Both International Jazz Day and the SAMA nominations should make us think hard about what the label signifies
Month-end marks UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, when we’re called on to celebrate the role of jazz in uniting people and “promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, and respect for human rights and human dignity.” (This link lists some – but not all – South African IJD events: https://jazzday.com/?event-country=south-africa&event-year=2018 ) The big official international concert happens in St Petersburg , which raises questions on two levels. The choice of Russia as host is clearly a piece of commercial opportunism, preceding as it does the country’s hosting of this year’s football World Cup. Russian jazz players are as good as any in the world – the surviving Soviet legacy of excellent, accessible music education continues to bear rich fruits (see, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRVXQMNKuSc ). Russian players, like players in South Africa, need and deserve to work with their peers and be showcased internationally. But it’s still hard to justify awarding such impressive money-making and profiling opportunities to a nation whose key policies place repressive, patriarchal, narrow, right-wing nationalism front and centre. (Though given the way Forrest Trump and his cronies are heading, it’s getting easier to say that about the US too.)
But more broadly, are yet more gigantic all-star concerts the only, or best, way to celebrate the jazz legacy?
As jazz scholar and player Mark Laver has pointed out (he’s worth reading: see, for example, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/arts-are-not-distant-public-good-they-are-public-good) participating in jazz involves practising freedom, empathy and listening; Laver calls jazz “a democratising aesthetic force”. Mega-concerts are exclusionary across many dimensions, so let’s look at our own South African jazz landscape and see what kinds of activities might genuinely serve that spirit.
- Broaden access for learners, players and listeners. Some of the South African activities (including one not listed on the IJD page: the Menlyn Park Jazzathon: contact Nothemba Madumo on Nothemba@4everjazz.com ) try to do this. They take jazz to stages where it plays only infrequently or offer opportunities to aspiring players. The best way to do this is through small local events, not big ones.
- Uncover and preserve the narratives and discourses of our jazz. Tonight (Friday April 20) at Sophiatown the Mix, I’m chairing a panel to explore and record the history of Mam’ Dorothy Masuka as a composer and performer, in conversation with her, music scholar Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, and musicians Bheki Khoza and Titi Luzipo. While Mam’ Dorothy’s history is impressive, it’s one tiny corner of all the jazz stories we don’t know and – if they remain unrecorded – will never know, as the paucity of information in (equally scarce) obituaries of reedman Lemmy “Special” Mabaso earlier this month revealed.
- Upgrade jazz education. Restore the disastrous diminution of music teaching and learning inflicted particularly on the most impoverished schools by Schooling 2025. Make it possible for more musicians to participate in jazz higher education, by re-examining job descriptions and hierarchies and dismantling unnecessary barriers .
- Provide more commissions for jazz composers. This remains a major weakness in South Africa: apart from the National Arts Festival Young Artist for Jazz award, there’s very little support for writing music which – combined with low, unreliable fees for playing – constantly constrains the growth of innovative repertoire.
- Foster the economy of the night city to provide more work.
And all of these, of course, need to be happening throughout the year, not just on one commemorative day. A flashy mega-concert unsupported by a living, well-resourced infrastructure performs the politics of tokenism.
That a South African jazz infrastructure does survive and create is evidenced by the nominations for the 2018 SAMAs, just announced. These are: The Simphiwe Dana Symphony Experience (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/the-simphiwe-dana-symphony-experience/1266671019 ); Marcus Wyatt’s Blue Note Tribute Orkestra live at the Bird’s Eye (https://bnto.bandcamp.com/releases ); Zoe Modiga’s Yellow: the Novel (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/yellow-the-novel/1219606445 ); the Tune Recreation Committee’s Voices of Our Vision (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/tunerecreationcommittee ); and Nduduzo Makhathini’s Ikhambi (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/ikhambi/1285160305 )(which also scored a nomination for Best Sound Engineering). In addition, Kinsmen’s Window to the Ashram (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/kinsmen ) features in the Best Classical/Instrumental category.
It’s an interesting selection with, as usual, some infuriating omissions – most notably Keenan Ahrends’ Narrative (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/narrative/1220746628 ): one of the most beautiful guitar releases of any recent year. But however deserving the eventual winner will be, the SAMA categories manage to neatly sideline jazz’s importance by making it impossible for jazz to feature in the so-called “Top Five” categories that will be announced later and will dominate the televised ceremony in May. There, jazz is likely to be near-invisible. If the SAMAs had called them the “Big Five” that might not be problematic: those five categories do, after all, deal with the most mass-marketed music. But “Top” – like it’s better?
The Modiga and TRC albums share a great deal of personnel – that probably tells us a lot about Cape Town’s tight-knit cadre of extremely talented young musicians, and may also be some kind of belated acknowledgment that great CT releases have been ignored in some past SAMA listings. But it narrows the pool of people who stand to bathe in the starlight of the awards. Then there’s the inclusion of the Simphiwe Dana album. Dana is both an engaging singer, and a fiercely talented and original songwriter. She doesn’t need to occupy the jazz category to be worth multiple awards. The album delivers some gorgeous tracks (check out Volver Volver, featuring Mallorcan – with parents from Equatorial Guinea – singer Concha Buika and Derek Gripper). It’s well resourced and beautifully produced. It just doesn’t – as Dana’s albums often don’t – feature too much of the improvisation process: the thing that jazz audiences relish.
However, there’s a certain cachet in the jazz genre label that has nothing to do with the music (of that, irrespective of genre, there are only two kinds, observed Miles: the good stuff and the rest) and everything to do with business. As the Nielsen marketing organisation has observed, “jazz” branding – whatever it’s attached to – can deliver “a desirable audience of high-end consumers.” In a wry and witty blog, Joyce Kwon explores why so many marketers love the label: (http://www.tronviggroup.com/jazz-in-marketing/ ). So it’s not surprising if sometimes labels will spare no effort to get their artists featured in a “jazz” category.
Whether we’re talking world commemorative days or awards, let’s employ the term jazz with discrimination. It’s about processes – improvising, listening, empathising– not products – mega-gigs, awards – and those processes need to be respected and supported every day of the year.