TAITMAIL Getting personal to stop the death of jazz
One of the deep grassroots of our cultural heritage is dying. It’s jazz and the cause of its demise seems to be, well, its informality.
Jazz clubs are the heart of the music and they are almost invariably run by volunteer producers many of whom subsidise them from their own pockets.
They are dying because of the pandemic closures and cannot be rescued because they don’t fulfil the criteria for grants. Beleaguered jammers - led by the high priestess of British jazz, 94-year-old Dame Cleo Laine, with the letter drafted by the guitarist Nigel Price and signed by 69 winners of the Parliamentary Jazz Awards - wrote to DCMS in February and got a reply a month later, but the exchanges haven’t finished yet
Nearly all clubs, mostly in pubs, do not fit the criteria of being companies or charities that are so often a requirement for any public funding, while those volunteer promotors’ pockets have been emptied in the lockdown.
So jazz clubs are closing permanently, about a dozen of them so far (no-one knows exactly how many there are) including Peterborough Jazz, Herts Jazz, Folkestone Jazz Club and Shepperton Jazz Club, and “the future of dozens of others is now hanging by a thread” Price’s letter says. As a result touring is drying up and the Music Venue Trust, a charity set up in 2014, says that half of jazz, folk and blues tours have gone since 2020.
Jazz clubs don’t normally qualify for money from the Cultural Recovery Fund, which has not been open to individuals, or from Arts Council England’s Emergency Grass Roots Venues Fund because they don’t have permanent premises or company status, so that’s about 90% of clubs that don’t qualify for any kind of financial assistance. Those that do get as far as making an application find the process too baffling, and if they succeed in completing an application it almost always fails, writes Price, because they are competing for a small pot of money against professional bid writers.
ACE is aware of the crisis and has tried to help. In 2020 it set up a temporary rescue fund, Supporting Grassroots Live Music, with £2.25m fund giving grants of £80,000 or less ring-fenced for “those whose work focusses on hosting and/or promotion of live music events”. It lasted a few months, but ACE presumably heard the cries and last week reopened it with, as London Jazz News puts it, “a detail-heavy set of requirements to apply for small grants in the 15-page guidance booklet” of £1.5m lasting a year this time “to help grassroots music venues and promoters to deliver and develop their work”.
The reply to Price’s letter came from culture minister Julia Lopez who appears to assume that Price is not merely a winner of a Parliamentary Jazz Award but an actual MP, hoping that “my response is helpful and that your constituent is reassured”, giving the impression that a cut-and-paste operation hasn’t quite worked.
Price was not reassured. Lopez’s response is the mantra that the CRF is the solution and effectively advises that applicants should get their acts together, and it displays an alarming lack of understanding of how artists working at community level operate. He wrote again: “Bewilderingly, the reply seems to be defensive, often self-congratulatory and, shockingly, appears to be passing blame for the demise of our clubs onto the shoulders of those who have been hit hardest”.
As a baby reporter on a local newspaper I was introduced to pub jazz - unforgettably the Rendell-Carr quintet - by a contact, a young trade union executive. He is now an actual MP, John Spellar, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group, and he has now waded in with his own letter to Ms Lopez. He points out that the £2bn CRF actually saw fit to give just £82,000 shared by six jazz venues.
There is guidance available from organisations such as the Music Venue Trust that will help with the complexities of ACE’s Grantium application portal but, says its founder Mark Davyd, the cultural infrastructure has been tattered and torn by the last two years leaving a “very dire situation for the jazz, folk, and blues network which has specific characteristics of delivery, ownership and support which were outside of the remit of the CRF”.
The one recurrent word in all this is “urgent”. Davyd wants DCMS to take a lead with “careful and considered interventions” of small grants without which the circuit may never recover. “We strongly support the call for Nigel Price for urgent action”.
“What is urgently required” writes Spellar “is a fund that can be accessed by volunteer promoters so they can get back to promoting and ensuring the ecology of the UK jazz scene continues to flourish and provide the touring circuits for emerging and re-emerging talent”.
Jazz may be generically louche and diametrically opposite to formality, but that is what makes it eternally popular: it’s a music that you take personally, it doesn’t work any other way. But much as it might go against the grain, it needs a formalised support system now, a system that understands its essential quiddity.
“The practical mechanics by which the highly limited funding for jazz may be accessed are in themselves excessively complicated, constantly shifting and – most generally – only achieved by the employment of professional fundraisers, an expertise well beyond the means of most jazz promoters” says Digby Fairweather, trumpet player and founder of the Jazz Centre UK. “The redress of this long-term musical misbalance is a matter of urgency for governmental intervention at the highest level.”