NEWS: Birmingham research project updates classic jazz TV for the modern age

Jazz 1080 in production
Photo credit: Ian Davies

Peter Bacon reports:

Remember Jazz 625? Well it’s been recreated as Jazz 1080 as part of a research project at Birmingham City University.

This academic reconstruction and updating, which looks ahead to the future of music television while considering its past, is described in a press release from the university:

“As well as encompassing archival research and interviews with former production staff, the study involved transforming the University’s main TV studio to simulate how a jazz programme was made. This included scrutinising the technical decisions faced by television crews and improvising musicians at each stage of producing such a broadcast.

“Following months of planning, on Tuesday 22 May, Birmingham City University’s TV Studio A was transformed to evoke the aesthetics of a 1960s BBC jazz programme. Led by director Mark Kershaw, and featuring a crew of former BBC employees and current Birmingham City University students, the team utilised cutting edge facilities in the University’s £62 million Parkside Building to precisely record the role of improvisation in the relationship between a television crew, their equipment and a contemporary working jazz group.

“In a loving homage to the legendary BBC jazz concert show, Jazz 625 – so titled because the newly launched BBC Two was broadcasting on 625-UHF lines (the HD of the time) – the Birmingham City University production has been named Jazz 1080, reflecting the technological leap in broadcasting since the 1960s. In order to realise this modern incarnation, the researchers and crew worked from original documentation sourced from the BBC Written Archive in Caversham.

“Presented by Birmingham rapper Juice Aleem, the 50-minute programme featured performances by rising stars from the West Midlands jazz scene. Xhosa Cole (tenor saxophone), Lee Griffiths (alto saxophone), James Owston (double bass), Euan Palmer (drums) and Eyituoyo Awala (piano) – known as The Xhosa Cole Quintet – treated the studio audience to classic works by renowned artists such as Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie."

The ambitious project came to fruition as a result of Dr Nicolas Pillai, based in the institution’s Birmingham School of Media, securing a prestigious Early Career Research Leadership Fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Dr Pillai, an occasional contributor to LondonJazz News, said the funding, worth nearly £170,000, is allowing him to look ahead to the future of music television, as well as considering its past.

He said: “Producing Jazz 1080 has changed the way I think about television. As an academic, it’s tempting to stick with what you know – documents in the archive – but this project is teaching me that you can only really understand the creative decisions of the past through reliving them. Production meetings with our ex-BBC crew have convinced me that what ends up on screen depends upon the dynamic of those working behind the camera.

“Nothing prepares you for the intensity of the production gallery during a live shoot, as your director guides the cameras around musicians in complex choreography. When you’re recording this way, as live in the manner of Jazz 625, the crew are improvising with as much dexterity and imagination as the musicians.

“For me, the most enjoyable aspect of the shoot was seeing our students leap into the unknown with such enthusiasm and energy. We asked a lot of them and they delivered with great professionalism. Our finished programme is a testament to their potential, as well as being a record of an exciting moment in the Birmingham jazz scene, personified by The Xhosa Cole Quintet.

“Ultimately, Jazz 1080 is a tribute to a way of working within light entertainment at the BBC. My hope is that our programme will turn the spotlight back onto a wonderful period of music television, when visionary producers like Terry Henebery changed the way that this country thought about jazz.”

Jazz 1080 is one output of the larger AHRC-funded research project – ‘Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969’ – and is being facilitated by the Jazz Research cluster at Birmingham City University, which is led by Professors Nicholas Gebhardt and Tony Whyton, as well as Dr Pillai.

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