Tchicai in Town

Last week I experienced the full force of cultural dynamics at work… and all within walking distance of my home in a Yorkshire Pennine town! For me, the visit of the John Tchicai Trio to the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge demonstrated how jazz can take on a significance that goes beyond the physical and temporal parameters of performances themselves.

The event threw up a range of interesting examples of how jazz scenes are not only born out of cultural exchanges and the convergence of widespread influences but also how performances themselves can develop a symbolic quality, enabling people to experience their environment in a different way.

The event had a particular resonance for me as a scholar and jazz fan – Tchicai’s work is of direct interest to my two main ongoing research projects – my book project Beyond A Love Supreme for Oxford University Press, which examines the impact and influence of A Love Supreme and late Coltrane recordings, and the Rhythm Changes project, which continues to provide insights and analysis into jazz practices and the dynamics of European culture. Tchicai was one of the central players of the “New Thing” in jazz in the mid-1960s. His playing featured on a number of influential albums including Archie Sheppa’s Four for Trane and Coltrane’s iconic album Ascension and he was the founder of the New York Contemporary Five and a member of the Jazz Composers Guild, immersed in a vibrant and politically-charged scene that included musicians and artists such as Archie Shepp, Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka.

Meeting John the morning after the gig, it was fascinating to talk both about his life in the political hotbed of the US in the 1960s and about his experiences as a Danish national living in different locations and working with musicians from different cultures and settings. Tchicai talked about his cultural influences and the concept of national sound moving from Denmark to New York in 1962 and now living in France, he had clearly developed a number of valuable insights into national jazz scenes and transnational interactions. As part of our conversation, we talked about the way in which, as an artist, you become aware of subtle differences in approach between musicians working in different scenes and national settings. However, there is an obvious romance and pigeon-holing associated with national sounds, particularly when discussing European jazz; Tchicai made some interesting observations about the jazz scene in Scandinavia in the 1960s, claiming that, in Copenhagen in particular, there was no sense of boundary or policing of different types of jazz, and this creative environment led to some valuable interactions, cross-fertilisations and cultural exchanges. During this time, Tchicai encountered figures such as Albert Ayler and Bill Dixon during their visits to Scandinavia and received personal invitations to move to the US. Relocating to New York, Tchicai commented on the race politics of life at the time stating that, as a Dane, he was surprised by the change in context but didn’t feel the same way about the black nationalist agenda as colleagues such as Archie Shepp.

Tchicai[‘ appearance at the Trades Club was also the result of other types of cultural exchange taking place. Now living in the South of France, Tchicai has developed a friendship with neighbours who are also of Danish descent, and those neighbours happen to have a daughter living and working in Hebden Bridge. In turn, Tchicai’s performance brought together a small Danish ex-pat community, a film-maker, a German record producer who had previously recorded Tchicai as part of a German festival, and a variety of musicians and artists, all of whom live within five minutes of the venue but who had not met until the event itself. Finally, and in some remote way, the fact that that the performance took place in a venue such as the Trades Club, with its Trades Union history and socialist ideals, offered a window in to thinking about the political backdrop of the 1960s, and an appreciation of the power and impact of performances of jazz musicians working as part of the New Thing itself.

John Tchicai Trio from Tony Whyton on Vimeo.

Another Place? Why Jazz Festivals Matter

Join us for ‘Another Place? Why Jazz Festivals Matter’ at the London Jazz Festival 2010. The public event, held at the Barbican Centre in London on 21 November, will be the first of five ‘Rhythm Changes’ panels designed to explore key research questions with industry professionals. The event listing can be found at:
More details to follow once the panel line up has been confirmed…

Music and associative vernacular media

This is a short video taken by one of the artists involved in the Aftershock Project in Manchester earlier this year. In it, some musicians are composing a song together. A week earlier, most of them had never met. A week later, they had performed that song together on stage in front of a packed audience, and returned to their homes in England, France and Italy.

By itself, the video is fairly unremarkable, though it does give a brief insight into the creative process, which normally would be hidden from an audience. Musicians traditionally tend to like presenting finished things.

But what it represents in terms of a methodology, a process and a way of ‘making internet’ with respect to music (and musicking) is something that really interests me – and has formed the basis for much of my academic work over the past year or so.

Because what’s interesting is not the video itself, but the way in which that video potentially links to other, related videos from within the same context – and makes connections from which narrative meaning can be constructed.

Call it associative vernacular mediation.

In other words, just as you can build something unique with a set of Lego bricks, you can create a multi-perspective story using these rough-and-ready vernacular video clips.

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Talking to journalists

At the Nordic Jazz Conference in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago, I did a comparative analysis of the Norwegian and British jazz scene. Highlighting at the one hand particular idiosyncrasies, and on the other certain successful collaborations across the North Sea. I tried very hard of course to balance the argumentation between subtle musical curiosities (British humor) and blatant stereotyping (London urban cool vs. cool Norwegian mountain jazz).

At one point (or two) I did mention “The Nordic Tone” (albeit with high eyebrows and a ironical tone of voice) and its impact on particularly the commercial side to selling Norwegian jazz abroad. I also mentioned the ECM aesthetics, and how it’s hard for Norwegian musicians not to be drawn into certain ways of playing (due to marketing, expectations, education etc.). As expected, the stereotypes of “The Nordic Tone” became the topic for discussion after the talk, and I think we reached an amicable understanding that it would be wise for the RC team to look into national stereotyping (which we are!).

Now, this is where it gets interesting: During our debate of the likes of Norwegian mountain jazz, I referred to a film clip of Bugge Wesseltoft (shown earlier in the day) where Bugge goes into stereotypical marketing speak of the “cold melancholy of the Norwegian mind”, upon where I commented that this was probably the businessman in Bugge talking (not the musician).

With this in mind, I was interviewed a couple of days ago for a Norwegian paper in relation to an album release with the Anglo/Norwegian trio The Thin Red Line, and I was of course asked to categorize differences in the two national approaches to playing jazz. As in Helsinki, I was cautiously trying to highlight subtleties (yes, I mentioned the ECM aesthetics, even mentioned Garbarek), and I even suggested that British jazz sounds angrier and has more of an edge often lacking in the Norwegian sound. The problem with talking to journalists is that they tend to only jot down the first half of your argument (and leave out the “on the other hand”), which provides punch lines for the article but gives absolutely no impression of reflective, academic thinking. The result is (and this is where I should apologize to Bugge who’s interview was probably edited to pieces), that the article portrays me as the preacher of “The Nordic Tone”, ECM, mountains and fjords, and that I seemingly have done nothing to move jazz research beyond national stereotyping.

Better luck next time?

Festivals and the dynamics of culture

During the Live! Singapore event in June, I participated in some interesting panels with international festival organisers and arts professionals on the state of jazz. During the event, it became clear to me how timely the Rhythm Changes project is and how the project research questions tie into so many issues that are of direct relevance to jazz programmers today. For example, how jazz festivals and venues feed into the transformation of scenes and societies, how they can reinforce a sense of civic pride, how jazz events can act as a catalyst for social change etc., are key questions not only for the Rhythm Changes team when examining the dynamics of culture but also for festivals and venues, especially at a time when the value and contribution of jazz to society is often downplayed or misunderstood.

As part of my presentation on programming, I argued that the magical and essential thing about any successful festival or venue is the relationship of music to place. What makes a festival unique are its surroundings, circumstances and the way in which its programming works within these settings. At their best, festivals can act as catalysts for change, transforming everyday spaces into magical worlds or encouraging people to see their environment in a new way or, indeed, they can make us think about the new possibilities our everyday surroundings can open up.

Jazz programming can serve to galvanise communities and feed into a sense of civic pride. It can also help us to experience things that wouldn’t normally occur on our doorstep. Indeed, programmers offer audiences positive experiences of diverse cultures and demonstrate firsthand the benefits of cultural collaboration and exchange. In this respect, international jazz programmes have the potential to go beyond the performance to provide audiences with a new and inspiring cultural experience. Successful programmers tend to capitalise on this, encouraging the reception of jazz as a lifestyle choice.

One of the critical tensions at play within the increasing internationalisation of music programming and the growth and domination of artist agencies and touring schemes, is the question of how programmers differentiate themselves in a market where the same international acts tend to prevail, and touring schedules of musicians with fixed offers tend to overwhelm programming models. The “one shoe fits all approach” might have some benefits to local jazz scenes, giving people in remote parts of the world a rare international experience (believing we are hearing the same things as people in New York for example), but the homogenisation of programming should be treated with caution and misses the opportunity to create special and innovative events and unique festival experiences that celebrate place and the unique characteristics of scenes. Arguably, a festival that just accepts artists who are performing the same repertoire in a number of different locations is not a festival but a promoter or booking agent who facilitates touring and groups a series of unrelated events together under the brand of a festival. The critical tension between the global, the local and the politics of place is of central importance to Rhythm Changes.

Within the Rhythm Changes project, we are also interested in how cultural policy and state subsidy informs the development of jazz scenes and will be using our project to demonstrate why jazz works in certain settings and not in others, highlighting the integral link between art, politics and the dynamics of culture. In my recent visit to Maijazz Festival in Norway, for example, I was interested to observe how the programming for the event said as much about jazz as it did about the city’s desire to showcase its own talents and civic aspirations a?? to show off the Stavanger region and to demonstrate that it was an international player capable of welcoming acts from around the world to participate in the event. aThis experience showed that programming is as important to politicians as it is to arts professionals and audiences, and that successful programmers are becoming increasingly aware of the far-reaching implications of their events.

Jazz as Global Language

Came across this piece in NYT this morning. Its title, Jazz as Global Language, Captured on film, promises perhaps a little more than it delivers a?? basically the usual pat statements on music as a medium of common ground. Both mentions of the two films on non-American music riffs on the theme of the exotic and unknown, brought into contact with jazz.

However, the impact of Black Orpheus on the jazz idiom does demonstrate my previous point about the dialectizing of jazz as more than just a one way street.

The other film mentioned, Intangible Asset No. 82, seems like a must see (even if it is outside the immediate geographical area of concern here at RC). I am curious if anybody has?