JAZZ AND THE BBC
This week a critical report about the BBC was published by Jazz Services, the Arts Councul-funded organisation that supports the music. The corporation, says the report, should increase the broadcast time and the support it gives to British jazz. The BBC has been getting such complaints since the 1920‘s. Water off a duck’s back, then?
Not entirely. These are times of openness, so both Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3, and Lewis Carnie from BBC Radio 2 accepted the invitation to speak at the public meeting earlier this week launching the report.
What is extraordinary is how little some of this debate has moved on. Jazz historian Alyn Shipton has rummaged in a BBC postbag from 1925. There wasn’t enough jazz on the BBC, people wrote. Or there was too much. Or else it was the wrong sort of jazz. Or it was the right sort of jazz, but at the wrong time. All those arguments still figure in this week’s report.
There were already other complaints in 1925 which raised thornier issues around BBC’s original Reithian mission: what about all that sinful, degenerate jazz music seeping into the classical music schedules? Or, alternatively, why must the BBC pander to minority taste in its popular music programmes? Eighty-five years on, those debates still rage in some quarters.
On classical Radio 3, the report’s authors complain, jazz is a paltry 3.3% of scheduled programming. On popular Radio 2, minority jazz hovers below 2%. The BBC rebuts both these figures, which, they say, leave out the jazz which pops up on, say, Late Junction on Radio 3, or on the new Chris Evans Show on Radio 2.
But one thing which has changed is the energy and confidence of the British jazz scene. The past few years are being described as the most exciting period in jazz in Britain since the 1960’s. There’s a dynamic young, resourceful jazz scene around the UK music colleges. World-class musician-led collectives of all generations promoting gigs abound, not just in London, but also in, for example, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
The meeting addressed this change well. Wright, impressive, acknowledged the need to look for ways to help this smaller scale jazz extend its reach into local radio stations. The BBC’s disparate output of jazz, he also admitted, is hard for listeners and viewers to navigate round.
As for Lewis Carnie, he gave out some programming news. Jamie Cullum will take over the 7pm slot on Tuesdays on Radio 2 from April 7th. In the autumn, expect a new ten-part history of jazz.
Maybe the only certainty is that the BBC will keep on getting letters. The real challenge for the broadcaster, is to reach the large potential radio audience of people who – in the immortal phrase of John Peel’s producer John Walters – will find “what they didn’t know they wanted.”
Over eighty years of jazz on BBC channels have proved that this music is quite incapable of either getting quietly into its box, or of fitting obediently into the BBC’s schedules. And audiences are changing. The young are increasingly open to sampling the new and the unexpected. Jazz, soul, blues, latin, it’s all out there, and it’s all just music to the Ipod generation.