What does the “jazz brand” mean today?

 

Both International Jazz Day and the SAMA nominations should make us think hard about what the label signifies

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St Petersburg: site of IJD 2018

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.

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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.Yellow-the-novel-poster-Zoe-Modiga

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?

Mandla album cover

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.

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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.

 

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SAFM music – after the quota, now what’s SABC playing at?

Over the weekend, SAFM issued a press statement ( http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/sabc-announces-talent-lineup-changes-safm/ ) formalising what had been known and rumoured about the broadcaster’s plans for some time. The shuffling of the deckchairs among existing presenters, and the arrival of EWN’s Stephen Grootes belong in another debate. Urgent to consider here is the near-disappearance of jazz and African music.

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Ike Phaahla

By a monstrous irony, Ike Phaahla’s jazz show had its final outing while most of his listeners were in live concerts at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Phaala’s presentation style was old-school: the most you’d get in the way of commentary from him was a staid read-through of the liner notes. But his knowledge of the field was encyclopedic, and the respect he gave to, and received from, the SA jazz community was enormous. I cannot count the number of people I know who’ve told me their first introduction to certain artists or albums – and, this is important, particularly South African products – came via his magical late-night hours: “Did you hear that amazing album Ike played over the weekend?”

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Richard Nwamba

Richard Nwamba – also absent from the new line-up – by contrast, had an effervescent presentation style, alongside an equally encyclopedic knowledge of the continent’s multiple genres. If some obscure but brilliant Congolese chanteur happened to be in town, Nwamba would tap his grapevine, track him down, and drag him into the studio. Former dedicated disciples of Brenda, or John Coltrane, or Durban house, all got their schooling in the music of the wider continent from Nwamba. And he had listeners, lots of them: you heard his show belting from all kinds of unlikely radios in taxis, barbershops and restaurants.

What these two did was unique, and what other DJs may do – easy-listening meister Ernest Pillay, for example, now has a generous slot – however professional, does not replace either. Huge thanks to both of you – you will be missed.

Many of us predicted that when the pendulum swung away from Hlaudi’s dictatorial and poorly thought-out 90% quota, the reaction would be even more disastrous. It’s starting to look as if we were right. So we have to ask: what on earth does the SABC think it’s doing to our music?

The SABC is our national broadcaster. It thus has a mandate and responsibility to offer listeners a wider palette of cultural choices than the purely commercial, even in financially straitened times. It further has a responsibility to maintain and enrich the sonic archive documenting our  creativity. But, more than this, eliminating jazz and African music from SAFM (concert music has disappeared too, at the very time when composers of colour are on the rise) represents the erasure of important areas of discourse from the channel where discourse is supposed to rule.

Because music isn’t just sounds, it’s discourse too. It carries discourse in its notes: a language of sound that can enhance emotions and convey information and meaning. When Feya Faku plays a solo, he is telling us about our history and asking questions about our future. The indigenous jazz now being made is more creative and challenging than ever. Music also carries discourse in what it connotes: Nwamba’s show, for example, enacted in its very existence a powerful counterblast to anti-African racism and xenophobia and the dehumanisation of our neighbours – if any programme could be said to be building social cohesion and offering a damn good time on the way, it was his. Finally, music is, in Val Wilmer’ words “as serious as your life”: it merits being discussed as well as played, and the station for that kind of discussion is SAFM.

Knowledgeable SAFM presenters who remain, such as Michelle Constant and Shado Twala will no doubt do their best to keep the discourse alive – but the formats of their programmes demand diverse coverage of multiple genres and topics, with only small inserts on each. The formidable Nothemba Madumo on Metro, KG Moeketsi on Radio 2000 (and the brilliant Brenda Sisane and Nikki Blumenfeld on Kaya: outside the SABC stable) all still earn respect for treating Jazz and African music with the intelligence and focus both merit.

But the SAFM music offering – on the national station with the widest reach – has been shamefully impoverished by these changes. The future sound archive and thus what will be available to researchers will be equally diminished.  The new SABC Board no doubt has paying the bills at the forefront of its mind – but maybe we should be reminding Board members that programming priorities and the non-commodifiable values of broadcasting matter too, and that what has just happened needs a long, hard re-think?

Cecil Taylor: 1929-2018

 

Quite rightly, the passing of Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela drove news of other deaths last week off the front pages. But it’s unlikely in any case that most of the South African media would have noted the death of keyboard revolutionary Cecil Taylor. As with Mam’ Winnie, the word “uncompromising” featured strongly in his obituaries – and, as with her, it should be a term of praise. Read The UK Guardian’s John Fordham’s appreciation (with an excellent playlist) here:
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/cecil-taylor-visionary-pianist-jazz

And hear the man himself – graceful, witty, articulate and, yes, uncompromising, here:
http://snapshotsfoundation.com/index.php/articles/140-cecil-taylor-interview

Hamba kahle.

 

Cape Town Jazz Festival 2018: the good, the bad and the ugly

In music, this year gave us more of the first than ever – but some snags persist and there was one truly philistine moment

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Aus Tebza Sedumedi and Hotstix Mabuse of the Liberation Project

Plus ça change, plus ce’st la même chose. Or, as Dexter Gordon playing Dale Turner put it in Round Midnight: “Same old shit.” Just like 2017, CTIJF 2018 continues to surpass itself in terms of the range and quality of the jazz on offer.

Yes, jazz. The Twittersphere this year was infested with the usual whines about “not enough jazz” – but with Nicholas Payton, Vijay Iyer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Shane Cooper, Feya Faku, Nicky Schrire, Siya Makuzeni, Themba Mokoena – and more, and more – it’s hard to understand just what the hell they were talking about. And, just like 2017, the media failed to tell readers about almost any of it, focusing instead (where it gave any coverage at all) on Afro-pop and hip hop acts. Perhaps the latter might explain the former..?

Also just like 2017, there are so many choices for a listener to make that the only festival I can tell you about is mine, and yours might have sounded quite different. (One act – Vijay Iyer – had two shows, and doing that next year for just a couple more might, without compromising range and diversity, make the choosing less frustrating. Lots of people told me Trombone Shorty totally rocked, but I had three other acts to hear at the same time.)

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Mulatu Astatke

The good first (more of this than I could count or cover)

It would be patronising to the artists concerned and to your ears to simply list names and say how well they played. That, at this festival, is a given.

But the festival isn’t just about the concerts, and I can rarely remember a year when the daytime musicians’ master classes were as consistently useful and informative as this year. Mulatu Astatke’s band provided illuminating illustrations of the modes and scales that makes Ethiopian music sound so distinctive: the workshop opened up the engine of the beautiful flying machine that soared on Saturday night. Nicholas Payton – whose blogging sometimes suggests a prickly personality – was honest, self-effacing and witty about his music and his life. Miles Mosley held even non-bass-players fascinated by the story of how he changed up his axe, and revolutionised the sound of his music. “I didn’t realise technical stuff could be so interesting,” said one attendee afterwards. Perhaps if more media had attended these master classes, they’d have had real stories to write.

At the airport and on the plane, ungodly early the morning after, I heard more people talking about Astatke and his Ethio-jazz ensemble than any other act. That was a result both of superb musicianship and surprise – the festival had undersold, and the media completely ignored, the importance and creative power of this veteran and learned African jazzman. He’s a formidable instrumentalist; his ensemble – including onetime Taiwa Molelekwa collaborator, trumpeter Byron Wallen – equally so, and the music combines danceable groove, highly intelligent solos and a heterophony of rhythms, as well as stuff that makes you think. If you’re listening through Western ears, the music goes nowhere you’d expect. But because it’s jazz, it offers an equally fresh take on the Ethiopian modes: its business is busting envelopes. Wallen, reedman James Arben and the astounding arco cello of Shanti Jayasinha added highly distinctive voices. If Black Panther wanted a unique African soundtrack, rather than pop music, they should have looked here.

There were powerful storytellers everywhere, with and without words. Vocalist Nicky Schrire’s narrative power played off reedman Chris Engel’s eloquent lines in an intelligently curated programme that ranged from the singer’s own works to Beatenberg and Busi Mhlongo. Schrire might not, at first glance, seem to have much in common with Sibongile Khumalo, but like Khumalo she’s doing important work growing an authentic indigenous vocal repertoire that talks about us – and then singing it shrewdly and sweetly.

Guitarist Keenan Ahrends is unashamedly a storyteller – he called his album Narrative – and the gentle mutuality of his ensemble told the story he needed: “Music has colours and textures, and those have emotions attached…our improvisations allow us to play those emotions.”

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Feya Faku

A Feya Faku gig always has stories: his power as both composer and player lies not only in mastery of his instrument but in offering balm for the soul: not from a place of easy comfort, but from a place of history and hope shared with his listeners. This time there were many new tales – Faku seems to be composing a lot these days – including the moving ballad Gratitude for the late Hugh Masekela, who gave him a horn when his own two were stolen.

Stories of our history came, too, from both the Liberation Project and Louis Moholo-Moholo. The former united Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Dan Chiorboli, Roger Lucey, Tebza Sedumedi, Tony Cedras and more, to revisit and revision songs of solidarity and struggle from around the world: the South African acoustic edition of a larger international ensemble whose album will drop in mid-May. The music was stirring – lovely to hear Cedras playing trumpet again, and Mabuse’s flute-playing is better than ever – but we’ll need to wait for the album to hear its full character. “It’s the intention of the music-makers,” asserted Mabuse, “that gives this music the power to question and challenge.”

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Louis Moholo-Moholo

Moholo-Moholo’s 5 Blokes 1 Doll (which was actually seven musicians, gender irrelevant, including two powerful bass-players) gave us a masterclass in deconstructing our standards. There was hot, fierce joy in the set: Makuzeni growling, bellowing, roaring and scatting on voice and ‘bone, Nhlanhla Mahlangu pouring out incandescent soul and Kyle Shepherd’s piano as percussive as Moholo-Moholo’s drums (with his solo on Yakhal’Inkomo honouring the spirit of Lionel Pillay, but offering a radically new vision). It was like being in London’s 100 Club circa 1980 – but not. Because the music was home and this was all fresh – personnel, arrangements, and the master-drummer’s own sound – and because, well, “you think you know me…but you’re never gonna know me”.

Nduduzo Makhathini and Inner Dimensions brought together Swiss, Austrian and South African musicians, and reintroduced reedman Linda Sikhakhane, who’s been away studying. Makhathini’s voice concepts – call and response; church-style antiphonal shouts; dark chanson from Anna Widauer – are becoming more intriguing on every outing. The pianist showed how, for him, the stage was “a place where a new language can be constructed.”

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Vijay Iyer with Wadada Leo Smith

Already fluent in their  language – born of years of intense collaboration – the Vijay Iyer Sextet offered interplay and vision that was powerful, absorbing and – in every sense – moving. The music of Far from Over (as in “the struggle is…”) is to hold your breath for, and to help you breathe freer. Tensions were built and resolved; questions asked but not always answered; pulses speeded and slowed. The sounds were dense with ideas and beauty, but because drummer Marcus Gilmore is a master of cerebral groove, we didn’t freeze in our seats either. How Iyer’s second set had to end (see below) was tragic.

Freshness came to the fore when some players – Ahrends, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti, bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Kevin Gibson – appeared in more than one ensemble: sometimes as leader and then sideman. Just because you’d heard them once never meant you could predict what they’d do the next time out, except that it would be equally apt, accomplished, and compelling. And there was freshness too in the people we’d never heard before and want to hear again: the transnational collaboration of The Surge where trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni found some very different musical conversations to have – with fiery guitarist Jan Kruzliak, for example, lyrical kumous (Kyrghiz fretless lute) player Aissana Omorova and the guembri (Gnawa plucked lute) groove of El Mehdi Qamoum.

The bad (mostly mundane and predictable)

More sad than bad were the perennially empty seats in Rosie’s and Molelekwa reserved for sponsors, gaping like a gangster’s grin. If press barons and policy-makers can’t be bothered listening to superb local jazz talent, should we be surprised when they don’t effectively support it either?

There were a few time slippages (especially on the Molelekwa stage: 25 minutes for the Liberation Project) that made the neat dovetailing the programme promises impossible. The sound in the woolly, cavernous Kippie’s venue has certainly been improved, but it’s still not good enough. For a large ensemble like Astatke’s, the listening experience was much better than for Kamasi Washington in 2017 – but why did the players (especially the percussionist) need to keep demanding improvements in stage mic’ing and monitor sound, and why couldn’t we hear the leader’s vibes for the first bars of his opening solo? For Payton’s Afro-Caribbean Mixtape set, the sound snookered much of the intention. That’s an album with discourse: the digital slices of recorded words matter to the politics of the concept. Cottonwool mush ensured we couldn’t hear them. So what we got was a masterful, pan-diasporic dance set and astounding instrumental virtuosity (trumpet plus piano! Those claves!) – but with the discourse filleted out: a different album. Even on the normally excellent Rosie’s stage there were initial sound problems with the subtle, delicate and spellbinding sounds of Shane Cooper’s Mabuta.

The free concert in Greenmarket Square that precedes the main event is starting to feel tired. Back when CTIJF started, a few of the really big names were hosted early, so that those without cash for tickets got a genuine taste of all genres at the festival. The square rocked. These days, it’s filled with cover bands. It’s time for festival organisers to return to that early practice, and re-democratise what started out as an innovative, inspired expansion of access.

The ugly. Only one moment – but there had to be a better way

Iyer’s mid-evening set on the second night overran. Such was the absorbing intensity of the music – different from the first night; different again from the album – that the players lost awareness of limits. (That’s what good jazz does.) The music was cooking and the audience loudly yelling for more. The set did need to wind down – but the insensitivity with which normally considerate MC Eric Alan closed it made the whole Rosie’s audience shudder. His voice cut into the sound. His presence invaded Iyer’s space while the musician still had his hands on the keys. “Is this democracy? Will you let me say something?” asked Iyer. Alan equivocated. But all the pianist said was: “We had a lot more to say, but we don’t want to be unfair to our fellow musicians.” Then he acknowledged, as he must, his co-players, whose praxis had made that magic.

Did nobody backstage understand that these were highly experienced professionals, well capable of crafting a neat encore that would have allowed the set to end on good vibes and dignity? Instead, what happened was about as sensitive as breaking into somebody’s bedroom and dousing them with iced water while they’re having sex.

Faku’s Spirit Unit, following, launched into their own impressively tight, fast encore just as Alan and the stage staff were creeping forward, giving nobody the chance to stop them. I like to think that one was for Iyer.

 

Gender & Jazz: Cape Town Public Debate Tuesday March 20

Two quotes from artists, both appearing at this year’s CTIJF:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” – ROBERT GLASPER

“Music is action: the sound of bodies in motion. When we hear a rhythm, we imagine the act that gave rise to it. Some call it neural mirroring, or empathy. Music and dance are linked in this way: bodies listening to bodies. If music has ever moved you, then you already know.” – VIJAY IYER

And if – in the immortal words of Louis Armstrong – you have to ask why one of those statements (both discussing pretty much the same thing) is deeply misogynist and the other one isn’t, well “then you’ll never know”.

Glasper mis-spoke. He has apologised, and so has his enabler, columnist & musician Ethan Iverson.

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Lil Hardin Armstrong

There’s as monstrous a failure of imagination in his statement as in the demands of the irritating groove bunnies of all genders who interrupt sets, loudly demanding musicians play only what they can dance to. At least as outrageous is the implication that imaginative soloing can’t move bodies. The wise and wonderful Sydney Mnisi playing at last night’s Voice reunion (more about that at the end) demonstrated that you can take a reed line to the Sun Ra asteroid belt of outer space and back and still get an audience swaying.

Such failures of imagination characterise sexism. The creep who gets way too close while mentoring a woman musician; the bandleader who demeaningly asks a trained woman instrumentalist “What songs do you know?”, the carpet auditioneers, leering commenters and bum-pinchers (“Where’s your sense of humour, girlie?”) and the solo hogs who just never make space for their female co-players, all share an empathy deficiency severe enough to warrant confinement in an institution. (Vibist Sasha Berliner has told some of those stories vividly at http://www.sashaberlinermusic.com/political-and-social-commentary-1/2017/9/21/an-open-letter-to-ethan-iverson-and-the-rest-of-jazz-patriarchy )

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Melba Liston

But that’s not all we’ll be discussing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival Public Debate next Tuesday 20 March at 1:30 in the Artscape Opera Bar.

The gendered blinkers we rarely talk about also determine who plays jazz, what instruments they play and how their playing and composition are classified and discussed, including in the media. (And, let’s not forget, these blinkers oppress everybody whose music doesn’t fit the gender mould, whether nonconforming cis people, members of the LGBTIQ community, or people who refuse all labels. )

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Dorothy Ashby

The labels determine how the history of the music and the literature about it are written. In this country, pioneering work by Lara Allen (summarised in her introduction to the first edition of Chris Ballantine’s Marabi Nights ) allowed us the first insights into the key role played by women in the development of precursor musics on the vaudeville stages.

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Valaida Snow

For the USA, Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift and other books, as well as documentaries such as Lady Be Good (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s ) and The Girls in the Band (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s) begin to tell the story.

You probably already know of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston – shame on you if you don’t – but if you doubt the breadth of the history of women instrumentalists in jazz, listen to the early sounds of Leona May Smith, Dolly Jones or Valaida Snow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ffobYKq8o ) and the jazz harp of Dorothy Ashby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zPorum2p0&t=11s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojuz4XlxKmM ). If you think women have been absent from classical composition, check out Florence B Price (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=189GH0gUBd4 ) or the experimentalism of Julia Perry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK2TNTu3HB4 ). And, believe me, there’s more: much more.

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Julia Perry

It’s not accidental that these great but hardly known players and composers are women of colour, and not only because communities of colour were the wellsprings of the music. Exclusion and erasure are intersectional: they operate at the crossroads where race, gender, class and power intersect. That jazz studies ignores women is about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how that plays out in the discourse of the field (see https://journals.cdrs.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2015/03/current.musicology.71-73.tucker.375-408.pdf ).

But whether your interest is the theory or the practice of the still-gendered world of jazz, come to Artscape next Tuesday 20 March at 13:30 and join in the debate.

Our panellists are performers, teachers and composers Nicky Schrire and Nomfundo Xaluva; Professor Nirvana Bechan who heads the Media Department of CPUT and, for the CTIJF Arts Journalism Programme, myself and writer Percy Mabandu. #We have voice. Let’s use it to make creative noise about these issues!

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The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

 

*******

It’s us, the listeners, who sometimes want bands and players to stay the same. Musicians themselves are forever growing, exploring, and taking new roads – and that’s a good thing. Last night at the Orbit, Voice reunited for a single, remarkable night. It was worth the ticket, and even the late start and the hour-long wait in a queue. (That tells you how popular the outfit were). It was clear, though, that this wasn’t going to be a night for nostalgiacs right from the moment Sydney Mnisi launched into his first solo on Scullery Department and invited John Coltrane and Archie Shepp into that back kitchen to chow with Kippie. Everybody brought all the journeys they’ve travelled in the last decade-plus back into the music; nobody sounds like their ten years younger selves any more. The playing was fierce, powerful and often hot with emotion, with jaw-dropping solos from Andile Yenana, Mnisi and Marcus Wyatt and calm, masterful drum work from Morabo Morejele holding the strong visions together. By the closer, Blues for Green (there were two encores after that, despite the midnight hour) Yenana had coaxed bassist Herbie Tsoaeli into one of those tight walking lines to recall midnight at another club, ten years ago. But the set also announced that if these players work together again – and the imagining was magical enough to make us hope they do – there will actually be no going back to those days and it’ll be another journey onward & outwards.

Fake News, ‘native’ content and the ethics of arts journalism

I receive emails like this three or four times a week. This is the most recent:

“Good Day,

I hope my e-mail finds you well and fab.

CONFIDENTIAL:

There’s a new […] TV show due to launch[…] for My Client […] and we were wondering if we can do a cover/ insert story with […]?

Details: […]

Suggested story angles & headlines: available on request

Kindly let me know if you’d be keen on this? We would be honoured to be featured on in (sic) your publication or cover.

Best…”

 I’ve removed the details to save the blushes of the person – they call themselves a ‘brand architect’ – who penned this. Otherwise, linguistic infelicities, bad grammar and all, this is the full message. The person hasn’t even bothered to discover who I am or whether I’m in any position to offer a ‘cover/insert story’, even if I’m so inclined.

But it represents a growing and disturbing trend. Advertising agencies broker deals with publications; the publication’s writers generate content based on the “suggested story angles and headlines” brewed up by the agency. Newsrooms are short of staff and resources; media houses need advertising revenue; many editors have abandoned the arts as an area worth serious journalistic coverage. So they grab and run with this offered “story”. Even if no payment changes hands – and there is no suggestion of payment above – an allegedly independent publication potentially allows an outside interested party to set its news agenda.

Often, payment does happen, but by a more indirect route. As Songezo Zibi, former Business Day editor, observed in the 2016 State of the Newsroom report (http://www.journalism.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/STATE-OF-THE-NEWSROOM-2015_2016_FINAL.pdf ): “Instead of selling space in our titles we’re now selling content, meaning as editors we have to sell advertising to clients and usually with a promise of positive editorial coverage.” (The Press Ombud’s Code requires paid content to be labelled as such – but when that specific story is not paid for, merely ‘suggested’ and accompanying advertising elsewhere, the situation becomes much greyer. And when it’s happening in an area of news that many editors don’t respect as such..?

But why, you may wonder, does this matter? After all, it’s only a puff about a new TV series.

First, it’s part of the pervasive creep of external agenda-setting and bought news bedevilling all our media, and brought to light when Bathabile Dlamini’s then-Ministry bought a praise song for her on an SABC station (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-01-17-social-development-has-allegedly-paid-sabc-r500000-to-interview-bathabile-dlamini-but-no-ones-talking/#.Wqjkor1ub5s ).

Secondly, however ‘trivial’ you may consider the subject matter, this is the insertion of fake news into the media. The series may be so run-of-the-mill that it contains absolutely no news worth wasting page space on. Or it may be garbage. Or there may be real news lurking there, which this suggested publicity is designed to mask: presenters haven’t been paid; reality footage may have been (more) faked (than usual); a dozen other possibilities. (Additionally, if an agency genuinely has a powerful story, that agency should write it and send it out as their release. If it’s really news, it’ll get picked up.)

And, thirdly, of course, TV programmes are not trivial (after all, they are watched by millions). They contain multiple potentially engaging and important stories: about their discourse, process, economics and more. The same is true of any arts topic or event.

Attempts to set the news agenda by interested parties aren’t trivial either. Whenever anybody – be it an advertising or PR agency, a commercial company, a government department or some unholy alliance of these – offers journalists “news angles/headlines”, or guidance on the best way to cover something, the shit-detectors of those with an interest in press freedom should blare. Those who pay the piper invariably hope to call the tune.

Arts coverage, currently the neglected orphan of the newsroom, is particularly vulnerable, because editors no longer care to see the story possibilities in it (and not just for the arts pages), and no longer have budget for the specialist writers who can.

So, no, Ms ‘brand architect’. Your email does not find me “fab”. And as for the offer of “news angles/headlines” – thanks, but I’ll pass.