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Sarah Ellen Hughes writes:
The Worshipful Company of Musicians presents two awards annually to jazz artists in the UK. The first is the Jazz Medal for Lifetime Achievement, previous winners of which read like a Who’s Who of British Jazz – Sir John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttleton, George Shearing… the list goes on. This year the medal went to Norma Winstone.
The second is the Jazz Medal for Young Musicians, the competition for which was hosted last night at the new Pizza Express live venue in Kings Road SW3, The Pheasantry.
This is a competition unique in the fact that the jury is the audience on the night. Six musicians are invited to take part in the competition, and have to perform together for two sets, playing music that has not been rehearsed. At the end of the evening, the audience cast their votes as to who has impressed them the most, not just with their individual musical ability, but more so with the way in which they accompany and support their fellow musicians on stage. I found this to be a relaxed and honest way of judging a competition – no row of judges scribbling notes at the back; just a room full of appreciative and attentive jazz lovers.
The musicians nominated for the chance to perform are initially chosen by a panel of respected persons on the UK jazz scene, who each put forward a young musician – ‘young’ being under 30. The nominated musicians are then whittled down to a selection of six musicians that will comprise a band – therefore giving equal opportunity to rhythm section players as well as horn players – to perform at the live competition event. (More information on the selection panel and the selection methodology can be found on the WCOMJAZZ website)
The very first winner of this medal was Tina May back in 1992 – when in fact the medal was decided in a different way; singers are no longer eligible for the award. Tina is now an important part of the competition, playing the role of ‘guesting singer’ with the band for one number, in order to demonstrate the ability of the band members to accompany a singer – an incredibly important skill in jazz. Tina also started off the evening with an enthralling set with pianist Nikki Iles. Wonderfully poised and with effortlessly soaring melodies, the pair set the scene for what was to be a most enjoyable evening of jazz.
The Pheasantry has a lovely music room, complete with grand piano. However, the stage – which is more suited for a jazz trio – heaved under the ridiculous squeeze of 6 musicians, plus instruments, plus music stands. As jazz musicians, they have all mastered the art of ‘coping!’
This year’s competitors were:
Nathaniel Facey (alto sax)
Tom Farmer (bass)
George Hogg (trumpet)
Daoud Merchant (drums)
Alex Munk (guitar)
Ross Stanley (piano)
The set was chosen by the musicians about an hour before the show – and they were late onto stage because they were still discussing things out in the stairwell! A few well-chosen standards, and some of the musicians’ own compositions made for an interesting and well-balanced set. The point of this competition though, is that the competitors should not have played together as an ensemble before – although only a small amount of research will tell you that Tom and Nathaniel are in Empirical together, and as they are all busy on the London Jazz Scene, it is unlikely that none of them would have met or performed together over the years anyway. Nevertheless, they had neither before played as a sextet, nor performed in this situation before.
While the votes were counted, we were treated to an impromptu jam session featuring some stars of the audience: Andy Panayi, Tim Garland and Norma Winstone who sang ‘A Timeless Place’ – a reworking of Jimmy Rowles’s ‘Peacocks’ that pianist Nikki Iles (who had been up since 2am) played entirely from memory.
The Young Musician’s Prize went to Nathaniel Facey, who will perform at a victory gig during Spring 2011 at a London venue with a band of his choice.
Having seen this competition before, and found it to be a very difficult and not particularly musical experience, I continue to wonder why the Worshipful Company doesn't just award someone a scholarship, or give them a gig. This would equal the same thing, except that they wouldn't have fight it out with other musicians in a bizarre quasi-X factor atmosphere in a genre where clearly the best musicians play for each other and not themselves, supposedly making it impossible to decide. What is the point? It implies that to get any kind of break, we have to scrabble around fighting each other for a small amount of money. Seems a bit too much like entertainment rather than art, reality tv show style..
Well, Anonymous, I did the competition as a jazz musician and I didn't feel anything that you have described. I've done a lot of competitions before and I think this one is the best one I've ever done because of the way they do it. Most competitions are highly political and have a judging panel that has it's first three picked before the final round even performs. Furthermore, the judging panel are the only ones who make the decision (so 3 individuals who could be highly biased towards one of the performers, or not…) get to choose. Also, in any competition that I've done before I've had to prepare a great deal of material and then perform with a 'house band' who plays with every single competitor and by the end of the day they look like they are going to keel over and die– this is unmusical in my opinion. However, what the WCOM does with their competition is simply throw a few nominees up on stage and says 'come up with a program of standards' and present it to us, your audience,' which is a very musical way to do it, cause everyone can play a tune, no stress! And then all the audience picks their favorite performer based on musicianship skills, professionalism, presentation, group interplay, etc. and that's it. And the audience is a sophisticated one, not a surface level general public herd of sheep like in the X factor– most everyone is either a musician, a jazz musician, or affiliated in the arts/music and is an avid supporter of music or even philanthropist. There is no X factor at all, or I certainly wouldn't have done it… There is no judging panel sitting there 'molding us' or telling us how to play to make money, etc… they simply ask us to present a program of tunes, which any jazz musician worth their weight in salt should be able to do and in a musical way. When I did it we made music together, I had a blast. Furthermore, they pay each of the contestants a very decent wage for the nights performance, whether or not they win. And then when you did win (I won) they give you a good chunk of money towards a future event, and all expense paid recording for this event including mixing and mastering, all in all a scholarship of over 1,200 pounds in my estimate. Furthermore, the WCOM is completely organized by volunteers and has a jazz committee that is putting on events year around and many times if the event loses money the company will actually cover it out of their own pocket… I hardly doubt Simon Cowell would do this if one of his acts after winning didn't sell out wembley… So, what I'm saying is that in my experience and opinion, they got it right, 100% and they should be applauded for their efforts of keeping jazz flourishing, and there is nothing X factor about it– there is always going to be something wrong with the idea of jazz competition or music competitions, but I would argue from experience that the WCOM has figured out the best way to do that I've ever seen.
Dear Anonymous, I am sorry that you don't like the way we do this gig. As Chair of the Committee which runs it, I am happy to take the rap openly and debate it with you any time, and will buy the first drink while we chat – if you will come out & admit who you are !
We run this gig at our own risk, with our own funds, in a way which we like and which distinguished jazzers like John Dankworth, Andy Panayi, Tina May, Martin Taylor and Tim Garland approve. I'm happy to debate it with you; here are a few points for our agenda when we talk :
* No musician is forced to take part – we offer them a gig ( as you suggest) for a good fee, and they can accept or reject it as they wish.
* Most young musicians regard it as an honour to be invited to compete. I can now admit that more than one of this year's competitors were substitutes for first choices who could not make the gig; those first choices (some of whom have competed before & are being asked back) have all asked to be invited again next year. They think we are doing something right !
* With one exception, I can't remember a participant who didn't say that they enjoyed the experience, particularly the unrehearsed playing with people they have not played with before.
* I disagree with your statement that the Competition is a not particularly musical experience. Extemporised music created in real time by talented players has a uniquely exciting dimension. There may be the odd bum note, but successful risk-taking can create marvellous music which cannot be made any other way.
* We make it clear that a criterion for success is supporting other musicians as they play. Jazz is a collaborative art-form where people enjoy helping each other to perform better, and – despite their competitive instincts – our competitors visibly enjoy the good music created by the rest of the band on the stage, even if that success diminishes their own chance of winning. I see that year-in & year-out; if you don't you have a tin eye !
* The cutting contest has a long and respected history in jazz; while respecting each other, jazzers have always enjoyed saying “let me play you this, and then see whether you can do better”, and the resulting music is often terrific.
You ask “what is the point ?”. My answer is twofold:
* Wonderful risk-taking stretching music on the night of the competition gig.
* Recognition (financial and reputational) for a young musician on the threshold of a real career.
Our competition recognised Andy Panayi,Mark Nightingale, Tim Garland, Jim Watson, Steve Brown, Leon Greening, John Escreet, Tom Cawley, Michael Janisch, and others when they were starting out in jazz. They would all say that the Worshipful Company's recognition and gig fees have helped them remain successful in their chosen careers. What's not to like about that ?
SIGNED Nigel Tully. Chair, Jazz Committee, WCoM.