Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

The BBC Radio jazz awards take place on Tuesday, and the wise will already have stocked up on paracetamol. Last year's celebrations, which carried on at the St Martin's Lane Hotel after the official party at the People's Palace on the South Bank, ended, for some of us at any rate, around 7.30 the next morning.

I will also be attempting to avoid the hangover of a different sort that I experienced last year, when an article I had written for the New Statesman about British jazz proved controversial, and led to my being the subject of a merciless attack in Jazzwise magazine. Initial shock turned to amusement, and I have kept the montage that Jazzwise printed of protesters holding banners bearing the words: "Down with Sholto Byrnes!"

To the organisers' credit, they are constantly seeking feedback to improve all aspects of the three-year-old awards. Why, this time they have managed to engage "a galaxy of jazz-loving stars" as presenters, including Paul Weller, Georgie Fame, Warren Mitchell and, rather bizarrely, Ulrika Jonsson. Perhaps the assumption is that her appeal to newspaper picture-desks will exceed that of Humphrey Lyttelton, even if she does think that Lennie Tristano is an Italian handbag-maker, and The Vortex a play by Noël Coward.

The shortlists having been circulated, here are my suggestions for improvement. Those featuring in the main categories of best album, band, vocalist, instrumentalist, and rising star, are nominated by 100 people closely involved in the UK jazz scene, of which I am privileged to be one, the three most popular choices in each category making the shortlist. While the jury are all no doubt men and women of discernment, this does mean that nominees are likely to be the better-known, and worthy artists will struggle to get on to the shortlists.

One critic complains that no one that he nominated made it - fair enough, you might say, but there is a danger of consensus candidates being recognised rather than the innovative. And that is something that these awards must be about if they are not to attract criticisms of backslappery.

I would do away with the jury of 100, and replace it with a small panel of, say, five judges, a formula that works well for the Booker prize. Their decisions would inevitably attract controversy; to which my answer is, "fine". The more debate surrounding the awards the better. In a small group, there would be more room for a passionate advocate of Lianne Carroll, for instance, or Maria Pia De Vito, to argue for their inclusion on a vocalist shortlist that at present threatens to feature the anodyne but highly visible Stacey Kent for the rest of her career.

There would also be a chance for the rising-star category to recognise those who are actually rising rather than those who have already risen. After his unprecedented record deal with Universal, does Jamie Cullum really count as "rising" anymore? Bryan Corbett, about whom I wrote a couple of months ago, is exactly the type of artist who should be shortlisted: a stunning young player who isn't widely known enough to appear under the current voting system, but who thoroughly deserves the boost that a nomination would provide.

Yes, there would be accusations of regional bias and favouritism, and probably fireworks between the judges. And the problem with that is what, exactly?

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