Jacks been thinking...about Monday's Jazz Open Space

Our regular Friday columnist Jack Davies attended Monday's Jazz Open Space. Only constructive comments on this post will get published. 

There is a febrile energy in the UK Jazz community, a common recognition that things are not as they should be. Monday’s Open Space session at the Conway Hall, organised by Jazz Services and the Musicians’ Union was the latest effort to put some change in motion. The discussion was triggered by a remark to MPs and peers by Arts Council England’s chair, Dame Liz Forgan [cf. London Jazz article].


Rosie Hanley has summarized Monday's discussion. It raised a lot of issues. But the elephant in the room is that financial reality for jazz music can be very bleak: I was lucky enough to play four sold out or nearly sold out shows during last week’s London Jazz Festival, and my total earnings amounted to £41. When costs are factored in (rehearsal space, work turned down), I made a loss in the hundreds pounds.

The truth is the UK jazz industry is on the brink of being an amateur affair. I mean that in the original sense of the word – a reflection on the fact that artists love this music so much that they are willing to subsidise it themselves. I, like many of my friends, earn my money from teaching, and this income subsidises my music making. My classical musician peers receive subsidy, they have salaried jobs to aim for, and a multitude of organisations there to support them. For jazz graduates, there is no National Jazz Orchestra to guide them, no National Jazz Centre to put on concerts and give them performance opportunities. Once out of college, the only help to aim for is Jazz Services’ Touring Support Scheme, which in itself is under threat following a savage budget cut. It is for this reason the young jazz community has created and supported its own venues. There is a downcast acceptance amongst my generation that there is virtually no money or support for creative British jazz.

The great bassist Peter Ind spoke at the Open Space session about the need for passion in this debate. But that word encapsulates the very thing that is wrong. Those with a real love, a real dedication to this music are being made to suffer financially, and that should not, and does not have to be the case.

Open Space as a system of debate suffers from the lack of a chair-person, which would allow those less well known or confident to make their contributions heard. Discussion was largely steered by the esteemed and the eloquent. Equally, the jazz community as a whole suffers from a lack of musician-led professional oversight and guidance. It is often not our best musicians who receive critical acclaim and the associated performance platform – it is those who have been best at creating (that most offensive of terms) a “buzz” about themselves. Arts Council funding applications do not favour those with the strongest musical statement, they favour those who know how the system works.

There seemed to be a consensus on Monday that we need a strong organisation to galvanise us, to give us a voice, to lobby, to give us something to aspire to, to help those that need and deserve assistance.

In my opinion the jazz community is lacking two things: finance and leadership. The former will only follow when the latter is in place, and we cannot wait around in the hope that someone else will solve our own problems. We need leadership, we need action, and we need them now.

Jazz Open Space Website

9 comments:

  1. Mark Beirne -Smith writes:

    Hmmm.... some interesting points here, I did feel that the article was a little depressing. Are the jazz Musicians the right people to lead jazz?

    Creatively I completely agree, however there are a group of specialist music industry and business people (record labels, club owners, management companies), when basing the success on financial gain (making a profit) they would be more qualified to do this… whilst musicians do what they are good at – making music.

    I always find it interesting that jazz musicians complain about the lack of funding for jazz and the amount classical music gets. Surely these are two different beasts, classical music has always had sponsorship whether it be private or government, jazz came from a meeker background to rise to become the popular music of the day.

    Surely if a model is to be followed it should be that of the Blues or Folk. Just as a point in Yorkshire I would expect to pay £10-15 to see a local folk act… I pay £5 for a local jazz act and sometimes its free. This is setting an expectation already and the only ones to change this would be the club owners, not the musicians, who wont as they may not fill the seats at the increased pricing?

    As for Jazz musicians having to diversify, all entrepreneurs have to do this and have multiple streams of work coming in till one takes off. In jazz there are lots options:Gigging (festivals, clubs private functions), Self promoted gigs, CD sales, Teaching, Arranging, Session work, Waiting tables.

    Jazz musicians are more fortunate that classical musicians in this respect as most of Jazz is in smaller groups so the percentage from cd sales and gigs is bigger.

    I do feel that Jazz musicians seem to think that they should be funded, Why?Pop/Rock musicians aren’t, they have built up a business around the music that is profitable for all involved. The way pop artists make money is by selling their wares to a large audience…

    Maybe the way to make a living out of Jazz is to have a larger audience? To do this the musicians and existing audience need to stop making Jazz feel elitist. Many of the people I know say that they would like to go to a jazz gig but they don’t understand it… my answer nowadays to them is that they don’t need to understand jazz, their role is to enjoy it.

    But why do they ask this question in the first place… they don’t of any other genre (as most of them are not musicians) or any other art form. The other misconception is that jazz is for the older generation of men who have beards and wear sandals… May be Jazz just needs a PR guru to change its image? Then the larger audiences will come, then there will be more ticket sales and then the musos will get paid more? I personally don’t think that musicians are ever going to be ‘passionate’ about the business, they would do better rather than having a ‘musician led’ guidance some sort of business led guidance and expertise.

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  2. Mark, I'm sorry you found the article depressing. Conservatoires are very good at preaching the "portfolio career" - though "waiting tables" should not be an expectation of jazz musicians (!).

    I massively disagree with you about the pop analogy, though you do highlight one of the biggest problems we encounter as jazz musicians. There is an expectation that we will play "nice" music, music which can be talked over, and music will attract people and earn us money. Yes, we can do this, and yes, we might, but jazz is a form of art - and should be treated as such. It is not light entertainment. Jazz started life as popular music, but is no longer this - Ellington was among those who strove to emphasise jazz as concert music, art music. The modern inference of this is that is music worthy of, and in need of public funding.

    I addressed the pricing issue in another article, but, as I was discussing on Monday, raising the price of Jazz @ the NLT to £10 would still come nowhere near to giving musicians a decent fee, and would only serve to drive audiences away.

    The issue of who should be steering things is interesting - though again I entirely disagree with you, the last thing that should be a driving force is profit.

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  3. I've written about my experience and opinions from Jazz Open Space on my blog. I believe increasing funding is the equivalent of fixing the roof of a house with a limited foundation. It's necessary, but will only last if there is strong support from the ground up. For the music to be truly treasured, and thus funded, we need to implement jazz studies much more into the comprehensive education system. This will not only increase the diversity of future jazz pioneers, but it will also increase the number of people championing it.

    Will

    http://bit.ly/rEUfz6

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  4. Hi Jack,
    Thank you for your excellent article. There does need to be more discussions like this. I truly feel jazz is just as viable of an artform in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the financial support is not anywhere near what it used to be. Being from the States I'm not as familiar with the London scene. Do you feel it's like that all over Europe?

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  5. I couldn't agree more with many, if not all of your points. I just spoke with someone from a "prestigious" restaurant looking to bring in live jazz music for their "affluent clientele" - for free. Needless to say this is becoming the norm, and someone, without the musical knowledge and experience of a professional will take the gig and everyone suffers - that is, the jazz community and perception of jazz as a whole. We need leadership, but with so many different circles of musicians, how do we band together? The system will only continue in this direction until we come together and make the changes ourselves. I think a day of silence from musicians, across genres, for all gigs public and private would be a start...

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  6. I was also at the Open space discussion.
    The idea of getting the creators in a room together worked, but yes, it needed mediation. More time spent on these topics would help 'out the demons', get the stories out and maybe on day 2 let us get into clear thought discussions.
    I came away very positive and connected to what I do as an artist.
    There's no getting away from the fact that inventive art is elitist...I mean people usually don't go to the Tate Modern everyday as an example. Improvised music, whether it be re-inventing standards or new music, has been around a long time so it's not the art that should stay still....we are the avant garde pulling society along. Example; Musique Concrete is all over Electronica, Dance Music etc
    Some audiences use art as a way of connecting with their higher selves (not meaning to get overly highbrow here...sorry), some prefer to be entertained, in a sense disconnecting from their working day.
    I agree we not only need the finances & business direction sorted but we also need our audiences paying for this elevation from their surroundings. A transaction.
    My favourite meeting on the day was "What are we worth?". On my next gig, I'm going to ask my audience this but turn it around to them; "What are you worth?" then play some absolutely all encompassing genre busting music because they're worth it.
    Improvised music flexes the brain like nothing else & it's not folk, classical, pop, rock but it's all of these too. It's in every music form at some stage of the process. Improvised Jazz bears this process on display.
    The next Open Space should address some of this threads issues. Lets have the 'bean counters', 'middle managers' & 'jazzers' in discussion. Start thinking who you might like to invite to this & firstly invite them to your next gig so they can analyse it from their own perspective, from their own 'art'. If they're any good at their jobs, they're probably improvising on a daily basis and have more in common with Jazz (taking their logic technical brain to solve problems in real time) than they do with orchestral music (scripted performance or at least step-time composition).
    I once did a workshop with an RME lecturer co-teaching groups of university education students about to graduate. The best comment of the week came from a self proclaimed pop-music fan who described the Cecil Taylor track I played them as "sounds like real life".

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  7. Hello Jack, thanks for the article. Some interesting points raised both within this and in the comments section. I do have a number of quibbles with your argument, and I hope to make these clear.
    Firstly, one of the main problems with funding jazz is who to give the money to. Do you give it to the musicians direct or to the venues? How do you ensure that the money will not be squandered by either party? How do you differentiate between people that are creating good jazz and bad, and split the funding accordingly? To my ears, there's plenty of bad jazz being played out there, however peoples opinions on the subject differ radically. Probably if there was more jazz funding to be had, it might end up it the pockets of someone like Courtney Pine. One of the reasons Classical music gets more funding must surely be that it's a more quantifiable idiom. You have pieces of music which have basked in the glow of critical acclaim, not to mention the adoration of audiences, for decades. And you can tell very quickly if they are not being played well. Also, classical music is very popular with audiences, but needs funding because the whole thing is on such a grand scale-in orchestras anyway-so many people to pay etc. I'm sure Keith Jarrett doesn't need much funding when he sells out concert halls.

    I have trouble accepting what you say about jazz and 'art' music.

    "jazz is a form of art - and should be treated as such. It is not light entertainment."

    Well I certainly agree with the first part of the statement. However what you are saying overall implies that there should be concert environments where people willingly give up their precious free time and money to sit in silence and listen to musicians improvise on 'serious music' that they have never heard before, and derive some sort of satisfaction or enjoyment from this activity. Well, no offence but I think that this is asking way too much of an audience.

    The trouble with jazz is that it is a very egotistical art form. It quite often ends up being about 'me and my tunes, my solo, my band.' Be bop, post bop and other historical forms are in danger of falling foul of the 'it's my turn now' attitude to soloing, where everyone in the band has a few choruses on each tune. Modern jazz falls foul of the proponents of the music feeling like they have to present original compositions and to make them very 'hard'-unusual time signatures, harmonies and forms, the net result of which is that the music sounds impenetrably serious to the uninitiated listener. So, my feeling is that to expect people to listen and enjoy jazz, musicians could at least improvise on a tune that people know, or present original music that's actually SAYING something. Funnily enough, bands that do achieve this seem to do rather well-phronesis for example.

    Having said all this, of course I do think that jazz should get more funding than it does. Maybe this could come in the form of sponsorship for jazz festivals. However the audience for jazz must not be neglected. Musicians need to consider their audience when composing or compiling their music. This does not mean 'dumb down', rather it means consider that your audience might comprise people other than fellow musicians. I also think that there should be more exposure for jazz, and other art music for that matter, on TV. European countries put us to shame in this regard. Why is there not a bbc channel devoted to the arts on terrestrial television? Guaranteed this would elevate people's thinking, and bolster gig attendance. The general public might even develop a conciousness of what jazz is, and a respect to match.

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  8. I agree with much of what you say, except for the "asking way too much of an audience" part. Yes, a lot of great music is very pleasing to listen to on the most basic level. However I find there is a lot of great music that is at first extremely difficult / uncomfortable to listen to, and that in the long term makes me think a lot more, makes me challenge my own preconceptions as a listener. If someone presents a tune that is just a line on a standard my brain starts to turn off - it's 2012 not 1952. But the great thing is that this is personal preference. Both attract different people, both are valid.

    I've been to the Vortex many times and been in a room full of people sitting in silence listening to extremely challenging music. It's not too much to ask. Yes, it's not for everyone - just as some people would rather look at conventional portraits or paintings, others look for a different thing in visual art. Both are equally valid, and it's vitally important to have people doing extremely weird things.

    It was Ellington that wanted jazz to move from the dance hall to the concert hall, so we're in esteemed company on this issue.

    Personally I would not be doing gigs that take months to prepare for £7.50 if it was for the sake of "entertainment" and not something deeper than that. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same.

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  9. Also... (sorry Seb for seperate comments!)

    Full time big bands playing non-commercial music are just as un-viable financially as an orchestra. Yes, a big band is 17 people rather than 100+, but it is still not possible to recoup on the box office the fees needed for rehearsal time, rehearsal space etc. You also seem to think that classical chamber music is unfunded. This is very much not the case, it receives a large amount of subsidy. It should, that's great, but so should jazz. I think most classical musicians' eyebrows would be raising over the "quantifiable idiom" comment, too, and Beethoven was one of the original egotisical musicians. Food for thought..

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