Jazz killed by smooth operators

There's more than a name change behind Jazz FM's demise, says Sholto Byrnes
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The Independent Culture

So, it has finally happened. The beancounters, who have long crippled Jazz FM by inflicting a relentless diet of lift music on the station, have got their way. No longer will listeners tuning in to 102.2 be greeted by a few bars of "A Taste of Honey" (always a slightly odd choice) and the words "This is Jazz FM". The pretence that this frequency is home to the glorious tradition of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis will be maintained no longer, now that the Guardian Media Group (GMG) has announced that the station is being rebranded as "Smooth FM". Henceforth, listeners will be able to hear even more Alicia Keys, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than they could before.

So, it has finally happened. The beancounters, who have long crippled Jazz FM by inflicting a relentless diet of lift music on the station, have got their way. No longer will listeners tuning in to 102.2 be greeted by a few bars of "A Taste of Honey" (always a slightly odd choice) and the words "This is Jazz FM". The pretence that this frequency is home to the glorious tradition of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis will be maintained no longer, now that the Guardian Media Group (GMG) has announced that the station is being rebranded as "Smooth FM". Henceforth, listeners will be able to hear even more Alicia Keys, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than they could before.

Crocodile tears flowed as GMG Radio's chief executive John Myers proclaimed: "We are sorry to say goodbye to the name Jazz FM but, in the end, it was its own worst enemy. We have been caught between not playing enough jazz to please the purist, and having the name Jazz FM, which inhibits trial from other listeners. There are not enough people who like jazz music to make it a viable proposition, and this has been a fact for 15 years."

Sorry? It seems more likely that the champagne was uncorked when GMG managed to rid itself of a name that it always found bothersome. It has, after all, already fought several battles to reduce the jazz content of its transmissions. Only a couple of months ago, it persuaded Ofcom to release it from its remit that 50 per cent of its daytime output should "sit well with the term jazz", and it had already been investigated in 2003 for breaching this part of the licence; it was let off, as the Radio Authority concluded that a stricter definition of the remit would be too difficult to enforce.

That investigation seemed to have been hampered by the reluctance of the authorities to heed advice from people who actually know about jazz. The station's management at least went through the motions of having meetings to discuss their output with figures in the jazz world. As they appeared to take no notice whatsoever of what they were told, however, these encounters were no more than a face-saving exercise. I was invited once. But what was the point of going, when they had already listened to and ignored figures such as John Fordham, the editor of Jazz UK (and technically a colleague of the station's managers, as he is also The Guardian's jazz critic), and Chris Hodgkins, the director of Jazz Services?

When I conducted my own survey of what Jazz FM played a little while ago, sampling an hour of the breakfast show, the artists featured included Robbie Williams, Nellie Furtado, Sade and Ben E King. Confronting the station with this puzzling list, I was answered with weasel words about it being difficult to define just what jazz is. They could have tried picking up a reference book, such as The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD or The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. They could have asked a few jazz critics, or even the odd jazz musician, should anyone at Jazz FM have ever come across one. There would not have been unanimity, but there would have been broad agreement about what constitutes jazz and what does not. Alexander O'Neal and Bobby Womack, for instance, both of whom feature in the first "Top 10" on Jazz FM's website, may have many virtues, but being jazz musicians are not among them.

The fact is that Jazz FM has always tried to get away with playing as little jazz as it can, using the name to imply quality and artistic expression but, in practice, trying to tap into the soul and easy-listening market instead. One result of this is that many jazz fans never listen to the station, simply because there isn't enough jazz. GMG's argument that there aren't enough listeners for a pure jazz station has never been tested. "The market for jazz in London, defined by the number of people who have attended a jazz event, is about 10 per cent," says Chris Hodgkins. "And research shows that the same number again listen to jazz on the radio." Ten per cent of the London population is 700,000, a number with which many independent radio stations would be delighted. "They have no idea how to market jazz," says Hodgkins. "It is their failure. The whole thing is scandalous. They've betrayed the jazz-listening public and future listeners."

And so, instead of committing itself to a station celebrating one of the greatest art forms of the 20th century, GMG has decided to provide yet another aural comfort-blanket of soggy, unchallenging music. What a boon for the cultural life of the nation.

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