Roundup Report: 2013 Rethinking Jazz Cultures Conference in Salford

Val Wilmer and Dave Laing at the 2013 Rethinking Jazz Cultures Conference


Tom Sykes writes...

Around a hundred jazz people, ranging from professional musicians such as pianist Matthew Bourne to broadcasters such a Alyn Shipton, as well as eminent authors – Val Wilmer, no less – and academics from around the world attended the Rethinking Jazz Cultures Conference in Salford.

The conference started not with speeches or papers but a reception and exhibition at the Cube gallery in Manchester, featuring jazz related photos from William Ellis’s One LP project and Paul Floyd Blake, who was commissioned by Rhythm Changes to capture scenes from the North Sea, Copenhagen and London jazz festivals. Ellis’s black and white portraits showed well-known musicians each holding a favourite recording, whereas Blake’s pictures captured the relationships between festival audience and city, venue and surroundings, and jazz and commerce.

Additionally, Bill Birch was on hand to discuss his book Keeper of the Flame: Modern Jazz in Manchester 1946-1972, and live improvised music was provided by Matthew Bourne and Christophe de Bezenac (member of the Rhythm Changes team and saxophonist with Trio VD). The main part of the conference took place in the University of Salford’s MediaCityUK campus at Salford Quays, a good venue and next to the BBC – quite apt as jazz on the BBC entered more than one debate.

The first keynote was given by jazz historian and academic David Ake, whose topic was the ‘post neo-traditional era’ in America, and who suggested that the divisive influence of Wynton Marsalis and others was over and that jazz in a variety of forms is vibrant in American cities. As usual with jazz academics the mention of Marsalis provoked some discussion, and got the conference off to a lively start! As for the paper presentations, there were too many to review here, but the wide range of topics covered included jazz fusions, cultural politics of jazz, jazz and film, jazz around the world (with several papers on South African jazz), and symphonic jazz.

There was a ‘Jazz and the Media’ panel with two representatives from the BBC (Alyn Shipton, and Alexander Kan of the World Service), Ian Patterson of the All About Jazz website and Seb Scotney, all chaired by Tim Wall (who has conducted research on behalf of the BBC). Shipton revealed some interesting snippets about Radio 3’s jazz coverage, and that despite the BBC Trust firmly making the station ‘the home of classical music on BBC radio’ after the recent licence review, he hoped Radio 3 would continue doing what it currently does, even though there are fewer than ten hours per week of jazz on BBC national radio. However, the general view of the panellists was that listening habits and the consumption of jazz – due to various forms of digital media – is changing, as you will be aware by the fact that you are reading this blog article online!

The A-Ha Project
The conference also hosted a number of live jazz performances, ranging from relaxed standards played by the Haftor Medbøe and Alan Williams guitar duo to a free improv set from Bourne – Davis – Kane, where Matthew Bourne, always an entertaining performer, played cello as well as keyboards. There was also a performance by a band including two members of the Rhythm Changes project, drummer Nick Katuszonek and saxophonist Petter Frost Fadnes, the A-ha Project – a jazz interpretation of the music of the Norwegian pop group, reminding us that jazz can and should draw on any musical material.

The second keynote talk was given by American author and academic E Taylor Atkins, who has a genuine interest in jazz outside the US and who suggested that, in thinking about jazz in ‘diverse contexts’, time, place and culture are at the same time relevant and irrelevant. In her response to Atkins, Catherine Tackley made the point that there is a difference between ‘jazz in Britain’ and ‘British jazz’, and that the latter should be valued more highly (for example, young musicians are sometimes criticised for both using and not using national characteristics – ‘Britishness’ – in their music). This led to a discussion about the impact of the work of jazz researchers outside academia, which was a theme running through the conference.

Inviting Val Wilmer to discuss her work with Dave Laing demonstrated how a photographer (and a British, young, white, female one at that) could not only gain the trust of African American musicians, but tell their stories in a way that is valued by jazz fans and academics alike. The anecdotes she told about her wonderful photos were fascinating, and for me it was the perfect way to end a successful conference.

I hope this short report will help raise awareness of what is happening in the world of jazz research, and its relevance to the music.

Tom Sykes was involved in the organisation of the conference, which was hosted by the Rhythm Changes research project, led by Professor Tony Whyton and funded by HERA, investigating jazz cultures and European identities.

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