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Photographing the World's Best Jazz Scene

Bruce Lindsay By

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JazzLife UK—a simple idea. I'll spend much of 2010 travelling around the United Kingdom photographing the jazz scene and asking some of its members what they think about the current state of UK jazz. I'll photograph musicians, venues, performances, rehearsals, sound checks, record label executives, promoters, agents, presenters, DJs and anyone or anything else that forms part of the UK scene. Then in 2011 there will be exhibitions and, with luck and good judgment, a project book. Simple.

The JazzLife UK Facebook page is up and running and I'll be charting my progress with a series of articles here at AAJ. In this, the first of those articles, I'll give some background to the project and the UK jazz scene as I see it.

The project was inspired by William Claxton and Joachim Berendt's great photo-book Jazzlife. The book was originally published in 1961, based on a 1960 road trip taken by the photographer and journalist through the major jazz cities of the USA. In mid-2009 I decided to document the UK jazz scene is a similar way—but by means of a series of trips across the whole year, and alone rather than in partnership. My aim is simple—to photograph the UK jazz scene in all its diversity across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—although whether I will come close to achieving this aim remains to be seen. But why bother? Arts Council England didn't seem to think I should, as it rejected my request for (relatively modest) funding and questioned why my attempt to photograph the jazz scene across the whole of the UK needed to involve quite so much travel.

But bother I will—because I believe that the UK jazz scene in 2010 is as vibrant and exciting as it has ever been and because, for my money, it may well be the finest jazz scene in the entire world. Not the biggest, or the most commercially successful, or the best known, or the most media-savvy—but the best in terms of innovation, ability, inventiveness, enthusiasm and openness to new ideas and influences. We have an amazing array of people running venues, club nights, festivals and other events—often for the love of the music, not for money. We have a diverse and innovative array of record labels, publications, promoters, PR and management companies. We have a growing body of emerging players, still in their 20s, with the potential to create plenty more great jazz in the coming decades. And there is a real sense of optimism among many of us about the future of jazz in the UK. I'm not alone in thinking that this is the best jazz scene in the world. Of course, some people may hold differing views...(but that's what the AAJ Discussion button is for).

The UK jazz scene isn't perfect. British jazz musicians own relatively few country mansions and Ferraris compared to the rock music fraternity, the media under-report the music and musicians, it's hard to find jazz on mainstream radio and virtually impossible to find it on mainstream TV, it has a definite image problem among the non-jazz loving public, it can take itself too seriously and parts of it have a worrying tendency to feel sorry for themselves. Apart from that it seems to be in great shape.

Chapter Index
  1. UK Jazz in 2010
  2. JazzLife UK: The Beginning
  3. February 2010

UK Jazz in 2010

2010 started rather oddly for the UK—much more snow than we are used to, travel chaos when more than 5cms of the stuff fell in any 24 hour period, nationwide salt and grit shortages caused by an over-abundance of icy roads, the coldest winter in 30 years and a British Gold Medal in the Winter Olympics. It's also an election year and the party political machines are already regaling the British public with ever more bizarre attempts at humanizing our politicians.

The jazz scene isn't immune from this strangeness, but apart from a few cancelled performances a brief burst of wintry weather isn't likely to have any long-lasting effect on UK jazz. Sadly, the first major jazz-related event of the year will have such an effect. On February 6 2010 Sir John Dankworth, one of the most influential and most popular of British jazz musicians, died at the age of 82. I only met Sir John once, briefly, when I photographed his performances at the 2009 Norwich Jazz Party, where this photograph was taken—I had high hopes that I would be able to photograph him again this year, for JazzLife UK, but it isn't going to be. His death was reported by the national media, not just in the jazz media, because Sir John was that rarity among British jazzers—a jazz musician who was known, loved and respected outside the relatively narrow confines of the music itself.

JazzLife UK: The Beginning

JazzLife UK got under way on January 23rd. The British winter delayed the start of the project, when the first event I was due to photograph—in rural Norfolk, where I live—was postponed after heavy snowfalls. But JazzLife UK got off to a flying start with a Saturday afternoon performance by Martyna, an excellent new vocalist from Milton Keynes who mixes her own beautifully-written songs with standards. Martyna started out in the acoustic singer-songwriter scene but has made the transition to jazz with ease. She's now working on establishing herself as a jazz singer—her willingness to drive to Norwich to play a free afternoon gig in the Arts Centre bar says much about her ambition and self-determination.

As an emerging UK jazz artist Martyna is optimistic and upbeat, but aware that making a career from jazz is an uphill struggle. "There's so much fresh and exciting new jazz talent emerging from the UK at the moment but it needs broadcasting support to sustain itself" she says. "Jazz is experiencing a rise in popularity and it would be nice to see this reflected on the radio..."


JazzLife UK's second January event featured saxophonist Gilad Atzmon—one of the UK's most talented players. Atzmon played with the resident trio at the Green Man in Rackheath—a village pub in the Norfolk countryside where Barbara Capocci and her husband Mike (the trio's pianist) have run the Tuesday night jazz for many years. Amazingly, given the level of talent the club attracts, admission is free. Atzmon gave a terrific, energetic, performance. He's a controversial character whose views can often polarize opinion, but he's also open and friendly with an occasionally bizarre sense of humor.

In contrast to Martyna's considered opinion about the UK jazz scene, Atzmon is more outspoken. When I asked him for a few words about the UK scene he took me to a corner table and gave me enough material for an entire article. His love of British jazz is obvious, and his opinion of the current state of the scene is high—but it is not an opinion that will endear him to everyone. "I play music," Atzmon says "I don't give a shit about jazz. One of the most positive things to happen to jazz is the collapse of the [record] industry. We are free again to produce music for beauty. I don't care about genres: the only thing that matters is the aesthetics. [Once again] we can move between territories and between genres."

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