Musical Notes: A mass of sub-cultures under jazz's umbrella

Musical Notes
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The Independent Culture
MUSIC MARKETING is all about organising our musical expectations so the industry can best target potential consumers. In the cost- conscious 1980s and 1990s, a lack of confidence by the major recording companies in dealing with anything other than very tangible products that could be sold into well-defined markets meant that pop, rock and country became so commodified new stars came and went while the music remained essentially the same. The argument was that if the music didn't slot comfortably into a specific musical genre, then to whom are you selling it?

Equally, the repertoire for classical and opera has become so codified for popular consumption surprises are few and far between. The most modern piece you're likely to encounter in concert halls up and down the country will have been around for at least 80 or 90 years while the core repertoire will usually centre around Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Beethoven or Brahms.

In contrast, jazz usually arouses somewhat confused expectations. Some identify the music with Kenny G, others with John Coltrane. Yet the difference between the two can only be measured in light years, two wholly different styles that could have been recorded on two distant planets in two distant galaxies.

Because jazz has never been a single species, but rather a mass of musical sub-cultures divided by historical precedent, it flies past the convenient pigeonholes so necessary to music marketing. Even some of the most dedicated jazz fans will love one style in modest humility while excoriating other styles; acoustic fans, for example, usually deplore electric jazz while electric jazz fans find acoustic music tired and boring. It's all very confusing.

The variety of competing denominations gathered under the jazz umbrella are so numerous that no single style is big enough to attract a broad popular following for the music. But that does not mean jazz is not popular. According to the Arts Council's own figures the audience for jazz is greater than that for contemporary dance and the same as that for opera.

What is perhaps more interesting is that the demographic jazz attracts is precisely the same as classical music and opera, the prime ABC1's. This is something big business is gradually cottoning on to. At the end of the month, Clerical Medical is sponsoring a jazz weekend on 29-30 May as a part of the Bath International Music Festival.

Among the 22-strong roster of talent on show is the Yuri Honing Trio from Holland who reach into popular culture for compositions to use as a basis for their improvisations. Using songs by Abba, Police, Bjork and Prince, they succeed in disentangling each tune from the memory of the original hit to create something new and subversive beyond the pop artifact. It's a neat trick. By playing contemporary popular songs, Honing's young audiences don't feel excluded. Not only does he up-end traditional musical expectations of what a "jazz performance" might be, but he reaches out to audiences daunted by the sort of jazz composition that sounds like a tormented brain puzzle.

An accomplished saxophonist, Honing provides a timely reminder that jazz moves away from its uneasy relationship alongside popular culture at its peril. The notion that jazz can be treated as an alternative conservatory style, a trend gathering increasing momentum in the States that says jazz is "American Classical Music", robs the music of surprise.

This American trend of valorising earlier styles of jazz, most notably hard bop of the late 1950s-early 1960s, reduces its practitioners to custodians of the past. What is disturbing is their new impatience with the contemporary, even refusing to acknowledge its place in the narrative of jazz history. At least Honing has found a way addressing the future without basking in the reflected glory of one of jazz's posthumous heroes.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of `A Portrait of Duke Ellington: reminiscing in tempo' (Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 20)