Corey Mwamba


Insanely large rant about the U.K. jazz scene

I woke up, looked at the coding I had to do for cognizance, and thought "why?" which then led to my screaming at the world in the howling hail and wind on a mountain- all right, clinically posting all of my thoughts on Twitter. Which I swore to myself I wouldn't do. Anyway, I've put them all together here.

I'm thinking back to the time when a whole bunch of people were upset about the way we were treated by the scene.

I am now thinking about the MANY discussions we had about how to change it. Some of those discussions needed to start. Others were pointless. But what hasn't happened is any resolution. There was a LOT of hot air blown about. In that hot air, I decided to attempt something positive. The result of that is cognizance—which was not just my thinking alone.

There's a name missing on there: the conversation I had with Cassandra Wilson was really instrumental in getting it set up too.

And it is built. And I'm happy with it. But the people who originally asked for it—are not using it.

I am entirely happy that people ARE using it: and really happy that people are wanting to contribute to it, and have done [Shabaka, Steve Davis, et al.] But I am looking over what I'd written here and I am wondering how people feel about the scene now.

To be clear: I think some of the conversations that happened in That Group were less than helpful. But certain things needed to be said. On the other hand, I also think the nature of discussing deep problems on Facebook re-ignited older spats, in-fighting, and memories of unfair treatment from all sides of the table. It also brought to the fore unpleasant behaviour, again from all sides. But has it made the scene stronger?

I'd argue no, it has not. In some ways, I'm not even sure it WAS about the scene. Self-interest is a great delusional device. Big, open, reasonable discussions are NOT happening. I realise everyone's "busy", but if it was so important in August/September; and it was so important decades ago (viz. Harriott); why on EARTH are people acting like it won't crop up again later?

The discussion cannot stop just because you get a London Jazz Festival gig. That isn't a solution. Getting a gig at Ronnie's—that's not the answer either. Maybe there isn't one answer. But if you don't look for it, you won't know. And as far as I'm concerned, some people have definitely stopped searching.

I want to point out that I am not talking solely about race. I could go on about the "parameters of black music" and where my own music has been put in relation to those parameters by all sorts of people.Those same tensions exist about my "state of blackness". From all quarters.

I remember being asked if I was adopted by white parents because I'd mentioned listening to Shostakovich. I used to improvise with DJs like Beatmaster, Vuyani & the breakdancers [some of whom are in the Trinty Warriors] in clubs in Derby. Then be told the next day by another black musician or black audience member that I "didn't do black music". Laughable. But these are things I have dealt with. Those are my parameters. And they are based on communication with others. Open communication.

The white people that felt they were sufficiently qualified to measure my music against race would be upset if they knew they were doing it. The black people that felt they were sufficiently qualified to measure my music against race would baulk at the same thing applied to them. It isn't about race—it's about being aware.

At this point, the wonderfully intelligent Dr Melanie Marshall chimed in with the class dimension in relation to this—and I happen to think that class stratification in the U.K. is a vast part of who listens to what—as well as gender: it is still the case that women get a raw deal in jazz, particularly instrumentalists, of whatever skin colour.

This is the thing: you cannot have a discussion about career barriers in UK without talking about class. You just can't. I'd say that there is a stratification in the jazz scene here... and it's class-related. It's like the London/Provinces divide—which I feel is a manifestation of the same thing. It's a narrative:

  1. Regional/local musician is conditioned to think "I'm not in London, so my music is less important".

  2. Musician moves to London, studies, and is accepted in a clique [not meant as a derogatory term here] in a form of rite of passage, or ritual.

The musician "moves up" a class boundary in musician, simply by moving to the capital. I know this because of the effects not moving has had on my work in Derby.

Anyway: conflating or reducing the discussion to just ONE factor and then regarding only EXTERNAL aspects of that factor is a mistake.

I think the other thing about the debate that happened last year is where and how it happened. "Social" media is great for chatting... but if your writing skills aren't up to scratch, aiming to get your point across by typing essays into Facebook probably won't cut it. And further: if you ARE going to type an essay into Facebook, at least make sure you have a point, and that it can be easily deciphered.

If you want to talk about something as important as breaking down barriers to opportunity for people's careers, it's only right to be clear. Because the internal aspects of these barriers need communicating too: perhaps even more carefully than the ones we can see.

The greatest enemy to creative music is not commercialism but homogenisation. And the greatest strength of jazz/creative music is its diversity.

It always has been. For me, jazz is a real teacher of biodiversity and change. And it is a revolutionary force: whenever it's been straitjacketed, it has moved on and changed: for example, while be-bop was becoming codified into "modern jazz and the mainstream", the avant-garde/free jazz presented a new way of expressing our lives in music [which is the point, I feel]. I think that's why jazz is such a powerful U.S. cultural imperialist weapon: a music that allows you to be you is a beautiful thing.

But jazz [to me] stopped being solely American a long time ago. It diversified as soon as it stepped outside the States, because diversity is its core: it thrives on extra influences and promotes that individuality. Any attempt to homogenise it [e.g. "that's not jazz - there's a cello in it"—really, I can bear witness to having heard that said] destroys it.

Thus, the "neo-classicism" of jazz in the Eighties was destructive and created extra stratifications in the States AND here. Those who could/wanted to play it [and dressed the part] were in. Those who didn't/couldn't were not.

I'm not saying that that sort of stylistic tension shouldn't exist. But when it is conflated to race dynamics, the ground gets wobbly... Or perhaps I should say "the plate."

ANYWAY. What I think neo-classicism did is allow people to think that the music was only genuine based on a minimal set of parameters: namely: external appearance, spoken language, and notions of musical purity. If you don't "look the part", "speak the language" or play the [supposedly improvised] music properly, then you're not playing jazz. Or BAM. Whatever that is.

[By the way, if clothes actually solved any race problems, we'd all be wearing suits. But they don't.]

The issue for me is that these parameters exist: not necessarily externally, but internally—within my family of music. We can blame the market for jazz [heh] as much as we like: there are musicians [some young!] who are upholding these values as truth.

"[Black] men in suits playing difficult music [without music stands]" is a cultural meme.

"This sound is taking my mind elsewhere" is not.

Can no one see the problem with that?

comments (3)

Corey Mwamba

1st Feb 2012 | 11:07am

Had a few replies on Twitter so putting them here for completeness.

From Philip Wain:

"appreciating your tweets this morning, gathering my thoughts—I like what you said abt the power of jazz as self expression...

"I think it's important to find new audiences for jazz as we're mostly playing for other musicians—reach out ...

"... so many different perceptions of jazz—we find so many ppl love great music live when they assume they don't like jazz.

"I think the time was such that the race thing just had2come out from under the carpet—it needs intelligent, honest discussion.

"And Facebook a very imperfect medium for that—but it's the folk discussion medium of the day.

"similar discussions re race popping up in sport, politics and other areas bc we've often discouraged dialogue on it.

"but, you're right, class remains the key issue in the UK.

"my experience is the london jazz scene, like most is divided by cliques and networks, much less so in other cities.

"not my experience in other cities, cliques natural & not entirely negative but much closed mind thinking in London—ppl playing w. who they know—playing music they played before (massive generalisation obviously).

"think the nature of the fb discussion reflected it having been considered a taboo issue & the floodgates opened."

Corey Mwamba

2nd Feb 2012 | 6:45am

I also received a comment/question from Toby Carson:

"do [commercialism and homogenisation] not seem to go hand in hand[?]"

To which my immediate answer was: no. It is entirely possible to sell/promote something that is diverse in nature. What I wrote does not use commercialism in a negative sense.

Toby understood this, but saw that "seems to be the case in [ou]r pop industry", which may be a fair point for the "industry", but not necessarily for popular music itself.

The music that I am talking about—music with a strong element of improvisation and/or risk that looks at new and/or interesting forms of expression through sound—can in fact be packaged and sold commercially. How one feels about that is a personal concern: but it can be [and has been] done.

If the aim however is to shift units by producing music that sounds like other music that you've seen sell, and you put it out there, it doesn't matter whether you sell lots of copies of it or not: the damage has been done, and you have polluted the musical landscape with derivative music.

If more and more people have the same intention/mind-set then those precious idiosyncrasies that you heard on the sound you're trying to copy actually lose cultural value through their constant replication. Homogenisation sets in.

Luckily, this will never actually happen—but the media could help more by remembering that fact and pointing it out, by actively looking for [and talking about!] the new and creative.

This is not an easy thing to do, however.

Corey Mwamba

2nd Feb 2012 | 6:49am

This ties in with what Huw Warren said:

"For me this music is all about diversity and evolution. We should be celebrating this, no?!"

Which is exactly the point.

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