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.