Talking Jazz

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Next week's visit by President Bush is set to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment in Britain - a slight irony, perhaps, given that the capital will be in the midst of the London Jazz Festival, a celebration of the great American art form. While many people would disagree with that, believing that jazz is owned equally by all its practitioners and listeners and that other countries' traditions are just as valid, there are those in the US who take an even stronger line: jazz is America's truly homegrown cultural product.

The festival opens tonight with two concerts that could be used to justify the arguments of either side. Denys Baptiste's Let Freedom Ring! is a suite written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and has strong echoes of Charles Mingus. Also on the South Bank can be heard the very European sound of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio.

If the music is good, does it matter where its origins lie? Well, although many musicians hate to be pigeonholed, it is of importance, because the music is so hard to describe that we do need to have a sense of what is at its heart.

One critic was fuming at the BBC Radio jazz awards this summer when a prize went to the Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. He thought Atzmon was too overtly political, and, more germanely, he found the Middle Eastern influence in his music too strong for it to be called jazz. Those of us who love jazz have a duty to emphasise its canon, and while collaborations with other traditions are healthy, ultimately the soul of jazz is in America. That is not to say that the way it has developed in Europe, whether through the new Scandinavian school or through the older British interpreters such as Mike Garrick, John Taylor and Graham Collier, is less valid. It just seems so self-evident that that is where the mighty trunk of this art form grows.

Whenever wading through piles of new CDs begins to dull the musical palate, who does one turn to but Miles Davis playing the thrilling opening notes of "My Funny Valentine" at Carnegie Hall, or Dexter Gordon's magisterial tenor sax on "Love for Sale"? It is no slight to the rest of the world to acknowledge that, no more than to say that a cream tea is just as delicious whether taken in Brooklyn or Barnstaple: but there will always be something particularly English about it.