BBC's jazz coverage gives me the blues

Click to follow
There was once a great Scottish clarinettist called Sandy Brown who spent a lot of his time writing to the BBC asking why their policy on jazz was so mean and ignorant. He also spent a lot of time writing perceptive pieces in the literate weekly magazine run by the BBC, the Listener, back in the days when the BBC ran literate weekly magazines and not just consumerist publications aimed at those interested in holidays, cooking and string quartets. If you ever come across a second-hand copy of Sandy Brown's posthumously collected writings, The McJazz Manuscripts, get it - you're in for a witty and rich treat.

Here is the start of one such letter to the then BBC chairman, Sir Michael Swann.

Dear Sir Michael,

BBC Coverage of Jazz Music

I've written before, over a period of years, about the abysmally small amount of time given to this art form. I found in doing so that there is nobody responsible in the Corporation for handling jazz - at least nobody who has any knowledge or experience of it. Such replies as I received displayed an appalling ignorance about the subject ...

Sandy Brown is, alas, dead, but the BBC is still for the most part being mean and ignorant about jazz.

Its latest act of meanness is to relegate jazz to such a late hour that nobody will bother to listen. The most regular of the very few BBC jazz programmes, a half hour called Jazz Notes, has just been moved from Radio 2 to Radio 3 and to a ridiculous time of 12.30am, when most people are fast asleep. Does the BBC really hold to its ancient belief that jazz people are night animals, just moving into their best and most alert hours after midnight? Or is it more likely that the BBC, fulfilling some ancient duty to put on a bit of jazz, puts it on at a time when nobody else in the BBC needs the airwaves, regardless of the fact that nobody will be listening? So we get Jazz Notes thrown into a dustbin hour?

The BBC has already established the principle that it will treat the jazz audience like dummies by its use of the BBC Big Band. The BBC Big Band is a highly polished outfit playing a kind of well-drilled museum archive big band swing that not many jazz fans would go out of their way to listen to. And yet very often, when I switch on Jazz Notes to hear what's happening, I find that half the music is provided by the BBC Big Band.

Well, I don't want to listen to the bloody BBC Big Band. I want to listen to some jazz. I don't want someone at the BBC to shrug off its commitment to the BBC Big Band by saying, "Oh well, we'll put them into one of the jazz slots - nobody will ever complain, especially if it's on so late that nobody's listening anyway."

And not only that - I also think that the late hour is beginning to affect the mental state of those on the programme. Digby Fairweather, the main presenter, has been so far affected by the late hours that he has taken to saying "Absolutely!" whenever he means "Yes". And he was recently involved in this rather odd exchange with Campbell Burnap.

Burnap: Do you know there's an amazing statistic came up recently? - an American writer says that today 91 per cent of living Americans have no memories of the 1930s at all?

Fairweather: Gosh, that's frightening, isn't it? Don't you think so?

Burnap: Well, we don't either, but we love the music.

Fairweather: So we do!

I work it out that in order to have memories of the 1930s you'd have to be well into your sixties; so what all that means, if anything, is that 91 per cent of living Americans are not yet well into their sixties, which doesn't seem too frightening to me. Nor do I think it would have seemed frightening to Digby Fairweather if he was allowed to broadcast on jazz during normal waking hours. I fear for his sanity if he is kept up past his bedtime so often.

Before I leave the subject of BBC idiocy, I also fear for the sanity of those who compile Channel 4 listings in the Radio Times. The other day we were promised a brief book review of a new life of Bertrand Russell, offered by Harry Carpenter. Thousands of boxing fans must have been disappointed to switch on and find Humphrey Carpenter instead. The Radio Times also previewed Channel 4's The Girl Club on Saturday, in which Reggie Nadelson investigates expensive American strip clubs. "He asks," says the Radio Times, "if the men may only look but not touch, what is the real attraction?"

He? HE? At the time of going to press Reggie Nadelson was a woman. Oh, well - maybe the person who does the Channel 4 listings also handles the BBC radio jazz policy.