Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Eighteen months after the death of Jazz FM, a new radio station devoted to jazz is being launched. "theJazz", billed as a sister service to Classic FM, will start at 9am on Christmas Day and will be available on DAB digital radio, on Sky, ntl:Telewest and on the web. There will be high hopes for the new station, as the dire last few years of Jazz FM, during which its owners were desperate to fill its playlists with anything other than jazz, have not yet been forgotten.

The signs so far are promising. The list of artists we are likely to hear on theJazz include Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Weather Report, Branford Marsalis, Denys Baptiste, Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux. No one should be dissatisfied with such a spread, especially on a commercial radio station, which cannot be expected to perforate the eardrums of its listeners by playing Anthony Braxton or Ornette Coleman first thing in the morning.

The aim of the station, says its manager Darren Henley, is to do for jazz what Classic FM (which he also manages) has done for classical music. His hope is to widen the market for jazz. "When Classic FM started," he argues, "Radio 3 had three million listeners. Now they have two million and we have six million. That's a net benefit of five million."

Some classical listeners may quibble with this analysis - not all approve of Classic FM's practice of playing single movements from symphonies and concertos in isolation - but that discussion belongs elsewhere. If theJazz can expand jazz listenership, then that is an outcome all should welcome, even if it means the station consigns more esoteric fare to late-night specialist slots. The good news is that Henley insists this really will be a jazz station, not one that mock-naively asks, as Jazz FM did, "well, who can define what jazz is exactly?", while sneaking Robbie Williams, Nelly Furtado and any number of Sixties soul singers on to its playlists. "There will definitely be no Motown or Luther Vandross," he says, adding that while vocalists will be featured, the majority of the music will be instrumental.

Both these points are important. No one has anything against Motown but it's a genre that has plenty of outlets already. And while singers are most definitely a part of the jazz spectrum, at the heart of the music and its history lies the instrumental tradition.

Real jazz-lovers know this, and it is reassuring to know that Henley knows that they know it. There does seem to be a real chance that the UK will finally have a station wholly committed to a music which has a passionate and long-underserved audience. As they don't say in jazz clubs: "Nice".

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