Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Judgey Jazz

I don't like Jazz competitions. I don't like the subjective tastes of the judges being the arbiter of what's good and what isn't at that particular time. Often the judges are the same names being drawn from one particular area of Jazz performance. This is no criticism of the musicians who accept the role of judge. Hey, it's a gig. They are good musicians with great ears, but a beauty pageant of Jazz just makes my teeth itch.

I tell you what I do like. I love Jazz and improvised music. I love music that challenges the listener to a battle of wits. That grabs the ear by the lugs and bellows LISTEN TO ME - even in the whisper of a delicate ballad. I love the artfulness of human creativity and the collective YEAH when it is just sounding incredible (Exhibit A: Ascension, John Coltrane).

I could write a very, very long list of staggeringly great Jazz musicians and Improvisers who have never won an award or competition. And I'm glad they haven't because it means their music remains judgement-free, unscrutinised, never determined to be 'good enough' or better than - or worse than- the next woman or man's playing. The decision as to whether they hit the spot has been left to the privacy of the listener either live or on record- which for me is the meaning of success.

Some will know I teach Improvisation and assess student jazz musicians at a London Conservatoire and will say - but you sit in judgement of these younger musicians, you 'decide' whether they 'go on to the next round' as it were. I do that job because I believe that education and the valuable constructive critique that it offers can only help build the skills, confidence and ingenuity of a creative person. They get to perform their art over and over again to us and we hear them improve - and they really do - develop and regularly knock us out with their ability to play inventive, interesting and excellent Jazz. This is a progressive process that doesn't place one above another through subjective opinion. It is not a 'one shot' at a prize.

Some like Jazz competitions and awards because they are an opportunity to honour or recognise someone's talent. I think putting on some gigs would be a better use of the money. Set up a tour, educate, support and promote. Highlight Jazz by putting it on mainstream TV and radio, but as a performance, rather than as a test.

Some might think I am kvetching because I have never won an award. I've been nominated for a few. And truly, I would gracefully turn one down if it was offered. We can win as many awards as we like, but Jazz is surely not a popularity contest. If it were then Buddy Rich wouldn't have lasted a week. Jazz is art. Art is expression of the personal made public. Awards and competitions don't fit into that process.

Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, Kenny Wheeler, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Ella, Keith Jarrett -they are all brilliant, beautiful jazz musicians and have, like all of us human musicians, played a bit duff on gigs where it just didn't happen that night for one reason for another (yes, even Jarrett, but don't tell him I said that). But not often enough for it to have made them crawl off and never come back, thankfully. They learnt from it and soldiered on.

I'm glad the judging panels weren't there on that gig to hear them.