Thursday, 6 February 2014

Put Jazz in Context - Give Listeners Better Shortcuts

In a recent open letter to every young jazz musician, Peter Bacon at the Jazz Breakfast deplores the lack of marketing communications used by players. It's based on the Midlands scene, but the point - at first glance - could easily made about London:
Now answer me this question: you have played your gig, you had a great time, and you had quite a few of those cheap beers in the post gig euphoria. But how many of the dozen or so people who were in the audience did you NOT KNOW?
Live jazz in North London has been particularly great over the last six months or so, but I've been listening to a lot of recorded music, particularly from across the pond where it's (a LOT) more difficult to go see them. Taking pride of place in my current ears are Craig Taborn's latest trio release Chants and John Escreet's Sabotage and Celebration. I'd be 6-12 months late in reviewing them, but I thought I'd mention them in the context of Peter's letter.

The solution offered seems to be that players need to use more websites and more publications to spread the word about their gigs. I disagree.

Let's just say that an upstart quartet does indeed get the most media attention they could possibly hope for - bearing in mind that currently, the best releases and shows in jazz (whatever they might be) always just seem to end up looking like this:

Followed by a string of references to people from the 60s. Which is almost useless.

Take Craig Taborn, for example. A review of a recent gig of his read:

"It made regular references to the jazz tradition – even to Thelonious Monk"

But totally ignores the influence on Taborn's playing and composition from electronic music. And I would argue that that's helped me understand even his acoustic playing a lot more than Monk (for more on that - specifically early Detroit House, Taborn talks about it about 11 minutes into this interview).

And John Escreet's record - there was a nice big review of that in the Huffington Post that talks about how fresh it sounded for Modern Jazz but didn't mention hand-claps once. And honestly, that's a big gap in a review of a contemporary jazz record that has a closing movement supported by "stuck-in-the-middle-with-you"-volume hand-clapping. It also mentions the track Laura Angela but doesn't remotely touch on its subtle-but-absolutely-undeniably-still-there influence of Drum & Bass, nor the strummed acoustic guitar. Instead, you come away from the review feeling like listening to that record would be like staring at a snuff film. "Jarring", "jagged", "juxtaposed" Jazz. Pffff...

The Guardian review, again, is quick to link his playing to Cecil Taylor (fine, it's important to have history, I get it). While Fordham does talk about the "broader palette", it only seems to be much smaller blogs that go anywhere near the hand-claps or the strummed acoustic guitar.

The sounds that make these records really fresh and would give potential new listeners better ways in to these records are missed entirely by nearly all media outlets who touch them. Rubbish. The Escreet quote thrown into the mix in the London Jazz Blog's review mentions ‘albums back in the 1970s [which] featured a wider sonic palette ... combined with some of the pop music I’ve been listening to recently’, which on its own does more to describe this album than every other review I've seen put together.

People don't need more listings for jazz gigs. Young jazz musicians can post their gig on as many websites and publications as they want; it won't get more people going to see live jazz. It certainly won't help get more younger people at gigs. I recently went to a very well-publicised and well-attended gig at Kings Place, and honestly felt like the only member of the audience who wasn't either white-haired or at-music-college. Of course, listings serve a purpose. But more of them is not enough.

Somebody going to see live Jazz in London over the last year will probably have seen (and possibly sat on) a publication of Green Chimneys at some point. It's a London publication on hiatus at the moment, but Peter should look at it before deriding the marketing skills of all young jazz musicians. If not the silver bullet for low attendance, it's certainly a start. One of the keys to GC's success, is the inclusion of various guest articles. They talk to listeners about the wider scene, about live jazz and even about writing about it. It offers people a broader look at an exciting, creative and varied scene. It's also well targeted - think about those ads that follow you around the internet. While GC might initially only be seen by a handful of people, it gives all of them an easy way to see when these musicians might be playing again, or when similar music might be happening close to them in a similar setting. This is a much more efficient (and - I'd hazard - effective) way to advertise live music.

Having your gig on more listings, or getting more media coverage (as it is at the moment, at least) is not a way to get people listening, unless you have an effective set of shortcuts that help people quickly understand what it is you're trying to do.

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