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Presenting Problem

Duncan Heining By

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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.


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