Inclusion and inclusivity.

The topic of social ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ is crucial to what those involved in jazz do. If one looks back over the history of the music and its origins, jazz has often been a means of asserting subjects of relevance to the underprivileged and under-represented, and one of freedom. 

Examples are too many to mention, but we need look no further than the strong role of jazz in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, by the likes of Max Roach and Nina Simone. Jazz was very important in upholding freedom in the Communist bloc after 1945, often being driven underground but still there. And it was ready to pop up unscathed – such as in 1950s Poland where the first Sopot Jazz Festival in 1956 attracted over 50,000 people with early performances by Komeda and more.

So it is totally correct that we should be setting standards about these subjects – tolerance, trust and mutual respect are ways of describing the openness and curiosity of many involved.

Jazz of course treads a balance musically between being intimidating to many, through the complexity and sense of ownership of its history by its participants – certainly not to be forgotten – and the strong position that a few musicians have taken in the commercial world (such as Ella Fitzergerald, Miles Davis etc etc etc)

So to look at the important issues, making the public aware and acting accordingly are as vital today as they ever have been. Ethnicity, sexual equality and all such similar issues therefore have an important role in how the music should be performed and realised. Jazz generally sets standards and examples with pride.

It is ironic for some that jazz in Europe nowadays is music performed and created by mainly non-blacks. But it’s not really a surprise: not least because the black communities in most European countries are small (with the possible exceptions of France and UK) and also that the means of becoming a music form which requires formal conservatoire training. These are classically oriented and generally white and more middle class. While the issue of proper representation of black musicians is easier to be aware of in some countries, such as the UK, it is as important to consider the role of ethnic diversity across the rest of Europe in different ways. Most recently highlighted by the refugee situation across the European Union. But the attitude of those involved is no different to that started a hundred years ago in the USA, and the strong desire of many to find appropriate answers.

I don’t really want to suggest ‘solutions’ in this short article. Imposition of rules can be difficult and, of course, anathema to many in jazz, which is based on freedom and self expression. Its development in Europe, especially over recent years, has perhaps created additional ‘problems’ and, as its popularity amongst students has grown in recent years, new negative elements have occurred, such as the nature of conservatoires mentioned above.

There are three sides, in my opinion, where we can get involved in the issue of ‘inclusion’/‘inclusivity’: the musicians on stage (composers and performers) and especially indigenous ones, since we don’t want to survive solely by importing musicians from the vibrant North American or African scenes (and indeed cannot afford to);  the audience, which is of course predominantly white and middle class;  and the back offices of our organisations (i.e. programming, technical and so on). They all affect each other. So to start with any one of these can work.

For the past two years, we have been working on a project at the Vortex called ‘In The Changes’ (funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) where we have been trying out various ways of using jazz within the community around us and how it can help social cohesion in general. Trying out ways of extending audiences, encouraging new young performers, training female sound engineers and also looking for positive ways of engaging with the groups in our local multiethnic community in East London. It is an ongoing ‘work in progress’ and we are just assessing the initial successes (and failures)!

The issue of women in jazz is perhaps the easiest to address in the near term across participants. The lack of top women performers on stage is a problem across the whole of Europe. This perhaps has not been helped by the male-centred jazz up to the 1970s, and highlighted in Valerie Wilmer’s seminal book, “As Serious As Your Life”, where she describes the obstacles for women to move on to the stage in New York as opposed to staying in the background. 

How to deal with it?

An initiative being led from the UK is Keychange, set up by the PRS Foundation. To quote from its manifesto: “Keychange is a pioneering international movement which empowers women to transform the future of music whilst encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022.”
In fact it is now broadening to include venues, and at the Vortex we are in the process of signing up. But the problem is even more fundamental.  We ourselves at the Vortex have encouraged the Blow The Fuse gigs initiated by guitarist Deirdre Cartwright and bassist Alison Rayner, which have highlighted the role of women for 30 years, since their ground-breaking band, The Guest Stars. 

Built out of this, we set up the Vortex Foundation Big Band, an all-female band, with Annie Whitehead as musical director and with a recording (Charybdis) on Babel in 2003. But it was never an easy process to use this to boost the role of female musicians, and we consider it as a stepping stone from which we can learn and also a means of showing our own commitment. The number of women jazz musicians – especially instrumentalists – going to conservatoires (and thus in effect ‘training’ to be professional musicians) is still woefully small. And only now are we properly finding enough local role models who can motivate the new generation, such as Laura Jurd here in London or Kaja Draksler from Slovenia, two of those whom we are showcasing in the gigs associated with Jazz Connective. 

Probably because the pressure on all sectors of the economy to bring in more women is immense, so many of the fine musicians whom we hear in youth groups, such as the National Youth Jazz Collective in England, are also being wooed by the technology and science sectors when they reach school leaving age. We have to prise them into jazz? Certainly if the pool of female musicians is too low, then we can’t solve this imbalance. This issue should not be resolved through some sort of ‘tokenism’.

These, and others, are among those that we are hoping to discuss and develop over the course of our meetings during the year of Jazz Connective. As the debate evolves, I hope that we shall be able to get deeper into these issues, help get them more widely appreciated and look at examples of solutions, both successful and attempted, which can be used and adapted in different countries.

Watch this space !