zappa to opera, from oratorios to chamber music and from film scores to music for dancers—no area is out of bounds when it comes to making music.

And with Irvine, whether he is performing or lecturing, it is a safe bet that the audience will get drawn into his creative orbit. For Irvine, we are all improvisors.

Making music, Irvine explained, is all about the journey, "the total joy of making small blocks of noise without regard to the final destination."

Irvine gave insight into time-honored, tried and tested composing methodology. "Beethoven didn't hear it all in his head. He just began building and juggling with little blocks of noise for the sake of it. Making, collecting, altering, assembling these little things one against another, and he kept going, building like Lego."

The key for Irvine was hearing Cecil Taylor in conversation with Marian McPartland, explaining how improvisation is instant composing. Irvine described how, in that moment, he gave up on the idea of the destination and began to focus on the process of building, of playing.

"Sure enough, three months later I would stand back and look with complete amazement at these enormous Taj Mahal-like noise structures I had arrived at but had never actually imagined... this realisation literally changed my life."

Irvine's credo that humans are innately creative was put to the test, as he conducted the audience in a collective improvisation session. It may just have seemed like a lot of noise, but for Irvine it was beautiful music, "an extension of speech because speech isn't enough. Noise came first."

The underlying message in an engaging talk was that improvisation is a natural skill and an essential tool in communication, "a transferable skill that impacts way beyond the boundaries of music."

In wrapping up, Irvine called for a National Day of Improvisation, "for the advancement of dialog between all things." His proposal invites anyone to play with anything in a social encounter with any object or person, recording the improvised encounter and thereby contributing to a virtual real book, a concept that Irvine likened to "an anthology of encounter, an endorsement of difference and an interrogation of the pathways to connection."

For some brilliant examples of such improvised dialogues (popcorn and drums, anyone?) see the video collection at Counterflows Community Interventions.

Úna Monaghan: And The Goals Will Come

Music peppered the two-day conference. The first musical chapter was not live but rather a short music film presented by harpist/composer Úna Monaghan. In And The Goals Will Come, Monaghan explored the connections between sport, improvised music and life.

Within a high-walled enclosure, Monaghan, on harp and electronics bassoonist Éanna Monaghan and drummer Matthew Jacobson improvised as Kilkenny hurler Jonjo Farrell weaved between them, using his hurling stick, ball, ground and wall in a practice ritual of its own rhythms and percussive qualities. Intermingled were snippets of Monaghan's field recordings from an All-Ireland hurling final and brief quotations from sports books.

The title of the film, which was related to the scoring system of hurling, echoed Brian Irvine's leitmotif of playing and creating in the moment, focusing on the journey and not the destination.

For Monaghan, the language used in the preparation of athletes is similar to that used by musicians. The difference, Monaghan said, was that whereas athletes take defeats, injury, setbacks and an under-par performance as part of the deal, musicians are generally not trained or educated to assimilate such knocks. Music, she intimated, could learn from sports.

During the film, aerial drone footage directly above the improvisors showed a couple of people standing and listening outside the wall, and others further away, lying on the grass oblivious to the music—a tableau that seemed to represent jazz and improvised music's high-castle detachment and the need for outreach to bring new audiences to the music.

Three panels under the umbrella title Routes Into Jazz highlighted some of the obstacles to inclusion, as well as some of the great work being done to make jazz a more welcoming home.

What Does Inclusion Really Mean?

The journey is the thing, as we keep hearing, not only from jazz/improvising musicians but from all manner of modern gurus of mindfulness and well-being. The journey, however, is much tougher for some than for others.

This was abundantly clear in what was arguably the most important discussion over the two days.

Roger Wilson, (Director of Operations, Black Lives in Music) moderated the session dealing with inclusion in jazz. He began by noting that such discussions usually play out before an audience of the converted. He urged everyone present to take up salient issues and raise them in their constituencies.

Emilie Conway, singer and co-founder of Disabled Artists and Disabled Academics Campaign for Human and Cultural Rights (DADA) pointed out that the challenges facing disabled artists are not just the disabilities themselves, but the barriers imposed by attitudinal, environmental and systemic conditions. Conway urged people, and policy makers in particular, to listen to people with disabilities, as they know better than anyone the challenges that they face.

Conway related how, in Ireland, a disabled artist cannot earn over one hundred and forty Euros a week without having their disabled support cut off. "When you take the risk to grow as an artist, " Conway expanded, "you are faced with then having to take on the full financial burden of your disability, as well it being in a very precarious field."

Gideon Feldman, activist for the disability advocacy organisation Attitude is Everything, noted that over 16 million people in the UK have some sort of disability or long-term health condition—around twenty per cent of the population.

Research also showed, he said, that seventy per cent of the deaf and disabled artists that Attitude Is Everything has worked with have withheld details of a health condition from a promotor, venue or festival because they are afraid of being seen in reductive terms as "a disabled artist" or else are simply afraid of not getting booked.

The majority of deaf and disabled artists, its research also showed, "have had to compromise their health or well-being in order to do their jobs."

Most disabled professionals, Feldman related, drawing from studies, believe that barriers to disability have negatively impacted their careers. But statistics only tell half the story because many disabled professionals actually disqualify themselves from applying for a job, knowing or believing that barriers will exclude them anyway.

Petitioning local political representatives to bring about legislative change in support of disabled professionals, engaging with the media to highlight the issue are nothing new to those fighting for recognition and support. But as Conway said, it is time and energy-sapping: "It's a whole other job holding the sector to account, just so that you can do your work, you know?"

Solutions? In short, wider societal activism. Feldman detailed a campaign called Just Ask, whose objectives are to normalize support for disabled professionals. This includes making disabled artists more confident about sharing their access needs: by asking what their needs are in every job advert; by asking what their needs are on every promotor's website; by asking what their needs are on every musician's information pack and rider.

"Do you, or any of your crew have access requirements that we need to know about?" This should be the norm, Feldman said, right across the live events industry.

Women

Long marginalized in jazz and in jazz histories, women have made progress in recent decades, though the fact that there are far fewer women than men in conservatory jazz programs, or the fact that women's jazz festivals and educational programs/summer camps for girls and women are deemed necessary, suggests that there is still a long way to go as regards female inclusion in jazz.

The problem, again societal, came across loud and clear in a short film presented by Helena Summerfield of Jazz North's Jazz Camp for Girls (JCG), a summer school for girls inspired by the JazzDanmark model. In the film a young girl remarks of the opportunities often denied girls in schools: "The boys were always the ones who were going into the orchestra, so the girls didn't really get a chance to play."

Summerfield, a woodwind specialist and educator outlined JCG's primary aim, namely, to provide the right environment for girls to come into their own as musicians and improvisors under the mentorship of female role model.

The first edition of JCG in the UK took place in 2019 in four cities. In the film, a number of girls spoke very positively about their experiences of JCG, making friends of the same age and of the same musical level, having fun learning new skills and really getting the chance to express themselves without fear of judgement.

As a footnote, it should be that JCG and Helena Summerfield received the Jazz Educator of the year (UK) Parliamentary Jazz Awards 2022. Anyone interested in attending JCG can find details on Jazz North's website.

Ways of involving and Supporting Young Musicians from Pre-School Upwards

Orphy Robinson moderated this panel. The general consensus was that the younger the children the more open they are to learning music and that involving parents in their musical development is key. This fact was brought home a little later in the afternoon when another musical interlude saw MOBO-nominated drummer David Lyttle lead combos of young children from JazzLife Alliance, a youth talent development program.

After the gig the children spoke of their increased confidence in other areas of their lives, such as speaking up in class. While the father of two of the children broke sweat acting as the roadie, their mother spoke of the changes in their children since joining the JazzLife Alliance program. "They are more keen to play, more confident, absolutely. They get such a buzz from doing shows like this and it kind of fires them up for a long time after it."

Earlier in the aforementioned panel, Paul O'Reilly of the Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra recalled his own experience with music growing up in the Northern Ireland of the 1980s when civil unrest was a daily occurrence. He related how music cut through the political, cultural and religious divides that blighted everyday life, bringing together young people who would otherwise almost never collaborate together. Even sport, he noted, was very rarely able to act like social glue in the same way due to sports' tribal nature in Northern Ireland.

As the two parts of Ireland face up to the increasingly likely prospect of unification, whenever that may be, musicians will likely be at the forefront of collaborative projects that bring together people from formerly divided communities—politically, culturally and geographically. The children of today in The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, when seen in this light, are potentially the country's future ambassadors of harmony.

Funding is essential in establishing music education programs such as JazzLife Alliance, Jazz Camp for Girls and many others like them, but as Robinson pointed out, these economically straightened times will require some serious conversations about where the money is going to come from.

Pauline Black, lecturer at the University of Aberdeen provided more food for thought when she said that young people deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic may still have confidence barriers to overcome. Nobody knows how the pandemic will affect children's educational and personal development, but music could be one very important tool in helping restore lost confidence and dulled social skills.

Representation and the Currency of Expertise

The conference program was packed, perhaps a little too packed, as on each day three discussion panels ran simultaneously. If you attended the session examining career-building in jazz, which among other things discussed how musicians can act as promotors and educators, as well as ways to tour nationally and internationally, then you missed the session that looked at different models of crowd-funding your project, widening the volunteer pool and jazz promotors of the future.

Earlier in the day, Emilie Conway had emphasized the logic behind artists with disabilities professionally petitioning political bodies and funding organisations, as they know their way around their disabilities better than anyone else. Similarly, to the question of where the promotors of the future are coming from, Belfast pianist/composer Scott Flanigan suggested that musicians themselves will be the ones best placed to promote bands and touring, drawing on years of personal experiences both good and bad.

In the evening The Black Box was the venue for four Irish showcases. The following morning, the conference proper once again sank its teeth into some meaty subjects.

The Challenges Facing Jazz

The second day of the JPN conference began with a sort of five-countries, state-of-the-jazz-nation panel. Steve Meade (Artistic Director, Manchester Jazz Festival), Tomos Williams (musician, Wales), Kenneth Killeen, Creative Director, Improvised Music Company, Ireland), Brian Carson (Founding CEO, Moving On Music, Northern Ireland) and Claire Hewitt, (Music Officer, Creative Scotland) surveyed the jazz panorama, the strengths and weaknesses, in their respective countries.

Meade recognized England's eighty-odd jazz festivals, its touring organisations, the widespread voluntary sector, clubs and promotors in sizeable urban centres and "a really diverse and talented artist base" as great national assets. With regard to the general reliance on funding of one sort or another, Meade echoed a more broadly held view among the JPN delegates that this is not a commercially viable model. A mixed model, that is to say, part-funded, part commercial, requires human resources and is directly linked to the audiences and their economic circumstances.

It was refreshing to hear Meade relate the fortunes of jazz to England's socio-economics, acknowledging the gap in spending power between the wealthiest and the widespread social and economic depravations across the country.

The challenges going forward, he suggested, where about how to reinvent existing working models to respond to changing environments. "It will require us to change, and that is really hard." Food for thought, indeed.

Brian Carson spoke of his beginnings as a promotor and the founding of Moving On Music against the backdrop of Northern Ireland's political strife in the 1980s. The daily conflict, a low-scale civil war in effect, fostered an underground arts scene where there was " a great sense of community." Ironically, perhaps, Moving On Music faced one of its biggest challenges when the ceasefire came about in the mid-1990s. "The audience started to dwindle because people had other alternatives because there wasn't a war going on."

The audiences have come back, however, and have returned after the pandemic as well. Carson spoke of the importance of networking across the whole island of Ireland and acknowledged the role of An Chomhairle Ealaíon (the Arts Council Of Ireland) in facilitating and supporting such cooperation. The jazz scene in Ireland is relatively small, Carson said, and it makes sense to view it as through an island-wide lens.

The challenges going forward, Carson noted, were to build a solid music community and to find a solution to the "very precarious" funding situation. "We have a good Irish network and I think it is important to strengthen that and rebuild the community feel of this music."

Trumpeter Tomos Williams leads Burum, an original band that places traditional Welsh melodies in a modern jazz context, and the Indo-Welsh band Khamira. He identified the lack of venues in Wales as a major obstacle. Furthermore, the Welsh Jazz Society lost its funding over a decade ago, since when the Welsh jazz scene has dwindled significantly, Williams lamented.

There are, however, a number of reasons for optimism. During the pandemic James Chadwick started a Facebook page where he uploaded a daily video of people from every corner of Wales playing jazz. "It really engendered a feeling of community—it was quite an incredible thing."

Williams and others have founded Cymru Jazz Wales, an organisation whose aim is to support jazz musicians in Wales. Then there is Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers, a network traversing Wales that promotes gigs, works with young musicians and, in January, will launch a project focusing specifically on female musicians. "These are all really positive steps that are happening because some of us are willing to stick our necks out," Williams said.

The aim, just as Brian Irvine had noted beforehand, is to encourage a feeling of community within the Welsh jazz scene, promote a touring circuit and establish a jazz education camp, possibly in the Snowdonia region. The Welsh jazz community, he stressed, cannot just be the jazz program in the college in Cardiff, it needs to be in clubs and jam sessions in the towns and cities, into which the college jazz scene then feeds.

There is plenty of reason for optimism about the future of jazz in Wales, Williams said, but it will require some thought and of course, funding.

Claire Hewitt began by underlining the quality and inventiveness of the musicians on the Scottish jazz scene. Players—and audiences—are coming through regional structures such as youth jazz orchestras and university courses. Scotland's geography—the heavily populated central belt, the southern rural regions and the highlands—has a large say in touring possibilities. Aside from the main festivals, year-round promotion is undertaken by promotors and musicians, a mixture of voluntary, funded and commercial events.

Budgetary pressures, rising operating costs, falling incomes as recession bites and post-COVID recovery against the backdrop of Brexit provide the main challenges for Scottish jazz going forward. Hewitt described it as "the perfect storm." Even prior to COVID, there were more musicians in Scotland than there were available gigs. New skills and perspectives will be needed to support jazz in the future, Hewitt said, possibly learning from other music genres, their touring models and music development organizations.

Kenneth Killeen began by observing the great similarities between the five nations in terms of the challenges the jazz sector faces. Interestingly, he described jazz as "turbulent," with regard to the "separate identities that are emerging, distinct and separate from the initial or heritage identity of this music." Jazz has become a meta-genre in the process and therefore harder to promote in a unified way, Killeen implied.

Strategic promotion of the music in the five nations and on a wider international level would need national and international funding that "requires everyone to be on the same page with regard to what it is and where it's going."

Killeen recognized the potential of JPN to steer such strategic promotion, as well as to help local and national organisations "zoom out" and make connections beyond their usual parameters. However, bringing a band form one country to play in another is pretty meaningless, Killeen cautioned, unless there is "a longer-term strategic vision around it... "

Funding Jazz

Following a brief breather, a panel discussion with representatives of funding bodies from the five nations peeled back some of the layers surrounding funding for jazz across the UK and Ireland. It revealed much about the funders' own challenges and the need for strategic funding of jazz. This appears to be no easy task given that jazz is, as one panellist described it, an "historically fragmented" sector "where everybody does their own thing." The role of promoters and organisations like the JPN was recognized as crucial in bridging the divide between musicians and funding bodies.

When the session was opened to the floor one long-standing volunteer in live jazz promotion bemoaned the often-convoluted funding application process, opining that the system seems to reward those who are good at writing applications and not always the most deserving projects.

Stephen Davis

A welcome musical interlude came with a twelve-minute solo set from Northern Irish drummer Stephen Davis. In the past two-decades plus, Davis has performed with Marc Ribot, Evan Parker, Alexander Hawkins, Elaine Mitchener and Anthony Braxton and is one third of the celebrated improvising trio, Bourne, Davis Kane.

A laptop provided a woozy drone as Davis worked his drums, augmented by an array of bells, mini-gongs and wooden rattles. The meditative reverie gradually gave way to an intense exploration of drum-skin and metal, with bass drum boom and stormy cymbals lending contrasting accents throughout. A hypnotic, transporting performance ended on the same meditative note with which it began, ushering in a wave of enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Elsewhere at the JPN ... Wrap-up

Post-lunch there were sessions on different models for touring circuits, presenting showcases at home and abroad and audience development. Long-term strategy was a phrase that popped up in all the discussions. In the post-Brexit panorama, there was clear determination across the board to demonstrate a willingness and capability to work with European partners—-festivals, venues and promotional organisations. More than one delegate mentioned the unifying work of the Europe Jazz Network in all the above-mentioned fields.

The EJN, representing 183 organisations in 34 countries plays an ever-more important connecting role in these times of conflict, right-wing ascendency and political divisions in Europe. Similarly, though across a geographically reduced area, the JPN is growing in importance as an umbrella organisation that advocates for jazz. In doing so it seeks to bring people together, to work together, develop new partnerships and, as Brian Irvine said at the very beginning of the JPN conference, to play together. Such basic principles are increasingly significant given the fractious nature of UK and Irish/N. Irish politics.

The JPN conference highlighted positive developments in the UK and Irish jazz worlds, such as jazz camps for girls, talent development for children, green touring initiatives (the wave of the future?) and savvier showcasing of bands. There is still much work to be done in developing new funding models, promoting disability rights and in numerous other areas where better practices are needed. How much further progress the JPN makes on these fundamental matters, and others, will become clear when the JPN conference 2023 convenes in Birmingham, England.

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