“Are we selling candles or are we selling light?”

When I reviewed the Schaffhausen Jazz Festival, questions emerged – is Rusconi‘s new album, jazz? What should jazz be in 2014? Gerry Godley of the Improvised Music Company and 12 Points festival worked with cartoonist Patrick Sanders on a presentation that made some vital points for the industry. I particularly liked the analogy – are we selling candles or are we selling light? Put crudely if we carry on focusing on traditional forms of jazz we may go out of business.

© Patrick Sanders Let's be more open to innovation, especially as jazz has become  more porous and collaborative ©Patrick Sanders

© Patrick Sanders
Let’s be more open to innovation, especially as jazz has become more porous and collaborative ©Patrick Sanders

Godley referred to America’s major arts survey of 2012 and although I don’t see Europe in the same grip of the “heritage” of jazz, it’s probably a similar picture here: audience numbers are declining and they are growing older (as I saw at Schaffhausen and see in London). As Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Jazz musicians who want to keep their own…beautiful music alive…have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners.”

“What is jazz about & who is it for? – grows unclear.” Phil Johnson

To be frank, jazz has lost its hipness. Young urban ‘gunslingers’ are more likely to listen to new folk or the myriad forms of electronica. Last year journalist Phil Johnson wrote in the The Independent, “The essential narrative and context – what is jazz about and who is it for? – grows unclear. An increasing lack of visibility in the mainstream media contributes to a growing credibility gap…” This is an issue; print and radio (let’s not even go there with TV) influence tastes and with diminishing support it’s difficult for promotors to take risks. The respected critic, John Fordham commented on the lack of press coverage for jazz in 2010, “…the most routine performances by an orchestra, or the most mundane gigs by fading pop stars will usually grab the space from innovative jazz artists who may well be shaping the future of music…”


©Patrick Sanders

©Patrick Sanders


Godley also addressed the “J” word and whether it’s doing music a dis-service. I don’t feel overarching terms such as jazz, classical or rock are relevant in the age of the internet. My favourite phrase is ‘music for curious ears’ and London’s Cafe Oto bills itself as a venue for “creative new music”. Phil Johnson suggests Oto could be a good model for other European clubs as it’s found success by, “building an audience from the bottom up through artist-run co-ops and club-nights.” They are managing to attract a mix of ages, at least.

BBC Radio 3 (plays classical music and some jazz) is rightly obsessed with the phrase “replenishing audiences” as their core listeners age. Attracting new audiences requires new marketing tones. Rusconi have been so successful at building an online rapport with their fans that they won the voted-for ECHO Jazz Award for Best Live Act 2012. But the music itself needs to be relevant.

Build on traditions, but break the rules

Some promotors I spoke to felt Rusconi were being gimmicky – maybe they haven’t quite hit the right spot (as they did with Alice in the Sky) but I’m more engaged by them than I am by clever musicians desperately trying to re-create a time that has gone. Build on traditions, but break the rules, or at least put in your own life, your emotion. My musical axis has been informed by being a DJ where it’s all about the new, and I’ve always admired pioneers who faced enormous criticism but changed things up; as much as I adore Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue I’m glad he heard Hendrix and got re-inspired.

A band who is getting the balance right is Hildegard Lernt Fliegen. They played a triumphant set at Moods a few weeks ago. The music builds on traditional jazz and improvisation and yet is modern. They’ve got a strong look going on and their video for the track Don Clemenza  is perfectly pitched. OK, not everyone has to (or can) wear a breadstick on their head, but what brings it all together is that it feels utterly genuine, it’s ‘authentic’. And that’s the word Godley finished his talk with and it’s an important one.

Labels like ECM are “borders-blind”

What I’d like to see is European countries co-operating at supporting talent from a wide spectrum of ‘jazz’ and from regions beyond their own. Labels like ECM are “borders-blind”, venues could be better at this too. I believe: “If it ain’t broke, change it!” Or it dies. Keep jazz relevant, think about new ways to package it and consider who we want to promote it to. There are audiences out there who are missing out on heart-pounding, incredible music.


©Patrick Sanders

©Patrick Sanders



  1. I like to look at jazz as advanced harmony. Any new style of music, pop songs Beatles, can be played as jazz if you just vamp up the harmony and sophistisize the rhythm. Look at Holly Cole as an example, her trio set the tone using incredible harmony, she is considered a jazz singer and yet sings an amazing range of music. The main constant in her music is the very sophisticated jazz harmony that is ever present. For me that makes it jazz!

  2. Any song can be ‘converted’ into the jazz genre – who would have believed ‘My Favourite Things’ from ‘The Sound of Music’ could have become the spiritual and cosmic piece that it did in the hands of John Coltrane. For some of today’s artists – not all – I believe making connections in other genres could be crucial for them. It’s working out who your audiences are and going to them as much as attracting people to you.

  3. I understand jazz as a language – I know there’s a structure, rules and I accept its evolution, the new words and changes in its usage – most of all I want to learn more and more vocabulary, I want to know all the words. I can’t speak the language – I can only understand it!

  4. I think we need to forget genres, or at least as much as we can. Ask a non Jazz listener what they first think of when they hear the word ‘Jazz’ and they’ll most likely picture Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or Diana Krall rather than Rusconi or Led Bib or Jan Garbarek. They might even be thinking of Michael Buble or Norah Jones. As Debra says, the internet is kind of rendering genres obsolete anyway. Dance music and rock have managed to keep them relevant through the use of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, but Jazz hasn’t quite managed that.

    As well as being an international label, ECM’s a good example of an entity that’s sort of become its own genre. Rune Grammofon is another. Some festivals have too, like Punkt. And then there are some musician led enterprises that have become sort of mini-genres in their own right like the AACM or even The F-Ire Collective. In a way I suppose these are almost ‘brands’ (to use a horrible, horrible word and concept) but they sort of sidestep the problem of genre in a stylistic sense…

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