French & British Collectives

Together we stand, divided we fall ?

For a long time, the French and British musicians swore by the collective. In the years 2010, Coax or Grolektif in France, Cobweb Collective or The F-Ire Collective across the Channel have thus stirred up the new jazz scene both musically and socially, for example by participating in the opening of concert venues. As a consultant for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and for Jazzlines in Birmingham, Tony Dudley-Evans analyzes this phenomenon, which seems to be out of fashion today. What if the concept of a collective was less an end in itself than a step in an artist's career?

I have felt for some time that the system of musician collectives has provided an important step forward for musicians and for the development of the jazz scene.  At their best musician collectives have given musicians the opportunity to develop their own projects, find and run their own venues and, more generally, take control of their own careers.

In Britain I have had some involvement with various collectives that were formed in the early years of the 21st century, notably the Cobweb Collective in Birmingham (see Wall and Barber, 2015, for a description of the formation of the collective, now rather out of date) and the F-Ire Collective in London. This led to a connection to French collectives through the Jazz Shuttle programme that involved the creation of joint UK French bands that toured to both countries, a project funded by the SACEM, the French equivalent of PRS.  I became increasingly impressed by the activities of French collectives such as the COAX Collective and the Onze Heures Collective in the greater Paris region and the Grolektif in Lyon.

 I was impressed by the way they had been able to create activity for young musicians which they ran themselves, but for which they were able to obtain funding that facilitated both the projects themselves and administrative support for the activity.

The key to success for these French collectives seemed to be that they were formed of a relatively small number of musicians, between 12 and 15, who were all committed to working together in various groups. The fact that they were able to obtain funding for administrative support was also a major factor. This approach contrasted with that of the collectives I was familiar with in Britain, The Cobweb Collective and the F-Ire Collective; these had a large number of members so that the creation of new projects from within the membership seemed less of a priority than the running of gigs for existing bands. Also, these collectives largely failed to raise funds for administrative support.

Tony Dudley-Evans had a career in teaching English as a Foreign Language in Libya, Iran, Singapore and UK before switching to jazz promotion. He is Programme Adviser to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Jazzlines – the jazz programme at Symphony Hall Birmingham.

As a promoter Tony has commissioned composers including Mike Gibbs, Tim Berne, Julian Joseph, Iain Ballamy, Tom Bancroft, Barbara Thompson, Billy Jenkins, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Liam Noble, Hans Koller, Ingrid Laubrock and many more. He received one of the BBC Jazz Awards in 2005 for services to jazz. He is also an honorary Fellow of the Birmingham Conservatoire. Tony has been involved with the Cheltenham Jazz Festival since its beginnings 20 years ago, initially as Chair of the Jazz Advisory Group, then as Artistic Director and, finally, for the last three years as Programme Advisor.

With these interests in mind, it was fascinating to hear Romain Dugelay at the recent Jazz Connective meeting in Łodz describe the history of the Grolektif collective of which he was a co-founder and the reasons why it had ceased to exist. The collective was set up in 2004 by a group of musicians recently graduated from the jazz course at the Lyon Conservatoire. The first year was devoted to developing repertoire for the bands that members of the collective formed, the second year was devoted to developing original material for the bands. After three years the collective had sufficient funding to support 10 bands and a label, but urgently needed their own venue to provide regular playing opportunities. This in 2007 the Grolektif Collectif along with a second collective, the Polycarpe Collectif, helped establish Le Périscope venue in Lyon, actively participating in building and creating a space suitable for creative music. This is now a thriving venue that promotes up to 130 concerts a year in the area of creative music, i.e. jazz, improvised music, hip hop, rock. After a few years Le Periscope and Grolektif became independent organisations with their own boards and administration, but the links between the two organisations continued to be strong; members of the collective continued to be on the Board of Le Periscope and to use the rehearsal facilities at the club. The activities of the collective continued, but five years later in 2017 it was decided to discontinue the collective. There were two main reasons for this, one was that the members began to differ over what was the right approach to the collective’s approach and a series of disputes weakened the organisation. The other was that the members of the collective had begun to be more established on the French scene and gradually moved off in different directions. In other words, they no longer needed the collective in order to support their careers. The collective had clearly helped to establish the careers of its members, but had served its purpose.

It should be noted here that Lyon has another well-established collective Arfi formed in 1977 and still active. Its website lists 11 groups that are part of the collective.

The parallels with the English collectives I was familiar with are striking. The F-Ire Collective was established in 1998 by Barak Schmool and in its heyday had members such as Seb Rochford, Pete Wareham, David Okumu, Ingrid Laubrock, Julia Biel and supported the early days of bands such as Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and the Ingrid Laubrock Quintet. These players have become major figures on the contemporary British scene, or on the New York scene in the case of Ingrid Laubrock. All these players moved on after a successful national tour in 2005 for the F-Ire Collective Large Ensemble. The collective did recruit new members such as Fred Thomas, Zac Gvi, but has been inactive for a number of years; its last Facebook entry was in 2015. It does, however, still exist as a label.

The Cobweb Collective always focussed on creating spaces for its members to play. It was set up by students on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) who were keen to find a space for student groups to play. It ran a very successful Thursday night session at the Yardbird pub in Paradise Circus for many years, but that became increasingly separate from the collective. Although many excellent groups have formed from the graduates of the jazz course, the collective never really played a role in their establishment and development. The focus was on the venue and this gradually became run by individuals not directly associated with the collective. The successor venue to the Yardbird is the Spotted Dog that runs a very popular Tuesday night session run by graduates of the jazz course and which features mostly young bands from Birmingham or bands from outside the city that are on tour. The two main sets are followed by a jam session. The Cobweb Collective relaunched as the BLAM Collective, but that second formation never really took off, and there has been no active collective in Birmingham for many years. Its main legacy has been the Spotted Dog programme.

In England other collectives such as The Loop Collective, The Lume Collective, the Chaos Collective, all in London, and LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) have played similar roles in establishing the careers of young musicians and in setting up nights in venues that continue to operate after the collective’s activity has ceased. A number of conclusions arise from these descriptions and observations. Collectives have a key role in providing a stepping stone for young musicians either in their final year on a jazz course or in the years immediately after graduation. These musicians may form new groups and set up innovative projects under the auspices of the collective, but after a number of years will move on and concentrate on their own careers. This phenomenon seems to apply as much in France as in Britain.

Collectives thus have a relatively short but active life span. They have two significant main legacies, one is the creation of venues or nights in venues that have a much longer life. The second is the support given to the emergence of many of the most talented musicians playing today, players in Britain such as Seb Rochford, Pete Wareham, David Okumu and Ingrid Laubrock from the F-Ire Collective, Robin Fincker (now back in France), Dave Smith and Dan Nicholls from the Loop Collective, and in France players such as Théo Ceccaldi from the Tri Collectif, Julian Desprez from the COAX Collective, Romain Dugelay from the Grolektif and Anne Quiller from the Pince-Oreilles Collective.