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A couple of posts ago, I was writing favourably about the new J-Word initiative. Now, however, I’m having to post about some distressing news on the jazz funding front.

Bridge Music, who have put on regular weekly gigs at Glasgow Art Club for the past few years, have had their application for funding from Creative Scotland turned down. Bridge Music were “asking for just under £50k, which would support some 75 gigs, run twice weekly (both Glasgow and Edinburgh), over a full 12 month period running November 12 through to October 13. This would have created around 350 musician-engagements, a substantial amount of employment for jazz musicians, as well as creating a valuable component of the Scottish arts scene”.

It now looks likely that there will be no regular programme of small-to-medium scale gigs in Glasgow next year, unless there’s someone waiting in the wings I don’t know about.

This to me is a badly misguided decision which could do serious harm to the jazz sector in Scotland.

Why is it is so damaging?

As a preamble:

  1. Most of the discussion about Creative Scotland has been purely from the point of view of the artists. There’s been much less consideration of how the situation affects the audience. I’d argue that one of the key functions of public arts funding should be to ensure that as many different forms of art as possible are available to as many people as possible. This means ensuring that there is funding available for culturally significant but less popular art forms, such as jazz.
  2. In the twenty-five years or so I’ve been living in Glasgow, no-one’s succeeded in putting on a sustained series of small to medium scale jazz gigs without public money. There’s a separate discussion to be had about why this is the case, but the fact is that a number of promoters (in recent years, Assembly Direct, Jazz International and Bridge Music) have tried but none have managed it. This suggests that it’s an underlying problem and not merely down to incompetence or misguided booking policies by one particular organisation.
  3. I’m not waving any flags for Bridge Music specifically. What matters isn’t that it is them who are putting on regular live jazz in the city, but that there is someone doing it. I’ve enjoyed most of what they’ve put on, and the Glasgow Art Club is certainly a more relaxed venue and has better acoustics than the City Halls Recital Room, but Assembly Direct and Jazz International managed to put on consistently interesting seasons too.

Jazz needs a King Tut’s

Removing funding from the organisation currently providing mid-scale jazzs gig essentially destroys the middle layer of jazz provision in the city. We’ll be left with nothing but informal pub gigs and a handful of large scale concerts put on by the SNJO or Glasgow Jazz Festival. It’s the musical equivalent of a theatre scene which offered nothing between amateur dramatics and the Edinburgh International Festival, or a rock scene with nothing between pub gigs and the SECC. Jazz in Glasgow needs its own version of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.

There have been one or two attempts to put on independent concerts at this level, but they’ve been no more successful in drawing a mass audience. It’s arguably easier to build up an awareness of a series of concerts than it is to bring individual ones to people’s attention: you can promote the series as well as the individual events in it.

Why are these mid-size concerts so important? Basically, because they form a link between the informal scene (Slouch, Jazz at the 78) and big name status. Someone emerging from the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland needs the type of intermediate venue that will help them reach the level where they can tour the main jazz venues in the UK or internationally. If we can’t offer musicians somewhere to play, why should they stay in Scotland? How can they afford to stay in Scotland?

Enhancing Scotland’s reputation worldwide

The Scottish jazz scene is currently in as good health as I can remember it being, from the point of view of having highly-talented musicians based in the country. Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock are international-class talents. What sets them apart from almost all the top Scottish players of earlier generations is that they’re still based here.

  • George Chisholm left Scotland.
  • Sandy Brown left Scotland.
  • Jimmy Deuchar left Scotland.
  • Bobby Wellins left Scotland.
  • Joe Temperley left Scotland.
  • Jim Mullen left Scotland.

Tommy and Brian didn’t – in fact Tommy Smith moved away then came back.

But it’s not just about one or two top individuals. What makes the current scene so much stronger than that of the eighties and nineties is the standard of today’s average working jazz musician. We’ve got a strength in depth that we just didn’t have before. But these skilled professionals need somewhere to work. We’ve currently got the musicians, but not the gigs.

And don’t just take my word for it about the current strength of the Scottish scene. Have a look at some of the “Best Jazz Albums of 2012” lists which are currently coming out. The London Jazz Blog’s list of top albums includes Tom Gibb’s Fear of Flying. Birmingham Post jazz critic Peter Bacon’s list has Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson’s New Focus and Euan Burton’s Occurrences.

Midlands jazz writer Ian Mann recently described the SNJO, a band containing many of the musicians whose careers will be hampered by the loss of these gigs, as “a national treasure that has enhanced Scotland’s reputation worldwide”. Does it really make sense for an organisation which proclaims “it’s our job to help Scotland’s creativity shine at home and abroad” to remove the funding necessary to support the infrastructure which makes such success possible?

Not just for local performers

But the need for a regular concert series isn’t just about creating work for local musicians. It’s important to bring in a selection of performers from the rest of the UK and from overseas as well. How do we tell how good our local players are? We compare them with people from elsewhere.

From the audience’s point of view, it’s also important to bring in a good selection of musicians from outside to give a bit of variety. No matter how talented the local figures, it’s harder to work up enthusiasm for a concert season which simply consists of Paul playing in Euan’s band one week then Euan playing in Paul’s band the next than for one which contains the likes of Phil Robson and David Berkman and Herb Geller as well as the local guys.

It also gives local musicians a chance to hear how good the competition is, and to work with, and hopefully form lasting partnerships with, musicians from outside Scotland, whether that’s simply as the rhythm section for a visiting soloist or as participants in more ambitious projects. Anyone else remember Reid Anderson’s excellent Vastness of Space gigs where he recreated his latest album with a band consisting of Laura Macdonald, Phil Bancroft and other Scottish musicians?

The best career move?

I don’t want to be totally negative. Creative Scotland has done some useful stuff for jazz. However, withdrawing funding for the main series of regular gigs in Glasgow is a disastrous decision. Funding for festivals, album projects and the occasional large scale concert is obviously very welcome, but the lack of regular performance opportunities will both make it more difficult for creative musicians to pursue a career here and reduce the range of music available to the public of Scotland’s largest city.

One of the common criticisms of Creative Scotland is that their funding is now organised around concepts like “audience development” rather than by art form, and I’m wondering if that’s part of the problem here. The decision smacks of one taken without thought for its long-term consequences for the jazz sector as a whole. Do we really want to return to the days when the best career move a Scottish jazz musician could make was the move to London?

And one last thought: Glasgow is a UNESCO City of Music. One of the stated aims of this initiative is to “create further musical opportunities for Glaswegians, both as participants and audiences”. Are the people who run Glasgow City of Music aware that Creative Scotland are taking decisions which make it more difficult for them to achieve this goal?