I was in New York last week on non-jazz related musical business and managed to find the time to drop into the Zinc Bar for one of their Tuesday night jam sessions, hosted by the outstanding pianist Orrin Evans. The jam session remains a popular format here in Brighton and it was interesting and instructive to compare our own thriving nights at the Bee’s Mouth (Monday) the Brunswick (Tuesday) and the Verdict (Wednesday) with the Big Apple version. Suffice to say that, as far as the quality of the musicians goes, New York lived up to its reputation as the jazz capital of the world, and of course the city draws the finest players from around the world to study, work and play there, including our Sussex homeboy Dave Drake who put in a brief but effective appearance at the Zinc shortly after midnight. Hearing Monk’s Criss Cross repeatedly called at a jam session was a new experience for me, and I was relieved to find that plenty of the traditional standards repertoire is still matching up on both sides of the Atlantic, and there’s always room for another re-interpretation of What Is This Thing Called Love?
Of course, the multi-faceted art form known as jazz is simultaneously a global phenomenon and at the same time deeply rooted in its specifically American heritage. A great deal of effort has been expended over the years in attempting to demonstrate exactly which parts of its vocabulary derive from submerged but valiantly surviving African sources and which from European classical or folk material – the composer and writer Howard Goodall recently attempted to identify the origins of swing time with the popularity of triplet time in 19th century mainstream culture, such as Sousa marches (think the Liberty Bell March, famously used as the Monty Python theme tune) or musical hall hits like Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. However, no-one can seriously deny that jazz was created and developed in the melting pot of America, from where it swept over the world in a torrent of syncopation, and as such it demands to be recognised as an American art form which has attained its greatest achievements at the hands of its American practitioners. This has left non-American players feeling historically rather overshadowed – something that seems to be true of British players in particular. Duncan Henning’s excellent account of the growth of modern British jazz, Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers, tracks the progress of British players’ attempts to resolve the contradictions inherent in learning to incorporate the American tradition while reaching for their own identity. It’s a fascinating and very well-researched account and is particularly good on the complex relationship between the British scene and the American one that both inspired and dominated it. Many of the most acclaimed British musicians have had to relocate to the States for their career to broaden into a global one, from Victor Feldman and George Shearing to John McLaughlin and Tim Garland; many of the key movements in the UK can be traced directly to an American inspiration. The Jazz Couriers may have both invited and resented comparison with the Jazz Messengers, and the comparison may ultimately have done a disservice to the very talented players in the former outfit.
This complex relationship continues. In a recent interview in Jazzwise magazine, Phronesis frontman Jasper Høiby points out the lack of support for UK artists to tour the US, even as, ironically enough, the dire financial times for jazz in its homeland has forced many US musicians to rely on the EU and Asian touring markets to survive. The prohibitive cost of a working visa for the US acts as an effective protectionist policy against non-US musicians, reminiscent of the tit-for-tat Musicians’ Union bans that lasted from the 30s to the 50s and resulted in such absurdities as Fats Waller having to tour the UK billed as a variety performer. No such financially exacting visa system inhibits US musicians from touring in the EU. Ever since the ECM label pioneered a new, European voice in jazz, musicians from outside America have increasingly asserted their own cultural identities, yet the dominant flow of ideas still seems to be from the US to the rest of us, seldom the other way.
Some might unkindly draw comparison between Phronesis and the work of Avishai Cohen, as earlier generations pointed out the similarities between the innovations of Thelonious Monk and those of Stan Tracey. I think they’d be missing something. Musicians around the world are drawn to jazz because of its unique, universal capacity for self-expression, and then have to wrestle with the particular historical and cultural baggage it brings. You can’t ignore the history of the music. Yet watching Ivo Neame’s band in the Verdict last night I was struck by the freshness of the language employed, and the extent to which it was free of the familiar tropes of bebop, yet still remained identifiably within the tradition. UK jazz has a distinctive voice of its own, one deserving of greater support from the public and the industry. And you can help things along by paying a visit to your local gig or jam session. Don’t delay- make it this week.