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Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt 1 – You're Special!

April 13th, 2009 | 8 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

photo of Lawson/Dodds/Wood live at the Vortex by Richard KabyI’ve been meaning to write this for ages, but the inspiration today came from trying to find a link to send out to Asaf Sirkis And The Inner Noise’s album ‘The Song Within’. I couldn’t find anything but 30 sec clips, and lots of links to buy it.

The frustration of this was no so much not being able to hear it (there’s plenty of other great music out there, and I tend not to get too hung up on specific things) it was the inability to tell people about a specific album that would help promote the music of some friends (both the guitarist and keyboardist on it are friends of mine). Added to that is the assumption that there’s some kind of commercial advantage in ‘hiding it’ over letting people hear it then pay for it if they

  • want the hi-res files
  • want a CD
  • are grateful for the music and want to help out the artist

These seem to be points that are completely lost on the UK jazz scene, so I’m going to write a couple of open letters to them with some suggestions. This post – Part 1 – is my perception of where we’re at.

The psychological state of play as it stands isn’t great for UK jazz. Mainly because of the ideas informing its notion of ‘success’. This is so sad given its fantastic quality and originality. The potential audience for it is huge, given the popularity of equally experimental musical forms in the Electronic and Post-Rock worlds.

Sadly, so many of the UK’s jazzers are actually apologetic about their own music. Very few speak about what they do with any sense of pride or acknowledgement of its value, even to them. They look expectantly at The Mercury Prize panel or Q Magazine reviewers for some scraps of recognition, all the while ignoring the option to interact with their current and potential audience online. And to make matters worse, most are grimly hanging onto the idea that CD sales are everything, shop distribution is key to success and that they must keep their music ‘jazz enough’ for the jazz clubs to book them.

So here’s what I love about UK Jazz:

as compared to US Jazz, the simple and most startling difference is that almost none of us grew up listening to jazz. Even fewer were immersed in it in the way that so many young American musicians would’ve been. In the 70s/80s, it certainly wasn’t considered ‘our’ music, so those of us with an interest in difficult music gravitated towards prog and the more esoteric end of the pop/art-rock world. We grew up listening to Yes, Japan, Genesis, Marillion, Duran Duran etc. rather than Miles & Coltrane, Duke & Bird.

For most of us our route into jazz was via a gateway drug – for many rock musicians it was via the shred-guitar world – or more specifically – via guitar mags we bought because Steve Vai or Billy Sheehan were on the cover but also featured stories about Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and even Jim Hall or Joe Pass. For others is was singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell. For many it was King Crimson and their massively-ahead-of-its-time experimentation with jazz/rock and improv to prog and even pop audiences.

So when we started playing jazz it was always ‘jazz plus‘ or ‘jazz through a lens‘. It’s what made the music of Loose Tubes and The Jazz Warriors so interesting in the 80s.

But on top of that we DO have a unique heritage in jazz, that has pioneered a movement worldwide – the free improv scene of the mid/late 60s and everything that’s happened since. It’s a sound, an approach and a philosophy about music that was more of a reaction against the strictures of jazz, rather than a step-wise progression on from them… So many of the UK jazzers have an element of that free ethos in their playing, even those who have little sense of the non-idiomatic ideology that informed it.

UK jazz is, at its best, what David Torn describes as ‘pan-idiomatic’ music – jazz is the easiest umbrella to group it under, but it’s also a limitation. While the music is certainly in the experimental lineage of the history of jazz, much of it would just as easily sit in a rock club or a dance music venue, a field at a festival or a gallery space. To limit it to the jazz world seems insane.

It’s vitally important that those of us who play non-pop, instrumental music do some serious thinking about what it is we do. At the moment, the terms are set by the supportive-yet-protectionist world of jazz journalism, jazz funding (Jazz Services perform a much-loved and vital role providing Arts Council grants for jazz and improvised music tours), and we really need to think bigger than that, while hopefully taking them with us…

So, in part II, I’ll make a few suggestions and throw it open to you lot to suggest other ways forward for the jazz scene in the UK…

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Chris Bestwick

    Hi Steve.

    Good article! I don’t want to second guess what you might be writing in part two, but here’s my two penneth.

    I think jazz should be the perfect place to try out the “give away what can be copied and charge for what cannot” idea. One of the characteristics of jazz is the improvised, in the moment, nature of the music. It makes sense then for jazz musicians to make the recordings available for nothing (with the option to pay, as you’ve pointed out) and then charge for the gigs.
    For this to work in economic terms the gigs have to be both good and, to a certain extent, scarce.
    I think this is where jazz musicians sometimes let themselves down. There are just too many unrehearsed, scratch gigs – the Sunday lunchtime gigs with the bassist you’ve never met before, the quiet Wednesday evening jam sessions in front of the same 12 people, the private parties, and of course the weddings (oh God, the weddings.. :)
    Why is someone going to pay to see you play at your “big gig”, when they can see you play in the pub for nothing, and how can you convince them that what you play at the big gig is worth hearing when they usually hear you playing scratch standards on Sunday lunchtimes?
    I think jazz musicians would be better off writing more original tunes, rehearsing more, and performing less (that’s to say, focusing their performances on the rehearsed, original material).
    I would broadly characterise myself as a jazz player so I know the above suggestions can be hard to carry out, both from a financial point of view because it’s difficult to pass up opportunities to get paid, and because we just like to play!
    After living in London for many years and then moving to Helsinki I think that the Finnish musicians get this balance right more than the UK ones. Take the Five Corners Quintet for example: they play good, original material; they’re really well rehearsed; you can’t see them playing every week, either as a band or as individuals, and as a consequence their gigs sell out, (and as a by-product they also sell a lot of CDs).
    I think UK bands and musicians could learn something from their example.

    Looking forward to part two..

    Cheers,

    Chris

  • Chris West

    Hey Steve

    Although the style of music is very different the first few paragraphs of this apply to the stoner rock/stoner doom genres (and all the other related niches).

    It’s really frustrating to be part of a scene and style of music that has so many artists and lovers of the music (and these are some really passionate fans, they literally live every second of their life engulfed in the power of a good Riff) that are still stuck in the CD music business model; restricting what people can listen to and expecting MySpace and record labels to help them on their way to becoming the next Kyuss.

    I’ve often heard bands finish every set they play with a shout along the lines of “Now go buy our CD so we eat/afford our petrol home”. You all work bloody day jobs you fools and I don’t wanna buy you CDs because they take up valuable space in my house. Put your stuff on last.fm and I’ll be listening.

    The hard part is trying run my band outside of this model when the entire industry surrounding it is so stuck in the past. By industry I mean bands, fans, promoters, record labels, zines, webzines, my bandmates etc. related to these genres.

    It’s not all bad though and there are some forward thinking people in the scene. There are also countless mp3 sharing blogs that allow people to discover more new music than they could possibly listen to. These are my current heroes as their love for the music is so obvious and they spend their free time discovering and sharing new and old music.

    I’m going to have to go and listen to Passion and Warfare after seeing Steve Vai’s name in your post.

    Chris.

  • Phil Wain

    I viewed it initially with some trepidation . . not entirely sure why – maybe it’s my deep love of jazz why but your post made complete sense, Steve. The audience is there – it’s a matter of connecting. So many people who wouldn’t go out and buy a ‘jazz’ CD really enjoy a live concert when the music is created there in front of them.

    UK jazz is interesting – and incredibly diverse. Jazz has an incredible ability to absorb (or collide with) other musics.

    I usually try to ditch genres as they stand as a barrier between the musician and the audience as often as they provide a connection. But with jazz, it’s more than a genre – it’s a language, culture and history which each note played relates to – however tangentially.

    Chris Bestwick. I can’t agree much of your comment I’m afraid. It’s the spontaneity and vitality of live performance in improvising and responding to the moment that makes the best jazz so exciting – it’s not pre-arranged, rehearsed music. As a musician, you’re not going to find me rehearsing more then the bare minimum unless the gig is highly paid enough to warrant it: that’s time away from my family and it’s often wasted time. I’m happy to work on charts at home; practise along with mp3s etc – there are many other ways to improve a performance than extensive rehearsals.

    I also believe we should go out and play et every opportunity – that’s the way to build up a rapport with an audience and raise your profile. If I see some fantastic jazz musician at a local bar or park and get the chance to enjoy that or maybe even chat with him/her I’m more rather than less likely to pay to see his or her big concert hall gig.

    Audiences are sophisticated enough to recognise that a low key session in a bar will be a completely different performance than a large scale gig. And musicians constantly surround themselves in a range of contexts and line-ups sparking something new (hopefully) in every show.

    The whole issue of musicians financing themselves to make creative music in developing music scene is a problematic one . There is a whole generation now who consider music to be something that they should have for free and we have to be creative in finding ways to survive. Fortunately we have some forward thinking cats like Steve around. If jazz music is out there freely in some formats it is the only way to get the wider public hungry for more.

  • Phil Wain

    And I somehow missed off the end that I am actually more optimistic about creative music in the new developing music scene.

  • Chris Bestwick

    Steve

    I hope you don’t mind me using your place to respond to Phil (I’m assuming that part of the intention of these posts is to spark discussion :) ).

    Phil – I definitely take your point about the improvised, in the moment nature of jazz (I think I mentioned it myself) and I wasn’t meaning to imply that we should rehearse all the spontaneity out of it. I meant it more as part of the process of getting original material together, (itself part of the circular process of getting better, and better-paying, gigs which in turn pay for and make the initial rehearsals worthwhile). I think that going down that road would mean that there would be fewer standards-based scratch band performances, which in my opinion would be a good thing because I think to an extent people form their ideas about jazz based on such performances.

    The reason I think this can be a problem is that, while I agree with you about the ability of jazz-savvy audiences to tell the difference between the big gigs and the pub gigs, I also think that jazz has to move beyond its small, core audience to reach the non-jazz loving person in the street, to whom jazz is too often seen as the stuff played in the background in the pub when they’re eating their Sunday roast, or while they’re waiting for the DJ to start at the wedding. They haven’t seen Branford Marsalis at the RFH, or any of the less famous but wonderful British players at the Vortex, the 606, (Jazz After Dark :) ) etc..

    I don’t mean we have to dumb down to reach these people – quite the opposite; I think jazz is at its most attractive when it’s intense (or relaxed!), emotional and inspiring, and I think that, a little paradoxically, the way to reach out to this audience is not to physically play scratch-band standards jazz in as many places as possible, but rather to play the best original music we can in the fewer, recognised jazz venues, and widen the interaction online in order to get new people to come along and give jazz a try.

    Like you, I’m also optimistic about the future of jazz in the new environment. Maybe I’ve just done more bad gigs than you! I vividly remember one gig break feeling trapped in a toilet cubicle at York Racecourse while the heavy-set blokes outside discussed what they wanted to do to the idiot who’d booked this jazz-bollocks.. It felt a long way from Ronnie’s :)

  • Phil Wain

    Interesting points Chris, and yes I think I’ve been there regarding the last one. I guess it’s a question of balance – there was certainly a stage where there were too many jazz sessions everywhere which must have been cheaper for the club-owners but pretty tiresome for audiences. I am still excited by what can be done with standards but it needs an original approach but the last thing we need are a bunch of guys going through the motions on unfamiliar tunes.

    Steve, sorry for the external debate here. We should get back to the blog maybe. UK Jazz does need a different view of success and to catch up to speed with how the Internet has changed the musical playing field.

  • Patrick

    Steve,

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    I get irritated by the inferiority complex sometimes displayed by British jazz musicians – and many British jazz fans – towards the music created in this country: as if they have to go to the States to prove themselves.

    But I disagree with some of the things you say – well, not so much disagree as see a different emphasis. I think jazz has always been a hybrid music – it is literally a “folk music”. The origins of jazz borrowed from many traditions – just as blues did: as well as blues, other American folk musics, European classical music, church music and so on.

    It is natural that musicians and composers incorporate what they hear in other genres or styles into their own composing or playing, and jazz – British and otherwise – has assimilated a lot of other musics. Indeed, it is jazz purists (such as Wynton Marsalis…) who do their peers a disservice.

    One of the advantages Britain has had is its access to other cultures: from wartime GIs bringing their music over the Atlantic, the post-war immigration from the West Indies and south Asia, to the political exiles of South Africa and the closeness of mainland Europe. All these have infused British jazz for decades.

    Even the free-improv scene was borne out of players who played with these various exiles.

    I don’t know where the inferiority complex comes from. Maybe it is because jazz is seen as “art” – and so doesn’t attract the commercial success of pop – and yet isn’t supported as other non-popular musics are. (By the way, a similar inferiority seems to work between jazz in regional centres and London – perhaps down to the media focus on London.)

    Does British jazz need a manifesto? I think not – because if you try to pin down what it is, something will be lost.

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