The unexpected cancellation of The Orient House Ensemble’s March 5th gig at the Royal Northern College of Music provoked a spectrum of reactions, all duly registered across social-media land. Jazz gigs are sadly prone to cancellations due to poor pre-sales or the vagaries of promoters and venue owners, but this was a rather different case; here the college attributed their decision to their fears for the safety of those due to attend. This was not because they believed the Orient House’s unique mix of jazz, European and Levantine musical influences was especially perilous in itself, but because a lobby group, the North West Friends Of Israel, had demanded via a petition that the gig be cancelled. Their case was that by booking the gig, the RNCM would provide a platform for Mr Atzmon to disseminate anti-semitic propaganda. Fans immediately launched a counter-petition, but to no avail, and the concert has not been re-scheduled. RNCM stated that the cancellation was entirely related to student safety, and was not a political issue; the Manchester Evening News reported that extra security was provided on the evening of the 5th ‘to prevent any acts of violence’.
This event, coming as it did in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the continuing crisis across the middle east, provoked a wide range of passionate reactions. Jazz music in the UK is generally unused to having its placid waters disturbed in this way by the ripples from such distant storms. There are many different aspects to this case. Gilad Atzmon’s views on Jewish history, Jewish identity and the role of Jews in geopolitics are available for you to discover for yourself via his website; it is far beyond the remit of this column to discuss their validity, but we can certainly agree that they are deliberately and defiantly controversial. Articles have been written about the increasing timidity of British cultural institutions, and their susceptibility to special-interest lobby groups. RNCM seems to have reacted with open-mouthed dismay to the hoo-ha, rather than taking a strongly pro-active stand in favour of either party. Above the head of relatively small concert halls hover large dark clouds – issues of free speech and of artistic freedom versus responsibility, and the returning tide of anti-semitism across Europe set against the increasing isolation of the hardline Israeli government. The latter issue in particular is so heavily charged with bitter controversy that any discussion usually yields explosive results. The North West Friend’s of Israel’s decision can be seen as a reaction to the the rising calls for a ‘BDS’ Israeli boycott, especially in the cultural and academic sphere, raising the prospect of a tit-for-tat escalation; their tactics are identical to the anti-Israeli lobby’s attempts to enforce such a boycott, and are equally as unwelcome.
The controversy has centred on Gilad Atzmon’s politics, with no mention of his music. Of course, the two are an integral part of the man, and it is disingenuous to think that you can invite him for the one aspect, while excluding the other. Music has always been co-opted for political purposes – protest songs are expressions of resistance, national anthems and military marches expressions of hegemony. Yet music itself cannot be bounded by political messages and has the power to transcend its origins, so that we can be transported by the music of Wagner or Carl Orff, despite the composer’s noxious beliefs. Some American songbook standards combine timeless melodies with ridiculously outdated sexist attitudes, while the lyric to My Heart Belongs To Daddy sounds quite disturbing nowadays, and not just because it rhymes ‘caddy‘ with ‘finnan haddy’. Yet their musical appeal endures. As this column has previously mentioned, jazz in the UK has passed through periods of political engagement, with artists (if not audiences) generally engaging at the left-wing end of the spectrum. The return of Loose Tubes reminds us of that era, and points up the contrast with today’s general disengagement with political issues. You can never tell when political realities may once again intrude into the artistic world. It’s unusual for a jazz event to become so mired in controversy, and in this age of increasing identity politics it would be wise for educational institutions, local government bodies, arts funders and promoters to consider what the most appropriate response might be. It is undeniable that Gilad Atzmon is in the forefront of UK jazz musicians, and that the Orient House Ensemble is an outstanding band. One might hope that the RNCM would be prepared to stand up for the cause of music, as something worth defending in its own right from the claims of political rectitude, and be prepared to champion the excellence of Atzmon’s art even if they felt compelled to distance themselves from his politics.
Below, the petition and counter-petition, and Gilad’s own website.