Jazz Connective Ljubljana Notes & Observations by Cormac Larkin
In an increasingly ‘connected’ world, it is clearly important to the survival of creative music in Europe that individual scenes, and the people who make them – musicians, promoters, stakeholders, even journalists - connect with their counterparts around the continent.
So the idea of Jazz Connective - of different scenes co-operating and connecting with each other, sharing knowledge and resources, and learning from each other’s successes and failures – is important, and can stand as a useful metaphor for the kind of music these scenes are trying to nurture and promote. At its best, jazz or ‘creative music’ – a term which is gaining more currency every year, as the ‘j-word’ becomes increasingly redundant and anachronistic, particularly to its younger practitioners – is unique in the way that it foregrounds communication and collaboration amongst its practitioners.
In my own contributions to the conference, I proposed that ‘jazz’ is evolving into meta-genre that is gradually replacing ‘classical’ as the art music of the future. This, I suggested, is because the values of jazz - improvising, collaborating, listening to each other, providing space for every voice – reflect the true values of democracy. Where traditional Western art music tends to elevate the role of the composer and makes musicians the servants of an individual vision, jazz puts the collective experience at its heart and gives each musician a chance to express themselves in the context of a live, spontaneous performance. Or at least, if ‘jazz’ is to have any meaning that is distinct from other forms of creative music making, these are the values that we must strive not to lose.
Of course, the wider context for any discussion about the future of creative music is the pressing matter of the future of our planet. As environmental catastrophe looms ever larger, Jazz Connective is also an opportunity to figure out how we can respond as a community. Alas, the current performance models involve the consumption of precious resources - in flights, in merchandise, in plastic water bottles, in power-hungry venues, etc. – and it is not clear yet whether we as a community have realised how much must change if this music – whatever you want to call it – is to have any future at all.
Jazz Connective Ljubljana
The first Jazz Connective meeting in Ljubljana was an opportunity for the participating organisations to trial the format of the project, to work through some of the challenges in facilitating discussion between disparate participants with disparate views, and to start to outline a common vision and purpose for the project.
The delegation from Ireland, of which I was delighted to be a part, is only too aware of the need for connectivity in creative music. Irish musicians, Kenneth Killeen, Director of the Improvised Music Company in Dublin, told the conference, “find their coastline pretty quickly,” when looking to collaborate with their European counterparts. As an island on the edge of Europe, the Irish scene has benefited hugely from the connections built by organisations like IMC, and by Irish-based musicians, to scenes and musicians in other European cities. Now with the catastrophe of Brexit looming, the need for Irish creative music to build new bridges, to nurture those relationships and connect with like-minded organisations around Europe is more pressing than ever.
The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive record of the various discussions which took place over three enjoyably collegiate days in early summer 2019. Nor has there been any particular attempt to disguise the biases of the author. Having said that, for many of the best notions and ideas expressed here, I am surely indebted to my fellow delegates. But where there is error, or where views are expressed that seem misguided, I alone am to blame.
In an inspiring opening address to the conference, Slovenian cultural activist and music programmer Miha Zadnikar gave a wide-ranging historical overview of the European cultural landscape. Speaking passionately in favour of radical ‘unbound’ music – what is called in Solvenian ‘nova musika’ - Zadnikar talked about the challenges of making truly collective musical artworks, and of ‘creating conditions for new understandings of love’ in the ‘debt capitalist’ system, quoting Brecht’s observation that ‘it should be a goal in life to find something we are more afraid of than death’ and invoking Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of an ‘eternal present’. For context, Zadnikar recommended Kurt Blaukopf’s ‘Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology’, in particular his chapter about the parallel inventions of polyphony in music and linear perspective in painting, before going on to identify ‘four crucial moments in European inventiveness’.
For Zadnikar, the French Revolution has contemporary resonance in the conflict between the alt-right and cultural Marxism. In musical terms, he pointed to the rise of music for the common person after the French Revolution, and the growing interest in new instruments, particularly woodwinds, and higher technical standards in performance and instrument manufacture that followed.
Secondly, Zadnikar identified the worker’s movements in France and Germany in the 19th century as important to the revolutionary process that he sees as central to the rise of new and experimental music. He pointed to the way, for instance, that the SPD in Germany supported music education prior to 1914.
The third ‘moment’ that Zadnikar identified was the 1960s when, he posited, improvised music was reborn around Europe. He referred to the writings of British percussionist and music theorist Chris Cutler, proposing that for all the foment in 1960s Britain – he made reference to Skiffle and early Pink Floyd – the revolution was ultimately declined, and this was, he noted wryly, despite the presence of a Che Guevara poster on the bedroom wall of every would-be revolutionary.
Alas, Zadnikar’s passion for his subject meant that time ran out before he could get to his fourth crucial moment, but as the delegates took their first coffee break, it was clear that this politically charged opening address had given the conference plenty to ponder. For the delegates from western Europe, it was also a reminder of how present and still potent in the former ‘eastern bloc’ countries are the radical cultural politics of the early 20th century.
Audience Development for Innovative Music
The afternoon was devoted to two round table discussions. The first, entitled ‘Audience Development for Innovative Music’ featured Zadnikar, Parisian journalist Mathieu Durand, broadcaster and Galway Jazz Festival director Ellen Cranitch and this correspondent. The panel was asked to talk about ‘building and retaining audiences for creative music in the context of the major changes in the way audiences discover, listen to and experience music’.
Resuming his passionately polemical tone from his opening address, Zadnikar proposed that innovative music requires an innovative environment. Recommending to the conference the writings of renowned Ljubljana philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, he talked about meeting the challenge of art in the digital age where the idea of society is under threat from ‘big data’ and the forces of feral capitalism.
Mathieu Durand also referred to the societal dimension of music, and as a representative of a younger generation, offered an optimistic reading of the role of social media. In his own writings and social media posts, and as a founder and presenter on innovative Paris web-radio station, Le Grigri, he seeks to connect the experience of creative music with his own personal experiences of seeking it out. His point, it seemed to this listener, was that the personal, intimate, apparently banal occurrences that are part of the experience of creative music can humanize the art form and draw new listeners towards what might otherwise be considered elitist or difficult.
Ellen Cranitch talked about the way Galway Jazz Festival has nurtured relationships with local businesses and stakeholders, and stressed the importance of the idea of community as a way to connect audiences with new music. The delegates heard how, in particular, Galway has connected with its audience on the subject of climate change, retooling many of the usual practices of a festival to better meet the challenge – in 2018, Galway Jazz Festival dispensed with unnecessary merchandise, banned plastic bottled water, both back stage and front of house, and even managed without plastic laminates and passes for artists.
In commending Galway Jazz Festival for its innovative thinking, the current author suggested that no conversation about the future for creative music can ignore the ‘elephant in the room’ of the global climate crisis. The current models - of touring, of music distribution and consumption, of publicity and information sharing, of audience behaviour and expectation - are all based on unsustainable practices in relation to energy and resource consumption, and I expressed the hope that the next decade in creative music will be about finding new ways to bring music to audiences that contribute to the overall goals of sustainability and ecological repair. I also pointed out that these are concerns that are widely shared by our audience and that, as well as being an environmental and political imperative, addressing these concerns is a good way of building community, developing audiences and connecting with listeners in a meaningful way.
I briefly outlined the modus operandi of the Sofa Sessions, a small, informal concert series which I curate in Kilkenny city in Ireland, where intimate, acoustic performances are presented to a local audience ever week. Over the last five years of our operation, that audience has been transformed into a supportive community, as vital to the music as the musicians themselves, and together we have discovered the rewards of supporting small-scale, local musical performance. The marketing strategy, such as it is, is based on building loyalty to the series, rather than promoting individual performers, and it has been gratifying to find that the audience has responded to that, turning up every week without really knowing what to expect.
I also made the wider point, from my perspective as a jazz journalist in the ‘mainstream’ media, that as a community we must not cede the cultural ‘centre ground’. If, as I have suggested above, jazz or creative, improvised music is the new art music of our times, we risk marginalizing ourselves if we do not continue to engage with mainstream culture and demand the same space, respect and funding structures traditionally given to ‘classical’ art music.
Artist Circulation and Transnational Networks
The second round-table discussion – Artist Circulation and Transnational Networks – heard from Kenneth Killeen, Artistic Director of the Improvised Music Company in Dublin; from Kim Macari, musician, activist and programmer at the Vortex in London; and from Maaike Wuyts of the Aubergine Artist Management agency in Brussels. The panel was asked to discuss how transnational exposure is critical to artist development and to share their experiences of how this can be achieved through social and professional networks like Jazz Connective.
Kenneth Killeen offered a brief overview of the European jazz scene, pointing out that while it is a very diverse scene, it is also becoming more homogenized. He asked the conference to consider the difference between Jazz in Europe and European Jazz, and talked about the Improvised Music Company’s experience running the 12 Points Festival, a showcase for emerging European jazz artists which alternates between Dublin and another European city every year. In relation to Ireland specifically, he noted the importance of musicians moving to centres of pedagogy and how the development of third-level jazz training in Dublin has led to a welcome growth in the number and diversity of creative musicians in Dublin. But, he added, in Ireland ‘you find the coastline very quickly when you start wanting to collaborate’ with other European musicians. And he noted that while networks like Jazz Connective are the backbone of how new initiatives are developed, they can be a double-edged sword. It can be argued, he said, that initiatives led by the artists themselves are the most sustainable, but he hoped that organisations like those gathered for this conference, and networks like Jazz Connective, are enabling those meetings and those conversations, and pointed to the many new music projects and collaborations that have been seeded by festivals like 12 Points and Druga Godba.
Later, delegates witnessed the tangible results of such jazz connectivity when we were treated to a first performance from a remarkable new project that had taken shape at Druga Godba during the conference, involving Irish guitarist Shane Latimer, French percussionist Ar Ker and Slovenian vocalist Irena Tomažin Zagoričnik. The intimate performance, just for delegates, was a chance for us all to see three musicians reaching out, listening to each other, giving space to each other, responding and commenting on each other’s sounds, and seemed an appropriate soundtrack to the themes we were discussing in a room just down the hall.
Kim Macari spoke about her experience in setting up Jazz from Scotland, and particularly about the challenges and opportunities of a relatively small but geographically diverse nation. She shared learnings about the difference between urban and rural audiences which had come out of the Highland and Islands touring network, supported by the Creative Scotland initiative, and the rewards of creating micro-communities of open-minded listeners on islands for instance, referencing the different attitudes to cultural practice in rural communities as opposed to people who live in cultural hubs.
Speaking about the wider context, Macari said that ‘support and development and advocacy are cogs in a machine that all run together’. She talked about the recent example of co-operation between the UK and Irish scenes at Jazzahead!, entitled ‘Isle of Jazz’, which circumvented the challenge of showcases - which she said are too often ignored or talked through - by the innovative use of VR headsets, giving Jazzahead! delegates one or two minutes of complete focus on the music on offer.
Macari, who is based in London, also referred to the Jazz re:freshed organisation in that city as an example of an artist-focused initiative that has ‘translatability’ when talking about export and transnational mobility.
Maaike Wuyts talked about her checklist when developing international projects and the importance of identifying organisations that share the same values. She particularly stressed the importance of media relationships in getting new projects talked about, pointing out that media coverage in the English language was a crucial element of the marketing mix when developing audiences across Europe. She described a recent collaboration between Aubergine and the Edinburgh Blues and Jazz Festival in which local coverage of Aubergine artists was critical to the success of the project, noting that on the strength of a series of sold-out shows, new opportunities were opening up for Belgian artists at the festival.
Wuyts also mentioned the Match and Fuse organization as a good example of a transnational network, noting that the central proposition of the network – the ‘matching’ and ‘fusing’ of local and visiting groups – was a useful, artist-centred format that led to new projects and sustained collaborations. Kenneth Killeen interjected that it was unfortunate that Match & Fuse did not receive more funding, stressing how important it is that each country in a transnational collaboration has to live up to their side of the bargain for such initiatives to survive.
Referencing the challenge of the climate crisis, Kenneth Killeen talked about Julie’s Bicycle, the London-based charity that advocates and supports more sustainable practices in the creative community. He said that organisations like those in Jazz Connective were in a position to shape new models, around issues like ‘slow touring’, and added that it was not a question of being naïve but of being determined.
Day Two of the conference was devoted to a series of workshops, where delegates gathered ‘in the round’ to discuss a range of topics, including Content Creation, Media and Key Influencers, Tools for Artistic Circulation and Inclusivity: Women in Jazz.
Content Creation – Becoming a Media
Nika Vogrič Dežman, who handles public relations for the Druga Godba festival, and also for the Ljubljana Jazz Festival, addressed the Content Creation workshop, subtitled ‘Becoming a Media’. She stressed the growing importance of visuals in social media stories, and she pointed to the digital strategy of Ljubliana venue Kino Šiška, run by their ‘digital guru’ Daniel Sheppard, as a good example of how to connect with new audiences.
Mathieu Durand spoke about his Criss Cross Jazz blog which he runs with photographer Nikola Cindric in Paris. He told the delegates how they had noticed that the mainstream media was not covering new music, or if it was, it was in a very detached, formal way. The idea of Criss Cross was to make jazz writing personal, talking not just about the music, but of the experience of witnessing the music – how they missed the train on the way to the gig, how the audience looked, how wet they got when they got caught in the rain afterwards. His point was that authenticity and personal experiences connect with audiences in a way that traditional music journalism does not. Making the same point in relation to social media, Durand referenced Robert Glasper as a good example of an artist who was not just saying ‘I have a gig tonight’ but was letting his followers behind the scenes and giving them some idea of the life of a musician.
In the ensuing group discussion, Charles Gil, founder of the agency Vapaat äänet (Free Voices / Free Sounds) in Helsinki, stressed the importance of paying for music content if the life of a creative musician is to be sustainable. And he agreed that curation, maintaining the quality of the music offered by promoters and festivals, was vital to audience development.
Media and Key Influencers
Benjamin Kohler of the Periscope organization in Lyon introduced the discussion, encouraging the room to think about how organisations can work with media and journalists, and how they can interact. He pointed out that new creative music sometimes struggles to get coverage, and how building relationships and networking with key influencers can help to promote the music.
London music writer AJ Dehany said that he approaches writing about music not as a reporter, a critic or a journalist but as a creative writer. He talked about how ‘word of mouth’, formerly such an important element in the dissemination of new music, was being replaced by social media and blogs, but he saw problems for readers in deciding the difference between different forms of commentary. He asked the meeting to consider the difference between a ‘puff piece’ and writing that “critically engages with the music”. For him as a writer, the challenge was to “find a role that fits in between the new and old medias, and expresses a sense of the scenes that are going on”.
Tony Dudley-Evans, programme adviser to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in the UK, talked about how a relationship between a promoter and a writer can be beneficial to both parties. He referenced in particular to a piece which Dehaney had written for London Jazz News about a new trio project, Shifa, which Dudley-Evans had been promoting. Dehaney’s thoughtful piece about the group’s performance had become an important element in subsequent funding applications, showing that credible quotes from writers are as important for promoters as they are for musicians. Dudley-Evans concluded his remarks by stressing that “we are a community, and sharing is an important part of the strategy”. We have, he said, “a responsibility to comment and share” on each other’s projects.
Slovenian journalist Mario Batelić said it was important to understand the many different roles that a typical free-lance journalist can be involved in. As well as being a radio and print journalist, Batelić also writes the programme copy for Jazz Festival Ljubljana, as well as being a member of the festival’s programme board. He said that, particularly in a small scene like Slovenia, it was hard “to have this ambivalent role”.
Journalist and academic Ičo Vidmar begged the meeting for ten minutes, offering a passionate exposition of the history of Slovenian music programming, describing the “jazz war” between the old guard and modernism in Slovenia and pointing out the differing narratives offered by the national radio station and the independent Radio Študent. He said that for him, journalists are cultural intermediaries, part of the distribution of the music, operating in the space between production and consumption. He said his main motto was learnt from American writer and Downbeat critic, Amiri Baraka, that “the formalism of white critics prevented them from understanding the social conditions of jazz”. He said that when he writes about music, he writes not only about what is happening on the stage, but “also the audience, about the door policy, and about the police outside the door”.
Tools for Artist Circulation
Pierre Dugelay of Périscope introduced the discussion, talking about how they approach the circulation of younger artists in France, and in particular, the challenges of getting the young artists and promoters to engage with the programmes on offer.
Karolina Juzwa, co-ordinator in the Wytwórnia Foundation and manager of the Wytwórnia venue, said that young artists tend to think that getting onto these programmes is the success, but she pointed out that “this is just the start of the real work”. She informed delegates about the International Jazz Platform, an educational programme in Poland which questions the traditional dichotomy between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, encouraging young creative musicians to look inside themselves and discover an original language and sound, to advise, support and inspire rather than ‘teach’ in the traditional sense.
Referencing the overarching challenge of the climate crisis, Charles Gil talked about the development of slow touring models in Scandinavia, saying that there are new solutions emerging for touring that involve fewer planes and more trains, and performances in small spaces with musicians playing acoustically, obviating the need for expensive and power hungry PA and lighting systems. “My main duty”, he said, “is to create suitable situations in each country, which means taking care of big issues, as well as small issues”.
Inclusivity - Women in Jazz
Opening the discussion on inclusivity, Kim Macari offered a description of herself that challenged the idea of a musician as a one-dimensional entity. Identifying as an artist and an activist, she said she was also a socialist, a post-modernist, a liberal, and a xenofeminist. Invoking the example of pioneering US feminist art group, the Guerrilla Girls, she pointed to two overarching issues: representation and visibility. She referred to important initiatives like Key Change, and discussed the anxiety around quotas and positive discrimination, and the importance of continual mentoring. She mentioned examples such as the We Have Voice Collective in New York, which started with an open letter about safe working conditions and sexual harassment in the music industry. The trumpeter, who was involved in drafting the gender manifesto for the European Jazz Network, also talked about how embarrassment often impedes discussion and how there are many women working behind the scenes at highest level in the industry, but are not necessarily so visible.
Slovenian vocalist Tea Vidmar said that gender not really an issue for her, noting that in the settings in which she works in Slovenia - improv, theatrical, and experimental singing – there was always a good balance of male and female in the groups that she is involved in.
Pierre Dugelay told the meeting about a study carried out by Périscope in Lyon of the numbers of men and women performing in French jazz concerts. The shocking but sadly predictable results - a ratio of ten men to every woman - have prompted a new Périscope initiative to promote young women musicians.
There followed a long discussion with many contributions about experiences, challenges and solutions. Kim Macari made an interesting point about women being perhaps more risk-averse – whether that is down to nature or nurture must be the subject for another day - and therefore less likely to choose the precarious career path of a creative musician. Macari said that even with quotas and programmes to encourage women musicians, there may be other challenges, less susceptible to manipulation by quotas, about the cultural and societal expectations of women and by women, which also need to be considered and addressed.
Building Innovation - How to reinvent the Creative Industries
In offering solutions to the re-invention of the creative industries, Daniel Radtke, founder and owner of the Pardon To Tu club in Warsaw told the meeting that his club is not just a venue, but also a bookstore, a record store, a café, a bar, and a restaurant. He also admitted that the programming was not typical of a jazz club, presenting everything from avant garde to African music to rock, “everything that is good and that the audience might enjoy”. Several delegates expressed amazement at how Radtke does all this with no subsidy, but he said that bar sales on weekend nights, when there is no music, finance the concerts which are frequently loss making. Summing up his learnings over the last eight years of operation, Radtke offered this advice: “Be patient, and expect the worst.”
Talking about the challenges of making a living as a promoter of creative music, Bogdan Benigar, co-founder of the Druga Godba organization, pointed out that he is not employed by his own organization, but is employed by Ljubljana’s Cankerev dom as director of jazz and world music, with an agreement to allow him to continue working on Druga Godba. He compared the different mindsets of the two organisations, and of the advantages and disadvantages of freelance versus employed work, and noted that with just three full-time employees, volunteers were an important part of keeping the Druga Godba organization going.
Oliver Weindling, founder of the Babel record label and a director of the Vortex club in London, talked about the history of Vortex and how the growth of the Vortex community - of musicians, of audiences and of locals - has sustained the club through hard times and a move of venue. “A lot of what the Vortex has been about” he said, “has been letting the musicians run things”. To put the success of the Vortex in context, he noted that 40% of grass roots venues have closed in London over the last ten years, due to government cutbacks and a lack of support from local authorities.
Daniel Radtke asked about the effect of Brexit – the UK’s impending departure from the EU – and Weindling said that there was huge uncertainty surrounding issues such as work permits and freedom of movement for touring musicians. Radtke also wondered about funding that was currently accessed through the EU. Weindling pointed out that the UK academic community were particularly nervous about an end to freedom of movement, but in relation to funding, he hoped that the Vortex might not be so affected, precisely because it is not ‘excessively reliant’ on subsidy. “We’ve always been poor”, added Macari drily, “and we will continue to be poor”.
Connectivity is important - all the more so in a world that is becoming ‘smaller’ and more interconnected at an alarming rate – and the future of creative music is certainly one of greater mobility for artists and more collaboration across national borders. However, the climate crisis cannot be ignored, and the irony of discussing that crisis - and how creative music industry might respond to it - in a group of people who had arrived by plane, and who were returning to their comfortable lives on more planes, was not lost on some of the delegates, myself included.
In the domestic scenes from which the delegates were drawn, there is always discussion – admittedly much of it ill-informed – about how music funding is spent, and there is no doubt that conferences such as Jazz Connective consume resources. It is perhaps worth pausing to wonder therefore if future connectivity might be better achieved by deploying the technology now at our disposal, technology that enables virtual meetings without the sort of unnecessary international travel that has often characterized the professional arts industry in the past.
No doubt the partner organisations of Jazz Connective will protest the necessity of meeting in person, and for sure, the personal connections and networks that seed and flower in such congenial circumstances are important. But, to quote Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has brought the challenges facing western society into sharp focus (and who, incidentally toured Europe recently without setting foot on a plane), “perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to 'lower' our emissions. Because that is far from enough. The fact that we are speaking of 'lowering' instead of 'stopping' emissions is perhaps the greatest force behind the continuing business as usual."
But there is cause for optimism too, and there may be welcome and unexpected development in creative music brought about by the changes that must be made. The current models of music touring tend to anoint a small cadre of touring musicians, creating a hierarchy to which audiences, and, y’know, jazz journalists, are acutely sensitive. But this hierarchy is increasingly irrelevant. Thirty years ago, when I started writing about ‘jazz’, this music, at its highest level, was played almost exclusively by American men arriving in our cities by airplane for one night and then moving on. But today, there are musicians in every city in Europe, of every race and gender, who are producing creative music of extraordinary originality and depth. Surely the future of this music that we all love - and to which we have devoted so much of our lives and energies - lies in making sure that the musicians who are living beside us, who make up the scenes and the communities that we are part of, week in week out, start to get a fair hearing. It will go some way to saving our planet, and it will surely save our souls.
© Cormac Larkin 2019