Aaron Liddard (report from jazzahead! + debut as leader at Ronnie Scott’s 9 + 10 June)

Saxophonist – or as he describes himself “ musician, bandleader, side-man, composer, arranger, teacher, organiser, coordinator, administrator, and general hustler…” Aaron Liddard attended the annual jazzahead! conference in Bremen as an independent, there being no official UK stand this year.

“After two disappointing visits, a friend convinced me to give it one more try….”, he explains. He reports on what made it work this time.

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NB Aaron is also looking forward to his debut as leader on the main stage at Ronnie Scott’s next week…details below.

Aaron Liddard writes: jazzahead! is where two events seem to combine into one: a 1-night explosion of gigs throughout the historic city of Bremen; and a 3-day networking event for the business behind the jazz art form.

Music business… Oxymoron? Contradiction?

Many of my fellow jazz musicians may baulk at the concept of ‘the business of jazz’ but we all have our bills to pay. Every booking has been made after cautious calculations.

For those of us who attune ourselves to supporting band leaders, ploughing the groove of a lifelong support musician, all this is easily ignored. Life is quite simple: practise, prepare, wash, turn up on time, and smile. It’s entirely possible to float through life ignoring those that work behind the scenes.

But those who have been blessed (or burdened) by original music, will find themselves getting up close and personal with those who pay their bills from music without playing an instrument. Some musicians seem adept at pooling their creativity into both worlds: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Prince, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones… all strike me as having nailed the creative business game right alongside their artistry. The reality is that our gigs involve bookers, agents, technicians, committees, fundraisers, funders, sponsors, marketeers, activists, lobbyists…

jazzahead! is for these people. And whole countries are represented, along with collectives, festivals, manufacturers, bookers, musicians, agents, managers, labels… an international family rubbing shoulders and enjoying a few days away from home.

With 30 years of service under my belt as a musician, band leader, sideman, composer, arranger, teacher, organiser, coordinator, administrator, and general hustler, I’m still an amateur at the business end. At times, jazzahead! has made me feel like a child splashing around in a swimming pool while athletes practise their lengths all around. Without guidance it’s easy to get shooed over to the kiddies play pool, endlessly circling the booths hoping someone will offer a record deal or European tour.

Participants at the Dutch stand in 2023. Photo credit: M3B GmbH/ Jorg Sarbach

After 3 years of restricted movement, this year feels to me like the beginning of rebirth. However, the unofficial theme amongst the professionals was “It’s a challenging time”. It seems that jazz clubs across the world are struggling to take the risks necessary to support jazz, especially new artists or ambitious projects. Ever changing lockdown rules punished the roots venues and volunteer promoters. Their resources pilfered, funding cut, many have been forced to shut up shop forever. Then there’s our core crowd – many of whom have adapted to the new normal, preferring Netflix to cinema, YouTube to gigs. The struggle is not restricted to the UK, its not only caused by Brexit.

But it’s not all do and gloom. Many new faces attended for the first time. New friendships forged and old ones reaffirmed. At its best, business is based on friendships, and at its best, jazzahead! is a place to share anecdotes and ambitions over a beer.

Business, like music, is a personal thing. We all approach it our own ways and for our own reasons. Everyone advises “set up meetings before you go” but personally I’d advise: if someone well-connected invites you along then jump at the opportunity, and you may cruise through the weekend making new friends and enjoying life.

Another option is to hide your musical self. Present yourself as a start-up festival or booker or agency and keep quiet about your art. However, there’s a big difference between an aspiring festival organiser and actually offering paid gigs. Few professional swimmers fail to recognise an amateur splashing around.

Either way, if you’ve been grafting at your music for decades and have never gotten beyond local bar gigs, then it’s time to focus on activities beyond the music. I’ve now done jazzahead! in two ways: twice the destitution of a total wipe-out, but this time it was with a feeling of success and motivation.

LINKS : jazzahead! website

Aaron Liddard will be at Ronnie Scott’s (Late Late Show) on 9 and 10 June – BOOKINGS / DETAILS

Categories: Features/Interviews

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