Presenting Problem

Presenting Problem
Duncan Heining By

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Jazz often appears to exist within its own cultural and artistic paradigm, isolated from other arts and in its own discreet musical corner. Worse still from the perspective of those who would hope to make a living from it, it often seems that more people want to play the music than listen to it or, more significantly, pay for the privilege. No one would want to suggest that jazz should try to compete with the glitz and pomp of rock and pop or seek the status accorded to classical music. But the question of how it might reach a wider audience remains.

Jazz musicians are increasingly reliant on their own resources to produce, promote and distribute their own work. A record that sells a thousand copies pays for itself but one that sells ten thousand puts money in the artist's bank account. And, for some, selling even a thousand CDs is a hill to climb. The few independent record companies such as ECM, ACT, hatArt and INTAKT provide important channels for those lucky enough to record for those labels. Many small British labels like Babel, Edition and FMR have released some truly remarkable music and have built extensive and value-rich back catalogues in depth. But the resources of these companies have limits.

We are talking about sustainability and I, for one, doubt that the global jazz scene can sustain the current numbers of aspiring jazz hopefuls. As for the sheer volume of product, in some cases vanity product, that jazz fans must choose between, how much of this truly contributes to the sum of human happiness? We are not yet at a point where we must considering culling jazz musicians to allow the best to prosper. However, that point is closer than we think!

Another aspect to the problem is that of opportunities for exposure. My own position for many years as a writer has been to write about those musicians who find it hard to get access to mainstream jazz media and whose work seems to me most creative and valuable. Print magazines are, after all, dependent on advertising and sales. Their opportunities to provide space for left-field music is limited. Take one British jazz magazine, which at present sells around 5,000 copies per month. Double that figure and you increase the number of pages and coverage expands exponentially. But achieving that kind of breakthrough is not likely in the present or future climate.

Over the years, one has heard many suggestions as to how to address the problem—some laudable, many laughable. My personal favourite was the notion that we had to drop the 'jazz' word because 'young people' found it a 'turn-off.' After all, we have had such success have we not since we stopped talking about 'equality' and started banging on about 'social inclusion'? In Britain, after decades of equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation, women, non-white British-born citizens, people with disability or those from the LBGT community still experience massive discrimination in all areas of life. One must question whether a change of name would help or be in the interests of the music. Would a rose smell as sweet if it were called "faeces"? I rather doubt it.

There has also been talk about the need to present the music in new, more audience-friendly ways. I cannot comment on the situation in other countries, although my many visits to Italy always give me hope. However, in many regional jazz clubs in the Britain, the average age of the audience is post-retirement. The music focuses mainly on jazz vocals and bebop, the music that first engaged this audience, and on what I would call "Buggins' Turn" jazz, as musicians queue to solo on something or other from the Great American Songbook.

Jazz festivals, on the other hand, pull in the punters but leave a false impression that jazz in Britain is alive and well. Major city-fests—London, Gateshead, Glasgow—might draw on a wide age group but how many of these are dabblers and how many find their way into the clubs on a regular basis. It is in these clubs that the majority of musicians ply their trade. As for regional festivals, I have enjoyed attending several of these in the past but I have never had any trouble getting to the bar first in the interval. I might be in my sixties and have osteoarthritis but I can still outrun a Zimmer frame!

For me, at the heart of the problem lie issues of value.

One of the problems, as I see the situation, is that of vested interests. Again, I can only comment on Britain, though I am confident that the situation in the USA is very similar, if not even worse. I know quite a lot of people involved in jazz in the UK. I like them, most of them anyway. I know their hearts are in the right place(s). But I believe that there is a 'jazz establishment' in this country, a loose federation perhaps but an establishment nonetheless. And the problem with establishments is that they operate upon principles of inclusion and exclusion and tend to become increasingly divorced from the constituency that allowed and even encouraged their ascendancy. The answer here is a simple one—we need a greater diversity of producers and, most importantly, those producers need to work closely with musicians and fans.

But this still would not address the key question—how might jazz be presented so that it might open itself to a wider audience? I have often argued with a friend who is a percussionist and label owner on this issue. Their position is that people should open themselves up to a wider range of musics, that the problem lies in large measure in individuals and their unwillingness to embrace challenge. My friend points out that people deal with abstract music in the context of cinema or even abstract art in galleries, so why do they not find their way to the Vortex or Café Oto or the Warehouse in Leeds? For them, the idea that jazz should be expected to consider its presentation is demeaning to jazz as an art form.

My response is simple. To begin with, normative arguments achieve little. People should be encouraged to open in their thinking, though the sheer weight of the mundanity of the mainstream and ordinary is an ever-present obstacle. Simply telling people to look further afield and expand their tastes is unlikely to persuade anyone.

As for the point about cinema and abstract music, the days when Bernard Hermann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Mikloz Rosza, Elmer Bernstein and others drew inspiration from the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg are of another era. In the past, audiences were at least exposed to abstract music at the Roxy or Picturedrome but no longer. How many of you saw the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven? Do you recall that brief snatch of Elmer Bernstein's music for the original film that appeared as the credits rolled? I just thought to myself how damned ordinary James Horner's new score sounded.

So, what about the idea that the expectation that jazz musicians should concern themselves with presentation demeans them and their art? I no longer go to those places where four of five scruffy jazzers shuffle on stage and organise themselves after a fashion, before starting their set. In such cases, what comes across to me sitting in the audience is a peculiar mixture of arrogance, boredom and embarrassment. And believe me, the music is going to have to be bloody amazing to recover from that kind of opening. Nobody wants schmaltz or phoney showbiz or clowning but I do need to know that, for those musicians on stage, there is nothing more important than what they are doing at that moment.

I only own a couple of jazz DVDs. In the main, they add nothing to a CD of the same music. There are, however, some musicians who seem to have a natural presence on stage. One thinks immediately of David Murray, George Russell, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and, of course, Miles Davis. And one of my most memorable gigs was in Southend-on-Sea, when I had the great good fortune to introduce the wonderful Bud Shank. The sense of a musician entirely wrapped in the process of creation was palpable. But few musicians can convey that sense of moment.

Jazz is an abstract music and much of the music I listen to is at the more abstract end of jazz. These days, I go to very few jazz gigs. I would rather listen to a CD. There are exceptions but these are musicians who concern themselves with how they present their music. In doing so, they show respect for their audience. I am talking, in particular, about Mike Westbrook and Kate Westbrook, Tony Haynes and the Grand Union Orchestra and Colin Towns, though I am sure there are many others who deserve mention. But when I go to a classical music concert at Snape Maltings, I experience not only wonderful music but a sense of the theatrical. I very rarely find in jazz performance the intensity of concentration, the fire, the engagement that I see and hear with a symphony orchestra or string quartet.

Mrs O'Groove and I also go to a lot of contemporary ballet and dance performances. Last autumn, over one weekend, we saw the Ballet Rambert in Norwich and the Scottish Dance Theatre in Ipswich. The five dances we saw could not have been more different. They were humorous. They were mysterious. They were darkly disturbing and primal. But the passion and the way the dancers engaged with the music would shame many stars of the jazz world. I want to be challenged, to be made to think, to be transformed—and I find that more often in the classical and dance worlds than in jazz.

I will say it once again, jazz is an abstract music and it is an art. There are issues about where it might sit in the panoply of musics but our starting point requires the appreciation that is in the first instance 'abstract.' Abstract art, whether painting, sculpture, theatre, literature and poetry or music is hard. To discover such wonders often needs some kind of key to open their doors. I was fortunate. As a child and later in adolescence, I was introduced to a range of musics more or less as a kind of osmosis. I heard pop, the Great American Songbook, traditional jazz and classical music before I was ten. Cliff Richard and the Shadows were an aberration on my childish part but one of the very first records I bought was a Frank Sinatra EP.


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