Our weekly columnist Jack Davies writes:
The Daily Telegraph has a new column from Sameer Rahim, a.k.a. the “Opera Novice”. “Might it be interesting to have a novice’s-eye view on a world that often seems forbidding?” he asks. Judging by the comments online, all his readers seem to be paid-up opera aficionados, rather than fellow newcomers to the music.
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Could the experience of a “jazz novice” in one of the broadsheets help coax more people across the thresholds of our jazz venues? It’s definitely worth a try.
The Guardian’s rock and pop critic Alexis Petridis did write a one-off article for the Guardian in 2008 on his 6-week crash course in jazz. But, as wonderfully entertaining as Petridis’ article is, perhaps a more practically useful perspective would come from someone with the kind of regular slot Sameer Rahim has, which would give the opportunity for a writer to follow their own path, make their own choices, to develop their own long term affinity with music which appeals to them, rather than making one snap judgment and moving on.
My own experience of attracting new audience members through running a weekly gig is mostly positive. The vast majority of people who come to the venue stay and evidently enjoy the atmosphere and the music, often becoming regular audience members. But an incident a few weeks ago did set me thinking:
A young couple approached the door of the upstairs room at the North London Tavern, peering nervously inside to see Shabaka Hutchings, John Edwards and Mark Sanders midway through an intensely beautiful, abstract set. They scanned the room, looking mildly terrified, had what looked like a short but intense discussion – and retreated back down the stairs to the pub below.
The couple had clearly been enterprising and adventurous enough to find the venue, and to be drawn upstairs by the sound of the music, but maybe found that they just weren’t in the mood to listen.
I’ve had conversations with friends who seem mystified by jazz – they often think they need to completely understand everything that is going on to appreciate the music. They often seem strangely reassured when I tell them that – sometimes – I have no idea what is going on either, that my attention also wanders.
But I know that there are also times when the music is a transporting force, an ecstatic, ephemeral experience of sharing the same air with others whose attention is completely taken. Or as Keith Jarrett said: “Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple.”
Is there a Jazz Novice out there whom we can try to show the richness, energy and excitement of all the different kinds of jazz going in London every night of the year? Get in touch, we’ll guide you, but in the end you will not be getting told what you’re SUPPOSED to like, when it’s important to pay attention, etc. as in opera. You will be free, you’ll find your own likes and dislikes. What’s to lose?
Jack – good article. There is a certain mystique around jazz, and I think it reflects the fact that some long-established fans are content to think that jazz reached a peak in the fifties, whereas to attract new audiences jazz has to keep evolving. For anyone new to jazz, there is a need to learn about the past masters, but I think what draws people in is the exciting new jazz that young players are bring out. The here and now is where jazz is at its strongest.
I setup the London Jazz Meetup partly because I was in the position of being new to jazz, but wanting to find out more and needing to find other people to share that experience with. While I'm still no expert, I've been able to chat with musicians and fans and get to hear a whole range of jazz, and find out what I like.
Many of the members who sign up to join my London Jazz Meetup tell me that either they would like to find out more about jazz, they know a little but don't know where to start, or are a bit intimidated by the music and feel they should know more.
That's why the Meetup concept works well – if you're unsure about jazz, why not enjoy with other people in a similar position. I'm sure we could find a jazz neophyte from among the meetup's members.
There is still, I believe, an impression among non-jazz fans of chin-stroking, turtle-neck wearing old med who listen in contemplative silence. Jazz is competing with a whole different range of music choices, and I think therefore it has to open up – as it's doing already – and create 'event' music that draws in crowds who can appreciate innovative music.
John Fordham did his 50 Great Moments in Jazz series on the Guardian web site. I think that the seal of approval and the extra readership is a big plus even if not on the print newspaper. But The Telegraph itself seems to have dispensed with virtually anyone who could write this. Ivan Hewett seems run off his feet, by reviewing both classical and jazz. Nevertheless his jazz perception is excellent, delving way deeper than the run of the mill.
Hi Rob, yes looks like the meet up group is going really well, and always makes a big difference in audience numbers when you all show up to a gig!