Local pride can be a great thing. And it is understandable if not always so desirable that arts organisations particularly at a national level – look for instance at how the Finns are promoting at Jazz Ahead this year – see jazz in national, cultural, even quasi-political terms to bolster their cultural portfolio writes Stephen Graham
Do we have to, however, bang on about jazz in narrow national terms as if the music is a football team belonging to TeamNationalBorders or simply a tool to boost trade?
German jazz, Nordic jazz, Catalan jazz, Icelandic jazz, the list goes on and on to include virtually every major country and identity and yet is just as meaningless in obvious musical terms apart from to the proponents of the identity who may choose to promote it using state official apparatus and funding as it is looking within borders rather than the interconnected less parochial global world of jazz beyond.
Look at it this way: your friend says to you ‘let’s hear some jazz tonight’, you say ‘what’s on?’ your friend replies ‘Kamasi Washington’. You don’t ever say ‘you mean jazz from the USA?’ Because individuality counts for more. Where someone comes from now is a bit like referring to the Internet as ‘American’: it has little relevance as to use and practice given global reach and modification. The TeamNationalBorders idea is more of a wrapping like niche local marketing or when exported exihibited like specialist cheeses at a pop-up farmer’s market but building more from the point of view of the cultural organisation drawing on nationalism and their priorities than those belonging to the artist.
One overriding aim is the image of the culture projected in the best possibly light by hand picked exemplars not the promotion of the artist per se which is an ancillary benefit that may or may not occur. After all this is government-level promotion, the dictates of whether the artist can get a crowd in a specific town on a specific night do not count, all that is taken care of by the cultural sponsor.
The artist unless they are naïve has to bear in mind that there is an agenda they are subscribing to by agreeing to do the gig, showcase or tour. Think of why the US State Department promoted American jazz in eastern Europe in the 1950s. Propaganda (a hearts and minds strategy if you wish to choose a softer euphemism) took precedence over everything. The British Council touring artists in China these days is about cultural familiarity and an aid to hospitality to foster trade ultimately between the two countries, it isn’t necessarily beyond the fat fee going to boost artistic development at all. And fundamentally the question arises as to do you want to be officially approved or not? Some artists prefer to steer clear of becoming state-sponsored models of excellence for fear of their creativity going stale or compromised as they strive to please the cultural tsars who are making it all so very comfortably possible.
Jazz has a way of subverting any nationalism just as many art forms do the same because of its individuality and rebellious nature and even more so considered and long justifiable suspicion of officialdom given historical indifference and even hostility to the music itself emanating not just paradoxically given that they ought to be supportive from cultural bodies favouring opera or visual-arts driven prioritisation but by state radio and TV over decades who have downgraded coverage or dismissed it to the more obscurely worthy margins of their popular culture/ratings chasing-dominated remit. Bands are cells, units, small organisations, they do not usually or at all have committees, plenary sessions, parliaments, official constitutions and appeal to any easily discernible electorate and they do not play music that takes into consideration the cultural rules set down for them by other bands just because they come from the same country.
Instead they work on their own creative ideas developed via a group dynamic or individually only constrained by the often brutal and demoralising commercial forces of supply and demand. Their creativity is often anathema to organisations run by long tenured bureaucrats and arts professionals who are more interested in policy and keeping themselves in well paid jobs and power often to suffocating effect on their own artists who they often fail to funnel funds to or instead bypass by channelling money to a small cohort of favoured officially sanctioned artists year in year out.
Shakespeare was English but his impact spans continents, his Englishness small in comparison to his emotional impact and examination of the human condition; and so too John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong were Americans and African Americans and again their appeal circumnavigates the globe in their humanity and ability to move the listener in so many different and timeless ways. Talking about nationality partly explains and clarifies aspects of their art yes, but this is not the vital thing surely and may if nationalism is over-emphasised erect as many barriers as it seeks to dismantle depending on the economic power of the nation doing the promoting and how they rewrite the past to turn it into a sentimental or point-scoring vision like an industrialised cycle of distorted profile-raising cultural selfies.
Better by far is internationalism and that is closer to the mark because jazz is such a global music and more so now with the ease of air travel and fast trains than ever for musicians and fans to travel and the information age for physical musical formats to melt in sway to the ether as the music becomes ever more instantly accessible itself a negation of parochialism and exclusion through the erasing of distance and cost. Jazz Day coming up later this month is a positive force in this regard, not emphasising nation as much as it does the place of jazz on the calendar underlining the value of a world where borders are not important and certainly an impediment in terms of co-operation and a shared human bond. Another initiative #jazz100 again one that deserves respect and support looks to the freedom and potential of the future as much as it values the trials and tribulations of the past.
It is faintly ridiculous when you hear advocates talking about, for instance, uniquely British jazz and its mooted attributes on the one hand when you actually listen to this so-called unique sound and what you are hearing instead emanates not from some rare species found quavering in the deepest shires but instead from America and sounding more like Thelonious Monk or Horace Silver rather than any postulated nationalistic local sound that might embrace dance bands of the 1920s, the impact of west end theatre, brass bands, or the melancholia of hearing the first cuckoo in spring.
Continentalism can be just as contentious. Trying to find European jazz to listen to is as nigh on impossible a task as finding archetypal Asian or African jazz or as fanciful as knowing the whereabouts of Lord Lucan. These musical entities just do not exist beyond theory and the ivory tower in tangible continental terms.
Where international and transcontinental co-operation does exist and is real is in band members from different countries sometimes oceans apart working together, sharing artistic ambitions and embracing the unity of music as a universal language by valuing art and not politics or soft cultural power dreamt up and promoted by little nation cultural bodies whose political agendas however concealed and temporary matter more.
Narrow jazz nationalism of whatever stripe needs to be avoided at all costs to ward off casually imposed assumptions about what a national scene actually is supposed to stand for in the first place. If it isn’t then the power of the creative imagination shrinks and ultimately disbars.
Celebrating International Jazz Day, above