Interview : Michael Connarty MP

The 2009 Parliamentary Jazz Awards have acquired special prominence in this year’s jazz calendar. When the BBC withdrew from running its Jazz Awards in March, this event, to be held in Parliament on May 20th, became the pre-eminent ceremony of the year.

The BBC (Radio 2) updated its position to me this afternoon, saying – verbatim – that it currently “has no plans to bring them [the BBC Jazz Awards] back.”

Michael Connarty

This week I interviewed Michael Connarty MP (above) , a leading figure in the body which is responsible for the Parliamentary Awards , All-Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group (APPJAG)* , and who will be presiding on May 20th.

Connarty, originally from Coatbridge, is a prominent Labour backbencher, and Chair of one of the essential workhorse Select Committees of the House of Commons, the European Scrutiny Group. He is MP for the 77,000 constituents of Linlithgow and East Falkirk, which contains the INEOS (formerly BP) Grangemouth refinery, and which is also part of Scotland’s light industry heartland. He therefore speaks in the Commons on a broad range of industrial and social issues.

Connarty got involved in APPJAG from the moment he entered the Commons. Why? “I just love the music,” he says. And you don’t have to look far in his Portcullis House office for the evidence that an important part of his heart is in jazz: the two largest pictures on the wall opposite his desk are the limited edition drawing produced after the death of Ronnie Scott, and a signed picture of Monty Alexander, “one of my great piano heroes.”

As a regular listener himself, Connarty has been actively persuading his parliamentary colleagues to get out and hear jazz throughout his seventeen years at Westminster. “I started by sending out fliers. quite a lot used to come up. Hazel Blears used to come up quite regularly. Kim Howells is a big jazzer…”

Connarty knows the London scene very well and keeps himself up to date. For example he was completely up to speed with the saga of Charlie Wright’s and the noise complaint.

APPJAG history (1)

When Connarty arrived in Westminster in 1992, APPJAG was run by founding Chair Lord (Tom) Pendry (Labour) Lord (Tony ) Colwyn (Conservative). Other figures involved were Stuart (later Lord) Randall, John Maxton, Ken Purchase. Lord Colwyn- a trumpeter- is still involved as Connarty’s co-Chair of APPJAG , and is effective in raising issues affecting jazz in the House of Lords.

In the early nineties, APPJAG mainly had a purpose to be sociable, inviting trad bands into the Houses of Parliament to play for MPs and peers , with sponsorship from Royal Mail.

History (2) Becoming more active/ developing a campaigning theme

The group started to become more active and activist with the involvement as secretary of Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North, who was responsible for instituting and gaining Vauxhall sponsorship for a NYJO week in June at Ronnie Scott’s.

Indeed a recent article on Hopkins’ website shows that his passion is undimmed, and underlines the importance of jazz as a music beyond class and racial barriers.

History (3) – more recent

The subsequent withdrawal of Hopkins from APPJAG brought Connarty to the Chairmanship. Until two years ago he was in partnership with Bob Blizzard, Labour MP for Waveney in Suffolk , who has a good knowledge of jazz- as secretary. This was until until Blizzard became a Treasury whip. The secretary is now Joan Walley, the MP for Stoke-on Trent.

In the period Connarty has been involved, APPJAG has increased its scope. In addition to the awards there are now three other activities each year – Jazz in the House as a curtain-raiser for the London Jazz Festival, a Youth Big Band eventin January supported by PPL, and Yamaha Scholarships . Ian Maund of Sandy Brown Jazz gives a good account of these activities HERE.

The Parliamentary Awards

The Awards started up in 2005 because of the involvement of PPL, who had previously supported youth jazz awards, and who were keen to take expand what Connarty calls the “parliament- music interface.”

“They caught our enthusisasm,” he says. The procedure for the awards is that the first list of nominations is invited from the public. For example, Connarty showed me that the full long list of nominations for Jazz Musician of the Year runs to two-and a half pages, and those for jazz venue to a page and a half.

A panel then reduces this list to a shortlist of just three per category. A complete list of the previous award winners is HERE. The members of APPJAG then meet and decide the winners. The MPs and peers conduct their own research.

As regards the guiding principle and ethos behind the awards, Connarty describes it as “ recognizing and celebrating a contribution to jazz ” rather than systematically “crowning the best of the best.”

A music which crosses classes

Through meeting Connarty, a clear idea comes forward as to how his love of jazz has a place in his political philosophy. The idea that jazz breaks down barriers of class, race and age has a firm place in it. As he says, one of the appeals of jazz to Connarty the politician is that it is “popular across classes.”

To this end, Connarty is keen to do what he can to assist the cause of jazz. He sees APPJAG as having a “constant campaigning theme” and takes a broad interest in the general health of the jazz scene , and keeps sight of the long term ambition “for more sensible jazz funding.”

On the question of visas for performers, Connarty also expressed a clear wish to help where he can : “I don’t know what it is about people in the industry. I only tend to find out when things have gone wrong Tell them to pick up the phone. The worst thing in the world is a gig getting stopped because people don’t have the right papers”

As regards now being in charge of the country’s most visible Awards for jazz , as a result of the withdrawal of the BBC, Connarty described his as having been one of “dismay”. And when I told him that the BBC hadn’t yet committed to reviving them, he expressed both surprise and clear disappointment.

On this issue, as on many others, there is work to be done.

The jazz community is lucky to have, in Michael Connarty, someone so passionate about the music, and so deeply sympathetic with the cause of jazz. And as an MP with an oil refinery in his constituency, he may also have more political gas in his tank than most….

(*) in close partnership with Jazz Services, with sponsorship from PPL.

Categories: miscellaneous

3 replies »

  1. A great relief to read about MPs with no mention of bath plugs, mock tudor beams or dodgy dvds. And useful to know who the good guys and girls at Westminster are.

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