Jazz on the Beeb. January 2010.

The jazz writer and educator Stuart Nicholson wrote in the latest print issue of Jazzwise that

2009 was not a good year for the BBC. Take its attitude towards jazz… the corporation seems bereft of any coherent policy towards the music. …in March the corporation made a decision to axe the Jazz Awards… Both [Radio3 programmes] Jazz on 3 and Jazz Line-Up were marginalised to graveyard slots… Jazz on BBC1 and BBC2 [tv] remains an oxymoron while on BBC4 jazz was screened so infrequently…

(Sorry – I can’t find the article online.)

Nicholson is leading a discussion on the subject of jazz and the Beeb in January.

He has argued before – in the now-defunkt JazzReview, I think (again, I can’t find the article online – nor in my extensive collection of JazzReview back issues!) – that jazz is poorly served by the BBC. Last year, they cancelled the BBC Jazz Awards. (Bizarrely, the BBC still has the webpage for the 2008 awards up, like some taunting zombie: “We’ve left it here for reference”.)

He is right. BBC radio broadly categorises its output by popular (R2), culture (R3), spoken word (R4) and “alternative” (6Music). Each of these broadcasting ghettoes plays some jazz: R2 has Big Band Special and features programmes on jazz by musicians such as Clare Teal, Guy Barker and Courtney Pine, either in specific series or one-off specials. R3 has the evergreen Jazz Record Requests, Jazz Library, Jazz LineUp [Edit: I’ve deleted my ranting aside when someone pointed out I’d got confused…] and Jazz on 3 – these last two recently purged from the mainstream to late, midnight slots which no person with a regular job could stay awake for. (Jazz on 3 has more risky, experimental improvised music: perhaps this actually keeps a lot of people awake at night…) Even R4 gets in on the act with Ken Clarke’s excellent occasional series, Jazz Greats.

You have to search for this music. It isn’t something you are likely to stumble across. There are two exceptions: 6Music, which has lots of edgy music in the Freakzone, and R3’s Late Junction, the only places where they really seem mix up genres and assume that people might have open ears.

I like to listen to jazz on the radio, and I actively seek out the music, knowing when to go from R2 to R4 to R3. For the late night offerings, I have to restrict myself to iPlayer.

One of Nicholson’s ideas in, I think, his JazzReview piece was that the Beeb could now devote some of its digital frequency to a jazz-based radio station. I like this idea, of course – all the BBC’s jazz radio shows in one place.

And think of the archive they must have! Proms and London Jazz Festival concerts going back several years; a rich seam of their own programming to mine (all those Jazz Library shows; and think of the market for Humph‘s “Best of Jazz”). Frankly, they must have so much material that they could fill hours and hours of programming; I can think of concerts broadcast twenty years ago which should be languishing somewhere in their vaults – Carla Bley’s big band, Andy Sheppard’s Soft on the Inside band, Wynton Marsalis at the Proms, Keith Tippett and the Georgian Ensemble, and Gil Evan’s big band all spring to mind. (And if the Beeb no longer have the tapes, I may have copies somewhere. For my own, personal use only, you understand!)

A BBC jazz station would be an exciting prospect.

But then… But then of course we would have created a complete musical ghetto. There would be no serendipidity: people couldn’t just happen across the music after, say, The Organist Entertains. Jazz radio in the UK seems to play to the converted.

So whilst I would really, really like a BBC jazz station, it may not be the right thing to do.

Nicholson has also attacked the BBC for the lack of jazz in its tv schedules. Here is again right – aside from the occasional jazz week on BBC4 (Jazz Britannia a couple of years ago, and a sequence of jazz programmes early in 2009), there is little jazz on tv. But I don’t believe this matters: I don’t think music works well on tv. Despite jazz musicians generally being interesting characters and are commonly photogenic, music generally and jazz specifically doesn’t work well on tv. The medium isn’t right: people playing instruments don’t look good on the screen. Jazz on tv can work well for analsysis, criticism and documentary – but that’s people talking, rather than the music itself.

The BBC has a lot of ways in which it could serve jazz – and British jazz – better. It should really try and do something about it. And then it needs to get it right.

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