Jazzers’ Debate No 11: BBC “Jazz is Dead”


Jazzers’ Debate No 11

BBC: “Jazz is Dead!”


Peter Mark Butler

BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a programme called “Jazz is Dead”. Presenter Paul Morley interviewed performers and “passionate punters” in examining the proposition and in his introduction questioned whether, if not dead, jazz is now merely part of the “heritage industry”.

Evan Christopher : “Thank you, Peter Mark Butler. Perhaps like you, this is among my favourite subjects. Questioning whether or not “JAZZ is dead” is ludicrous. There are no degrees of deadness, and the fact that we are even having this dialogue means that jazz is, in fact, “not dead.” Should the discussion then be about the “wellness” or vitality of jazz? Maybe.

From my limited experience, whether or not jazz looks “cool” or who is listening to it or buying it are minor concerns. That said, however, the following elements, placed here in no hierarchical order, do far more damage to the ability of “jazz” to communicate meaningfully than over-bearing BBC programmes, academic blather, or sociocultural frameworks.

1) Sequins, animal print clothing, costumes of any kind and/or funny hats, etc.
2) Mediocre craftsmanship (by standards set by the historical record)
3) Histrionics, gimmickry or exaggerated “showmanship”
4) Extraneous amplification
5) Stupid band-names or musician “nick-names” (especially ones that use alliteration or rhyme or words like “hot,” “dixie,” “stompers,” etc.)
6) Relegating the music to the roles of escapism, nostalgia, sale of alcoholic beverages or the promotion of tourism.

Peter Mark Butler Jazzers, Evan is an outstanding, no, exquisite, jazz clarinetist and I value his input on Jazzers. Check him out at: http://clarinetroad.net/site.php

Jim Lodge Addressing specifically Evan Christopher’s points numbered points 1, 3 and 5:-

1) Many bands wear uniform clothing, and some musicians display eccentricity in dress – not uncommon features in the history of Jazz as I know it.
3) How about Lennie Hastings, George Melly, Cab Calloway, or “Mr Jelly”?
5) Johnny Dodds and his Black Bottom Stompers, Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers, Slow Drag Pavageau, Mr Five by Five, any number of Kings, Dukes, and Counts – I could go on.

My point is that historically Jazz has thrived on personality and “selling” the music. I also perceive that your own take on getting the music in the public eye involves as as one of its planks a measured application of such attention grabbing methods. For me it is about getting the balance right. We should not be over the top but equally we should avoid like the plague any hint of being over serious. I had hoped to make my point with a gentle nudge, and apologise again if I failed in that.

Ivan Halloran With all respect, the deepest, to Mr. Christopher, I now understand that he is an outstanding clarinetist, and has a vast understanding of the jazz genre, but in my ignorance, I truly believed him to be a theorist or academic of some university, with his sombre comments. I have already expressed something of this to Peter yesterday on his Timeline.

Evan Christopher Yes… I guess my comment lost something in the translation, since it was initially on Peter‘s blog. I quipped that his choice of photos, which I suppose were to suggest that jazz isn’t dead because it’s in the capable hands of a handful of young devotees, were actually substantiation that the genre has lost vitality. He asked me to elaborate, and that’s what I came up with. …Wasn’t trying to sound sombre or academic.

I acknowledge that how people view the health of the genre is subjective. Since I started performing this music, I have known people who feel “jazz” is alive and well as long as there’s a pub or Masonic lodge to jam in once a month. Others become hopeful when they see younger musicians take interest in it, regardless of their actual skill level. The BBC piece, however, is questioning the health of “jazz” based on a perceived loss of its potency as a “vital revolutionary force.” But, besides the “jazz is dead” rhetoric, I was turned off by the idea that multiplicity obscures the music’s definition. Furthermore, I loathe discussions of emotional impact vs intellectualism, or innovation vs tradition, as if they are somehow polar opposites and mutually exclusive.

My personal criteria, stated in my comment, is the ability of “jazz” to communicate meaningfully. For me, I didn’t develop a love for Jelly-Roll Morton’s music because he had a diamond in his tooth. I love Louis for his mastery. I love him in spite of things he did to be entertaining, not because of them. What bands did to market themselves in the nascent days of early jazz? Sure, it’s part of the history, but it’s far from a formula to assure that this music will maintain its relevancy.

Ivan Halloran My respect for the above comments of Mr. Christopher deepens.

Jim Lodge My thanks for your well expressed amplification of your initial post, Evan – most of which I completely agree with, especially the “vs” items. I would however respectfully suggest that “serious vs individual presentation” might be added. I did not mean that all bands and musicians should adopt a lighter approach, only that this was a permissible option, and felt that your “far more damage” etc list was in some items perhaps a proscription too far. After all, that would assume that you might wish that those of us with “mediocre craftsmanship” (in which number I would certainly include myself) should cease to inflict ourselves on a (mostly) willing public!

Peter Mark Butler Thank you Evan for taking your time out of your busy schedule to contribute such valid points. And thank you Ivan and Jim for responding. But I would ask fellow Jazzers to read these comments in the context of my “Jazz is Dead” article. I’ll simply add at this stage that I’m encouraged that my Jazzers Group and indeed my Jazz&Jazz website are resulting in such debates. It’s all part of analysing the future for jazz.

Jeff Matthews Now these posts are getting closer to the nitty gritty. It is obvious that jazz isn’t and cannot be dead. However, the way it was perceived and marketed in the past might well be past it’s ‘sell by date’. Each generation of ‘cream’ bands and musicians found their own way to promote themselves so that they earned a living. Each country did this slightly differently dependent on its culture.

The UK was broke post war and needed something to stimulate its youth. There wasn’t the snow plough approach from the media which covers everything and exposes to the public gaze only what it wants seen and can earn money from. Ideology was still part of life. Things had distinct definitions. So as I understand it, a youth saw Revivalist Jazz as something that described them as a group. Earthy, raw, gritty, rebellious, tribal, traditional against modern.

From that core of support it became popular amongst less ideological people because it was actually good fun to listen to. The core spread the word and it took off – in a time when TV was still in its infancy, there were no computers and game machines and dancing was still something that people did and spent time doing

Jazz gigs were also a good place to find a ‘mate’ – I am told.

This has all changed. So I believe we have to use the tools we now have to spread the word that jazz is alive, well and fun to listen to and get involved with. I would be very interested to hear more from Evan who has found his way to the top and also to hear from established bandleaders, club promoters, enthusiasts and pro’s as well as young musicians.

We may have moved away from straw boaters and goatee beards and that may or may not be a good thing, but we have to find something relevant to this age that we can use as a ‘tag’ which will get people’s interest. There will always be ‘cream’ performers like Evan and his contemporaries but under that creamy layer is the larger portion of the milk which through its activity at a local level will always keep jazz alive and well. We just need to be more active and learn how to do it better.

Evan Christopher This is the top? …Geez, glad I won’t have far to fall.

Peter Mark Butler Pandora’s Box and Naval Gazing come to mind! Let’s get a grip! For what it’s worth I’ll refer you all to two of my recent articles which might help Jazzers understand where I’m coming from and what I’m striving for. But when you read them please accept that my love of jazz compensates for the gaps in my knowledge of jazz and that I hope to bring to the table a sense of direction for the future of jazz. To read the articles go to: Keep Doing What You Are Doing and Analysing the Jazz Scene – Past, Present and Future. My thanks to Just Jazz editor Pete Lay for running these articles.

Jeff Matthews Hi Evan. You should see the view from where we are who are trying to swim up towards the cream. All dangling legs from our viewpoint.

Peter Mark Butler Meantime, watch out for  BBC4’s Planned Analysis of Traditional British Jazz. I’m posting this courtesy of Fred Burnett‘s Jazz North West site.


” I had an enquiry from Rebecca Mounsey at the BBC trying to contact Trevor Carlisle about his years with the Merseysippi Jazz Band during 1954-1964. I had a lovely chat with Trevor, and was able to pass on his phone number. Rebecca got back to me to tell me, ‘I’m just off the phone from speaking with Trevor, and it was a pleasure. I’m setting up an interview with him for a documentary that we are producing on Traditional British Jazz for the spring. The programme should go out in May on BBC Four, so do keep an eye out for it!.”

Peter Mark Butler It could be a fascinating follow up to their “Jazz is Dead” programme.

Fred Burnett Cheers Peter, I can’t help but wonder what slant they’ll put on it.

Peter Mark Butler Jazzers, don’t forget to watch out for this radio programme!

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