Pelin Opcin has become the go-to-woman for bringing a fresh, modern approach to jazz. Currently Director of Programming for Serious, she’s making decisions that are helping to reshape the face of jazz across the UK and beyond. Peter Jones met with her to discuss the importance of moving with the times, responding to a changing audience’s needs and nurturing young talent.
In a quiet part of north London, far from any station, stands a mighty citadel surrounded by high walls and railings. This is the home of Serious, the organisation that produces the London Jazz Festival. Inside, the atmosphere is, well… very serious. It’s certainly the most silent workplace I’ve ever been in, and yet there are 20 people here, all working. Seriously.
I tiptoed up the spiral staircase to meet one of them – Pelin Opcin, the Director of Programming. Doing this job makes her one of the most important women in jazz internationally, not just in the UK. The international connection began in 1999 when she started working for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts. It led to her becoming, six years later, the director of the Istanbul Jazz Festival. Whilst there, she brought in several innovations, particularly in the ways she found to develop both the artists and the audience for jazz.
Younger people, she noticed, enjoyed going to rock and pop events in outdoor “big field” environments, where they could dance around and feel like they were participating; whereas jazz gigs seemed to be more about “listening and chin-stroking in a library kind of setting.” For her, attracting a newer, younger audience therefore meant staging gigs in new venues, providing an atmosphere more akin to club culture, and adding free events to draw in the uncommitted and give them the chance to appreciate music they had probably never heard before. It may be coincidence, but when I went to Istanbul’s Nardis Jazz Club not long ago, I found it full of people under 40, equally divided between men and women.
So successful was Pelin that in 2013 she was invited to take part in organising Istanbul’s contribution to International Jazz Day, and in 2017 she became a member of the UNESCO advisory committee for the selection of future host cities for the event. Her forensic approach may derive from her university studies in molecular biology and genetics. Whether it does or not, it wasn’t long before she came to the attention of Serious, and when the position of Director of Programming came up, she got the job and relocated to London.
As well as staging more than 600 events every year, including one-off shows in the capital and around the country, Serious also lends its expertise to festivals like Norfolk & Norwich (held in May), and to venues like Warwick Arts Centre; in fact, to any group that has the initiative and energy to get something started at a local level. In London they have been helping to organise the Thamesmead Festival, which takes place this July at Southmere Lake. The projects likely to get support from the organisation are those with community involvement and participation events, such as workshops. Good ideas, in other words, that might not otherwise get off the ground.
You might ask why it was necessary to bring someone in from overseas to work on these projects. But it is undeniable that here in the UK, jazz is at something of a crossroads. Traditional local jazz clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to survive: the audience is ageing and not being replaced. More controversially, it should also be pointed out that the music being played in these venues is often that of 70 or 80 years ago, and unless something happens soon to make jazz more appealing to a younger audience, it will surely die. As Pelin points out, “Imagine you are a young secondary school student. You want to like jazz, but you don’t see anyone similar to you on stage.”
This, I think, is why it was a good idea to get her involved here in London, someone with a fresh pair of eyes and some new angles. Tackling the gender imbalance in jazz is not just political correctness, but something she regards as crucial to its survival. There are plenty of women involved in running jazz venues, and plenty of female singers around, but precious few women playing instruments. “It all comes down to the role models,” says Pelin. “Young women need to see more instrumentalists like Sarah Tandy, Camilla George, Nubya Garcia, Cassie Kinoshi, Chelsea Carmichael, Sheila Maurice-Grey, and the band Nérija, which is mostly female.” She also thinks the conservatoires that produce each new generation of musicians should be aiming for the same equal gender balance as Serious. As far as she’s concerned, it’s all about active participation, and she returns constantly to her theme of nurturing talent over a long period, aided by programmes like Take Five. Running every year since 2004, Take Five selects a handful of musicians aged 25-35 and transports them to a secret location for a week of intensive career development.
Pelin Opcin has brought to London her ideas about the site-specific nature of certain shows. Serious used various non-traditional venues in the Royal Docks area last year for a two-day festival-within-a-festival, which was mostly free, and also put on some major events at Compressor House, close to City Airport. The shows included a four-hour takeover by Tomorrow’s Warriors and an evening hosted by south London’s Steam Down collective. Another important event was Soweto Kinch’s Black Peril Project at Evolutionary Arts in Hackney, a historically-inspired multimedia piece involving several different musical ensembles, dance and archive film footage. It took more than a year to plan, and was synched with the album release of the music. “Having it in the right venue should represent the spirit of the sound,” she says. And she believes it’s also important in many cases to integrate music with dance.
I wondered what criteria Serious currently applies to booking artists for the Festival. “The London Jazz Festival is a living creature that was already 26 years old when I joined. The climate is constantly changing,” says Pelin. “You could play it safe by keeping everything the same or you could be completely revolutionary and change everything, but you need to be respectful of what this festival stands for. Never disregard what works, never disregard what is appreciated. Definitely keep the strengths, but also introduce some new elements.” And as a programmer you can’t go just by your personal tastes, or just by what sells tickets. Sometimes you have to educate the audience. “Do we do what the audience wants, or do we need to think a few steps ahead of the audience?” So Serious goes to concerts and other festivals around the world in search of inspiration. Yep, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
LINK: Take Five