There is a febrile energy in the UK Jazz community, a common recognition that things are not as they should be. Monday’s Open Space session at the Conway Hall, organised by Jazz Services and the Musicians’ Union was the latest effort to put some change in motion. The discussion was triggered by a remark to MPs and peers by Arts Council England’s chair, Dame Liz Forgan [cf. London Jazz article].
Rosie Hanley has summarized Monday’s discussion. It raised a lot of issues. But the elephant in the room is that financial reality for jazz music can be very bleak: I was lucky enough to play four sold out or nearly sold out shows during last week’s London Jazz Festival, and my total earnings amounted to £41. When costs are factored in (rehearsal space, work turned down), I made a loss in the hundreds pounds.
The truth is the UK jazz industry is on the brink of being an amateur affair. I mean that in the original sense of the word – a reflection on the fact that artists love this music so much that they are willing to subsidise it themselves. I, like many of my friends, earn my money from teaching, and this income subsidises my music making. My classical musician peers receive subsidy, they have salaried jobs to aim for, and a multitude of organisations there to support them. For jazz graduates, there is no National Jazz Orchestra to guide them, no National Jazz Centre to put on concerts and give them performance opportunities. Once out of college, the only help to aim for is Jazz Services’ Touring Support Scheme, which in itself is under threat following a savage budget cut. It is for this reason the young jazz community has created and supported its own venues. There is a downcast acceptance amongst my generation that there is virtually no money or support for creative British jazz.
The great bassist Peter Ind spoke at the Open Space session about the need for passion in this debate. But that word encapsulates the very thing that is wrong. Those with a real love, a real dedication to this music are being made to suffer financially, and that should not, and does not have to be the case.
Open Space as a system of debate suffers from the lack of a chair-person, which would allow those less well known or confident to make their contributions heard. Discussion was largely steered by the esteemed and the eloquent. Equally, the jazz community as a whole suffers from a lack of musician-led professional oversight and guidance. It is often not our best musicians who receive critical acclaim and the associated performance platform – it is those who have been best at creating (that most offensive of terms) a “buzz” about themselves. Arts Council funding applications do not favour those with the strongest musical statement, they favour those who know how the system works.
There seemed to be a consensus on Monday that we need a strong organisation to galvanise us, to give us a voice, to lobby, to give us something to aspire to, to help those that need and deserve assistance.
In my opinion the jazz community is lacking two things: finance and leadership. The former will only follow when the latter is in place, and we cannot wait around in the hope that someone else will solve our own problems. We need leadership, we need action, and we need them now.
Jazz Open Space Website