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Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz Festival


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Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz Festival
Emma Webster, George McKay
136 Pages
University Of East Anglia

There was a time when London had more jazz festivals than you could shake a stick at. Most, however, have disappeared, leaving the London Jazz Festival, founded in 1993, as the flagship. Twenty five years is not old in jazz festival terms—the wonderful trad jazz festival that is the Australian Jazz Convention has been going since 1946—but in that time the London Jazz Festival has built a reputation as one of the best jazz festivals, indeed one of the best music festivals in the world.

This illuminating history is the result of a year's digging by researchers and co-authors Dr. Emma Webster and Professor George McKay, and represents the final outcome in the Impact of Festivals project funded by—take a deep breath—the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Connected Communities programme, which included studies on the socio-economic impacts of British music festivals and more specifically of jazz festivals. The authors' linear narrative of the LJF—jam packed with colour photographs—captures the sense of a great adventure unfolding, a romance, if you like, between the festival and its host city.

Placing London and the LJF within the wider context of jazz in Britain, the authors point out that whilst London was late to the party in terms of establishing a jazz festival that reflected the city's global status, there has been a fairly constant history of jazz festivals in or around London since the Festival of Jazz in 1949. Thirty years earlier, in 1919, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the African American Southern Syncopated Orchestra had both come to Britain, helping disseminate jazz and help cement, the authors claim, London's growing reputation as a "jazz age hotspot." Dedicated jazz record shops, magazines and clubs soon flourished in the capital, though jazz's course in London never did flow entirely smoothly.

From roughly 1935-1955, one of the most innovative periods in jazz history, the red tape of the Musicians Union meant that very few American musicians performed in Britain. Consequently, jazz fans packed the cross-channel ferries when Charlie Parker came to Paris in May 1949. Nevertheless, jazz flourished in Britain, with jazz festivals and jazz clubs mushrooming in the 1950 and 1960s. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s—and reflecting a wider European jazz confidence—British jazz was, the authors relate: "no longer reliant on American development, with a distinctive flavour of its own."

Trailblazers like John Surman, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone feature strongly in the LJF story but so too do the musicians from the South African diaspora, as well as those from the British Caribbean, African and Asian communities who have done so much to revitalize jazz/contemporary music in Britain. From Courtney Pine and The Jazz Warriors—the first black British big-band since the 1950s—to Gary Crosby and Arun Ghosh, from Soweto Kinch and Nitin Sawhney to Yazz Ahmed—not forgetting innovations such as drum 'n' bass and acid jazz—the rich plurality of London/Britain's identity has been reflected in, and in turn shaped the LJF.

A watchful eye on what is new in jazz and an appreciation of the unique and the distinctive in music have also been key elements in the LJF's programming decisions. Like any festival, the LJF has reflected key developments in jazz over the past twenty five years, but, the authors stress, it has also been a progressive force in commissioning new music and in curating collaborations between seemingly unlikely combinations of musicians.

With grass-roots social engagement a major part of the festival's ethos, the LJF has increasingly taken the music outside the concert hall to myriad public spaces and in doing so has brought the music to new audiences. Talent development, learning and participation are conerstones of the LJF and drive the festival's outreach programmes.

The story of the LJF is also the story of festival director John Cumming, who had previously founded Bracknell Jazz Festival (1975-1987) and produced Camden Jazz Week in the late 1970s. Cumming's early vision of jazz as a pan-cultural music, his desire to commission new music, his embrace of the then emergent ECM label and his recognition of jazz's pioneers were all aspects of his philosophy at Bracknell and Camden that he has brought via production company Serious to LJF.

No less important in shaping the LJF have been Serious co-directors David Jones and Claire Whitaker, and within the limited confines of this short-ish book the influence of both are duly acknowledged.

One of the recurrent themes that emerges from the book is the LJF's dedication to innovative and inclusive programming. Dance music—present from the very first edition—workshops, talks, films and a significant number of free gigs are all part and parcel of the ten-day event. A refreshing innovation introduced in 2014 has been the Professor-In-Residence program, which recognizes the growing importance of academic researchers and of critical thought in bringing beneficial insights to some of the major issues surrounding jazz today.

Some of the salient issues, such as jazz authenticity, jazz ownership, gender imbalance, art versus commerce, race and politics, jazz education, jazz in the media and so on, have also surfaced—positively and negatively—in the LJF's quarter century to date.

Without going into warts 'n' all analysis, the authors do highlight criticisms that the LJF has faced regarding the notable proportion of non-jazz music in the festival. Similarly, the issues of the under-representation of female jazz musicians and the perception that many artists play the festival on a repeated basis, perhaps to the exclusion of others, are also raised. A more penetrating academic analysis of the aforementioned issues was likely beyond the scope of this particular, celebratory history of the LJF.

Still, how the LJF has responded to such criticisms, both in justifying its policies and in pro-actively addressing them, makes for interesting reading. Accused in some quarters of being too populist, or in others of not being populist enough, it's often a case of damned if the LJF does and damned if it doesn't. Regardless of failing to please everybody all the time, the LJF has thrived—its 2017 edition attracting over 100,000 people to upwards of 300 events.

A large part of the festival's success can doubtless be put down to the key partnerships developed, the strategies employed and the ability to move with the times. Over the years, the LJF has cozied up to the jazz-loving politicians of successive governments, with The All-Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group hosting an annual private party at Westminster Palace to launch the LJF. State funding, and above all state-funded venues, have been essential to the festival's rude health. In fact, the LJF moved from its original May slot to November due to the schedules of the core funding bodies.

State funding, however, is just one part of a triple income stream, along with box office and canny commercial sponsorship deals, such as with current sponsors EFG -a private banking group of global reach. This avoidance of over-reliance on any one source of income has been key in keeping the festival moving forwards.

Other important collaborators in the LJF story include the BBC, which has projected the festival on a national level, the embassies and governments of numerous countries, the clubs and venues of London, and the European Jazz Network—an important umbrella organisation for the propagation of jazz.

The LJF is itself a significant umbrella festival, feeding into and drawing inspiration from the rich cultural tapestry that permeates London town. With hindsight, it might have been easier to condense all the festival events into one large venue space, rather than reach out to pretty much every borough in the city. It's not as if such a move hasn't been considered, although as Serious' former associate director of production Amy Pearce relates, the festival's philosophy dictates otherwise:

..."it is a big, sprawling city and we want the festival to reflect the city...The commitment to the scene is a big part of why we stay as we are because although you could do a Ronnie Scott's stage and you could do a Vortex stage, it's not the same as being at the Vortex or being at Ronnie Scott's and that's how it is...."

Above all, what Webster and McKay's book demonstrates is that by showcasing London/British artists as well as musicians from around the globe the LJF has continuously showcased London as an inwardly and outwardly dynamic, progressively-minded city. As the demographics and physical face of the city have evolved so too has the festival, absorbing and celebrating the new energies, and ultimately creating a jazz festival as unique and as vibrant as London itself.

What the next twenty five years will hold for the LJF and for London, particularly in light of Brexit, remains to be seen. New challenges for sure. New music too. And hopefully, new audiences. The journey is likely to be as fascinating as the first twenty five years recounted here in this well researched, engaging history.

"Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz Festival" is available free of charge as a downloadable PDF from the Impact of Festivals webpage.

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