A blue note for jazz lovers

Digby Fairweather chides the radio station that has strayed from its br ief
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Just before Christmas I decided to drop in on the Jazz Cafe in north London to see the jazz singer Astrud Gilberto. "Sold out," said the doorman, "All seven nights." So next morning I decided to spend the money instead in Virgin Records' enormous jazz department, browsing through the packed shelves to the accompaniment of Louis Armstrong - then at No 4 in the hit parade - singing, "We have all the time in the world."

And then, to make the morning complete, I spent all I had left in one of London's best vegetarian restaurants, where the clientele eat to the beat of Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Clifford Brown.

In short, London was bursting with jazz music - which makes it all the more extraordinary that, a few miles west, a group of people are trying to persuade the city that the London-wide radio station designated to play jazz somehow can't succeed.

JFM - the 24-hour station opened in 1990 as Jazz FM - now spends 12 hours of the day playing old pop records, soul and blues. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the music they play - except that it isn't jazz. And that's wrong, surely? You wouldn'tturn on Classic FM and expect to hear the Beatles, or tune in to Country 1035 in order to hear Mozart and Shostakovich. So why don't you hear jazz when you tune in to Jazz FM - or JFM as the station has now conveniently retitled itself?

The organisation charged with watching over the output of London's specialist stations is the Radio Authority. So I made inquiries with Paul Brown, deputy chief executive and head of regulation there, and received a brush-off. I faxed him the expressionsof grave dissatisfaction being voiced month by month in the jazz press. No reply.

The argument of JFM's director, David Maker, is that jazz is too specialised a music to be able to support 24 hours a day of transmission. This is bunk. Classical music (beyond "Nessun Dorma" anyhow) is far more highbrow and "difficult" than jazz. But Classic FM - Britain's enormously successful 24-hour classical music station - has no problem sticking to its remit. And its triumph proves that specialist music, if presented intelligently and imaginatively, can appeal very broadly. So why wou ld anyone have us believe that's not the case with jazz?

The reasons go back to the founding days of Jazz FM. I know, because I was there. The station was set up by a group of enthusiasts in a luxurious prime-site building off London's Edgware Road. Everyone had at least one secretary. There were launches and lunches, and the bill for taxis, let alone wages, would have equalled a modest lottery win.

Amid this profligacy, the station went on the air with lamentable lack of expertise. Programmes were presented in a pseudo-Transatlantic ambience. Presenters - who had not been screened for subject-knowledge - made embarrassing errors on air. And a sensible middle-of-the-road programming policy was ditched to make way for questionable "specialist areas", usually presented - just to help things along - by non-specialists.

The result was predictable. Opened in the midst of Britain's worst recession in decades, Jazz FM ran first into poor press and then deep financial straits. There were worried conferences, changes of staff, sackings. The ship was heading for the rocks.

And then - just at the right moment, or so it seemed - along came David Maker, a celebrated fixer-up of failing radio stations. His starting point was that Jazz FM's "promise of performance" (the Radio Authority-approved document that lays down what any specialist station is allowed to play) was very broad, including jazz-influenced and jazz-related music. It may safely be said that at that point Jazz FM's daytime programming policy went distinctly off-key. And it's stayed that way ever since.

The "revitalised" JFM is, it must be said, still surviving, some two years on. So do we jazz lovers have any real grounds for complaint, especially in view of Jazz FM's lamentable early track record?

Yes we do. The principal reason, of course, is that a specialist station must play the music that it's supposed to. But a second reason is that since Jazz FM began broadcasting, practical experience has shown that highly specialised musical areas can be made attractive to a broad listenership by presenting accessible music framed by imaginative programme ideas and backed up by competent presenters.

Finally, the wholesale return to popularity of jazz in the 1990s - right up to Louis Armstrong in the charts - confirms that the music deserves a full-time station of its own, both to reflect the existing popularity of jazz, and indeed to increase it. After all, that's what specialist broadcasting is supposed to be about, surely?

Isn't it time parliament decided to investigate the travesty of regulation that has produced 12 hours of pop rock and soul music each day on Britain's first jazz station? I believe so - and so do many within the jazz community.

The writer is a professional jazz trumpeter, writer and presenter of BBC Radio 2's `Jazz Notes'.

Beatrix Campbell is away.