The Wire

In Writing

Collateral Damage: Dan Spicer on the corporatisation of jazz

December 2013

Jazz is radical music, so why is it funded by big business? asks Dan Spicer in The Wire 359.

I was lucky. My decision to try and find out about jazz in my late teens coincided almost exactly with the launch, in March 1990, of 102.2 Jazz FM, a London based commercial radio station that I could pick up 30 miles south of the city in my suburban bedroom. I spent hours with a blank cassette in the cheap plastic midi system, finger on the pause button, taping anything that grabbed me, without a clue who any of the music was by. In the process I was introduced to a host of exotic names including Thelonious Monk, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. I still have the tapes, simply labelled JAZZ in red felt-tip pen. They sound good, nearly a quarter of a century later.

Sadly, the current incarnation of Jazz FM – now digital only – is a paltry, diluted echo of the station that first fired my hungry synapses. Tune in at any time of day or night and it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear the walls of Jericho thunder of hard bop, the deep trance dream of modal jazz or even the superhuman sports jams of fusion. Instead, your ears will be smeared with a smooth, homogenous blend of soul and R&B. The closest you’ll find to jazz might be Nina Simone, Ray Charles or a late Louis Armstrong chart hit. With the exception, perhaps, of the soporific purr of Helen Mayhew’s Dinner Jazz, you probably won’t hear any instrumental music at all. In conversation last year, a DJ currently working at the station confirmed my suspicions: Jazz FM operates a strict songs only policy in order to appease and reassure advertisers keen not to have potential customers driven away by anything more challenging than Ella Fitzgerald singing “Mack The Knife”. Too much jazz, it seems, is bad for business.

So, my expectations weren’t running especially high when, in July 2013, Jazz FM and its business partners inaugurated the Love Supreme festival: a three day outdoor event in the verdant grounds of Glynde Place, an Elizabethan manor house in the East Sussex countryside, promising campers a “modern, boutique, green field experience”. As it turned out, the festival’s name bordered on blasphemy. When John Coltrane made his life-changing spiritual pact with the Almighty, it seems unlikely he could have imagined that, half a century later, the heartfelt title of that statement of devotion would be used to present Jools Holland’s infernal boogie-woogie and the bland horror of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra to middle class twits standing in a field wearing straw trilbies and eating overpriced strawberries. The mainstream press – writing for exactly the same order of moneyed, middlebrow chatterers as those who attended Love Supreme – lavished praise on the festival. The Independent called it “a Woodstock moment for British jazz” – a statement so ludicrously devoid of meaning or any trace of sociocultural understanding as to be beyond criticism. The Guardian’s John Fordham more accurately suggested that “Jazz FM and their partners may find they have invented the British jazz world’s Glastonbury”. If he means they have created a situation in which punters can pay hundreds of pounds to attend an event with about as much artistic or spiritual integrity as an afternoon spent buying electrical goods on Croydon High Street then, yes, Fordham has indeed nailed it. No matter. The festival undoubtedly made a lot of money for everyone involved, and returns in 2014.

But this craven commercialism seems like innocent larks compared to murky goings on in the capital. In 2013, on the occasion of its 21st anniversary, the London Jazz Festival officially changed its name to the EFG London Jazz Festival, to reflect the acceptance of what it calls “headline sponsorship” from a Zurich based private banking institution. When I first learned of this, back in July this year, I checked EFG’s website and was shocked to discover an organisation that offered “the tax-efficient structuring, protection and transferral of wealth” as a key service (this description has subsequently been removed from the website). Let’s be clear: this is a euphemism for tax avoidance. I contacted the festival organisers through Facebook and asked them to explain how allowing the event to be co-opted by an institution devoted to protecting the financial interests of the one per cent can in any way be seen as a good or attractive thing. “It certainly seems to have very little to do with the spirit of jazz,” I suggested, “an art that was forged by people seeking emancipation from social, financial and spiritual oppression.” I received a carefully crafted response, explaining that “EFG are helping the festival continue to reach out to the wider jazz community and maintain the breadth and quality of our work. Furthermore, their values of excellence and reach fit totally with our own, which is why this partnership is of such importance to the festival.” When I pushed for clarification as to whether helping the rich pay less tax was also a value shared by the organisers of the London Jazz Festival, no further replies were forthcoming.

The cynical corporatisation of live jazz is by no means restricted to the UK. In his recent review of Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble and George Lipsitz’s book The Fierce Urgency Of Now: Improvisation, Rights, And The Ethics Of Cocreation, (The Wire 358), Brian Morton cites the controversial presence of a Shell logo at a New Orleans jazz festival, and the much reviled Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York’s Lincoln Center. Make no mistake, rather than helping jazz communities to flourish, this kind of corporate backing is slowly killing the music it claims to support. With increased commercial sponsorship paying for the London Jazz Festival – just as it is for Jazz FM – is it any wonder that the amount of genuinely revolutionary music at the event seems to have dropped off in recent years? In 2004, the first year I attended, the Royal Festival Hall hosted a mindblowing double bill of The Anthony Braxton Quintet followed by Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley. Now, though the festival still programmes some experimental artists, you’re more likely to find free jazz not in the flagship South Bank venues but ghettoised to north London’s Cafe Oto – a venue that succeeds in presenting genuinely challenging music all year round without resorting to iffy Swiss francs.

Call me naive if you like, but surely we, as a society, would be better placed to reach out and nurture all the arts – including jazz – at a grassroots level if we insisted that rich individuals and corporations pay their taxes. The extra billions could be spent on the arts just as much as on improved education, welfare and so on. Gladly handing arts funding over to private institutions such as EFG is simply one more example of power being taken out of the control of the people and gifted to the elite. It should be resisted. Who knows? We might even get a decent jazz radio station again.

Comments

Great! My name is Jasmine SPICER and my grandfather was the founder of that Jazz FM station back in the day! When they played jazz..... He bailed out (I think on somewhat stressed terms) when he too was upset with the gradual lean towards mainstream, smooth, rubbish... Nice article. Cheers!

Not sure I entirely agree with this. Brass jaw & Marcus Millar played at Love Supreme Festival this year ... I've heard a lot of modern, instrumental jazz on Jazz FM recently ... Some inaccuracies in this piece ...

I don't quibble with any of this condemnation of corporate sponsorship of what's supposed to be creative music. In my opinion, it doesn't affect those who play so much as those who present and listen, how music is offered. I cringe at the "coke" appended to Dizzy's Club, and won't buy that product anyway. But I must admit to benefitting immensely from the fact that really authentic jazz music from this venue is web livestreamed for free and somehow someone has to pay for technology that allows me to enjoy NYC players in real time thousands of miles away.

A good point, well made but things were ever thus. Similar criticisms were made about Newport in the 50s.
BTW,Ray Charles always has a place on Jazz station Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse A(S)3)

Thanks Janine.

[Just to make it clear, we don't share a grandfather or anything like that. My grandfather was the founder of a small family plumbing firm some time in the 1950s, but that's about it.]

A great rant, and far be it for me to want either to spoil the party, or indeed to try to undermine a great theory with inconvenient facts... but Mike Chadwick does present two weekly shows on JazzFM with the exactly the kind of music Dan Spicer can't find.

http://www.jazzfm.com/onair/presenters/all/mike-chadwick/

Also, I may have some very strange friends, but everybody I know who went to Love Supreme at Glynde this year tells me they had a wonderful time, and absolutely loved it.

We produced thirty-six reviews of the nearly 300 gigs of the London Jazz Festival on the (unconnected, non-corporate, not part of the elite) LondonJazz News site, and from what I wrote or read or edited, I can't see any lack either of range or of quality in what was on offer in the festival.

In one sense they should (both) be commended. It can't be easy extracting money from corporates for any event outside of mainstream rock or teen pop. Lighten up...

Lot of issues with this piece. Can't really see the problem with Jazz FM putting their name to a festival that had some top acts on the bill - Kairos, Roller Trio, Gogo Penguin, Soweto, Arun, Brass Jaw, Troyka, Neil Cowley, Zara McFarlane... It meant the festival could go ahead and jazz had a field day (literally) getting lots of positive media attention and exposure.

Yes, Jazz FM plays a lot of pap I don't like; yes, Love Supreme festival had a few big radio-friendly unit shifters to help bring in the crowds that I won't go and see; yes, the festival's name was out of sync with Trane's original meaning of the phrase. Big deal. I want jazz to get to more people, and if I get offered a gig at a big event that'll help me do just that I'll do it. Let's hope it paves the way for more jazz festivals, *including* one that's just for the hardcore purists.

And please don't generalise all jazz music as being 'radical' and 'the music of the people' or whatever. It's not. There has been, and still is some amazing music that is just that but for the most part we're not soundtracking the revolution, we're making improvisation based music because we like it. Generalisations are largely why the music's got an image problem as it is - one that often means its more radical aspects don't get much attention.

If you want to support jazz at a grass roots level do something like donate to Jazz North East who just lost their funding or Jazz Services who help musicians get gigs. But don't complain about the opportunities that do exist to give the music a leg up. Gift horse/mouth/etc.

nope, no inaccuracies here, old sports.

you'll notice i was careful to suggest that you "probably" won't hear any good jazz on jazz FM, that it is "highly unlikely". i.e. not impossible.

i arrived at this conclusion through extensive research: dipping into the station first thing in the morning, over lunch, during an evening bath and just before stumbling into bed. all i heard was pap. believe me, i suffered for this article.

if you have to point me in the direction of one particular show where i might hear instrumental jazz, then that kind of reinforces my point, no? it's the exception that proves the rule.

as for the love supreme fest, sure, i've no doubt some people may have enjoyed it. people enjoy glastonbury too, and that's also a soulless, corporate nightmare these days. what are you gonna do? ok, maybe you enjoyed marcus miller and brass jaw. sorry, but they both sound hideously boring to me.

Bang on, Daniel. And I hate this implied notion that somehow "jazz" (or "the music") is something that needs to be supported or saved in toto, which seems to render these sorts of event above serious criticism. Good jazz with artistic merit should be supported, as should good music of any genre. The rest of it - which based on the embarrassing programmes for the Love Supreme fest or the LJF you'd conclude was the majority - can die in a ditch as far as I'm concerned.

yup Jasmine,
Dave Lee bailed out when he realised that advertisers wouldn't buy in as much, to real jazz. i hate that jazz fm had to dumb down to please the majority and worse, the advertisers. If you love real Jazz you will have to go to the USA to get a proper jazz radio station. ridiculous. Thanks for the article and comments

I can't speak for your JAZZ FM, but maybe you should try ours - JAZZ.FM91, Canada's only all-jazz station. We're listener-supported and community-owned, with no more than four minutes of paid advertising per hour. Try us out! You can listen at http://jazz.fm or download our free app for iOS and Android.

Music is a bit like religion - it can be used in so many ways
Guess we just have to be gratefull that once in a while someone
inspired actually has something to say to all of us in a personal way

Daniel, I think I can provide the station to meet your aspirations; KPOO community radio from the bay area San Francisco

http://www.kpoo.com/

Every Tuesday 20-00 UK time it hosts Uplift, the music of John Coltrane hosted by Wanika King-Stephens from the equally wonderful Church of St John Coltrane.

Truly a love supreme.

Well said Daniel. We try to play real jazz on ukjazzradio.com - even some free jazz! And it is now fairly easy to find interesting jazz on the internet from France and Belgium and other European locations.

But the real disgrace is that our so-called public service broadcaster the BBC pulled its sponsorship from the London Jazz Festival inevitably pushing them into corporate arms.

The sponsors are the patrons of the event, therefore they are patronising it - looking up it with condescension presumably.

thought provoking article.
The organisers of the London Jazz festival had a problem. For the last decade or so the official partner was Radio 3 meaning it was, license fee payers who funded it. Then the BBC had its budget cut by 25%, Etc
so The organisers of the festival had the option of downscaling the ambition or find another partner.

There were lots good, diverse and free of charge events at this years festival. I agree
EFG sounds like a nasty organisation but what is the alternative ?
Should the festival have been smaller and "purer"?
These are difficult questions !

thought provoking article.
The organisers of the London Jazz festival had a problem. For the last decade or so the official partner was Radio 3 meaning it was, license fee payers who funded it. Then the BBC had its budget cut by 25%, Etc
so The organisers of the festival had the option of downscaling the ambition or find another partner.

There were lots good, diverse and free of charge events at this years festival. I agree
EFG sounds like a nasty organisation but what is the alternative ?
Should the festival have been smaller and "purer"?
These are difficult questions !

Good work Daniel

thanks all. it's heartening to see this article generating so much positive energy.

there are, of course, pockets of good radio and radical action all over the place.

see, if you like, my own radio show, The Mystery Lesson, archived here:

http://mysterylesson.posthaven.com/

excellent article Dan, more like this please, and great to see that its opened up a discussion. Attack the wack!

"surely we, as a society, would be better placed to reach out and nurture all the arts – including jazz – at a grassroots level if we insisted that rich individuals and corporations pay their taxes."

Well said!

Very nice work, Dan! Thanks from Germany..
Here things don't seem to be as bad (or should I say '..as far yet').
For instance we have the very nice, big and high level Jazz Fest Berlin, which is government funded (mostly, I believe..)
But still the situation of Jazz music or small independent music and arts has been a point of discussion lately in Germany as well,as the funding is very small compared to what is spent on e.g. opera houses or orchestras (not to talk about saving financial institutions..)

And the test transmissions were so promising; covering all shades of jazz, no talking and no adverts - did you say, "Call me naive"?

Remember as well, the early days of Camden's Jazz Cafe - opening night, David Murray and Khalil El'Zabir, followed closely by gigs by Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor.

Not profitable enough, sadly. Look at the bills there now, and weep.

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