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.


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