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Presenting Problem

Duncan Heining By

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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.

Then there were The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Motown and Stax, filtered through one of the all-time great pop shows—Ready Steady Go!. As the sixties moved to a close, there came psychedelia, prog rock, jazz-rock and jazz, folk, blues, Indian music and more classical music. As a result, when I came across more abstract, challenging music I persevered, though sometimes it took years to find the key. But I was lucky. Many people did not and do not now get to hear John Coltrane, Penderecki, Bach, Miles or Terry Riley at all, let alone in their teens.

It is not elitist to say this. It would be if we were to argue that jazz (or classical music or any art form) could only be appreciated by the minority—though some jazz fans do give that impression. If jazz is to reach a more sustainable and wider audience, those who might walk our way need signposts. I most certainly am not talking about dumbing down. Each late Summer in Britain, we have the Proms. The concert series now features such evenings as the 'Film Prom,' 'The Children's Prom,' the 'Doctor Who Prom' and, worst of all, the 'Jazz Prom.' The latter has featured in recent years, the cutting edge work of Ella Fitzgerald, Jamie Cullum, Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, though in fairness, I must acknowledge that one late night session at this year's Proms paid tribute to Charles Mingus. This has nothing to do with opening up the arts. It is patronising. Rather, the subtext here seems to be—"We know you plebs can't be expected to get all this difficult classical music or jazz but we have some social inclusion boxes to tick for next year's arts council grant."

What I am talking about is ways of presenting jazz that help people find meaning in the music, find a way to make sense of it all. Two of the most wonderful gigs I have attended over the years featured photographs projected behind the band. The first of these involved a commission by trumpeter Neil Yates called Sketches of a Northern Town, which was inspired by the changes that his home area of Greater Manchester had undergone over the years. The music drew eloquently on the British brass band tradition but was brought still more to life by the photography. That the music has yet to be recorded is sad, indeed. The other involved French bassist Henri Texier and his trio performing the music from his CD Ramparts D'argile. The use of back-projected photographs in no way detracted from the music but helped by placing it in context. In neither case were jazz or the artists demeaned by the connection with other media.

Or take Nils Petter Molvaer's use of live video. The visual aspect enhances the music. We used to call them light shows and the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane never felt diminished by the experience. It creates drama and theatricality. Such approaches stimulate the senses. And, of course, a sense of the theatrical was never far away with the 'new thing' in sixties USA. What about Sun Ra or Archie Shepp or Henry Threadgill or Julius Hemphill? And what about the Art Ensemble Of Chicago?

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