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31 July 2007

Documenting the Australian Jazz World (not)

Documenting the Australian Jazz World (not)
© Miriam Zolin

It’s probably a mistake. A mistake, that is, to start from the premise that there exists in Australia a ‘jazz world’ that might, as an entity, have a response to changes in the presentation and availability of what we could loosely call ‘documentation’. The term documentation in this context is a handy catch-all term for jazz-related writing and broadcasting and includes promotional material, reviews and critiques, musician profiles, biographies and feature articles, interviews and even the announcing and back announcing of tracks sent to air by enthusiastic broadcasters. In my brief for this little essay, I was asked to address the question ‘How is the jazz world dealing with issues of documentation?’

So, taking a stab at intellectual rigour, let us proceed with a stated assumption that there is an Australian ‘jazz world’ – something that actually looks like a community comprising musicians, their audiences, and the infrastructure that hangs around them and endeavours to support them. Let’s overlook for a moment that in reality this jazz world is less of an entity than a loosely collaborative collection of individuals and separately funded, often struggling, support cells such as (for example) the various jazz coordination offices, the Jazz Australia Website, Jazzgroove, SIMA (the Sydney Improvised Music Association), the ABC’s jazz programming, the National Jazz Archive and many more.

...the Internet may be a solution that’s as good as made-to-measure...And just to make the discussion possible, let’s further assume that the documentation that comes out of and feeds into this jazz world can be viewed as a body of work. Let’s assume that it too is an entity of sorts that faces issues such as the availability and uptake of new media like the Internet and text messaging; the dearth of space allocated in print media to jazz-related material; the lack of funds to pay writers and broadcasters; the absence of a centralised approach to raising the profile of jazz and improvised music and, of course, that related problem that there is only a small pool of jazz writers.

The secret network

It was the shortage of promotional material and gig information I really noticed when I first started listening to live jazz, six years ago in Sydney.

...most of us find it morally difficult to criticise the quality of something we haven’t paid for.In those early days of my experience of the music, if it had not been for word-of-mouth enthusiasm, I may not have gained access to a music that is now a staple for me. I was introduced to it not by ‘documentation’ but by other people. Once introduced, I eventually found ways to tap into the secret information channels that run through and under everything jazz-related that goes on in this country. It’s like the underground tunnel system in Sydney’s CBD. If you know how, you can get from Town Hall Station to Wynyard and beyond without breaking the surface. But you need to have had time to explore it or had someone show you. There are few signposts.

This information network that promotes and discusses Australian jazz has been lively and active for years, albeit invisibly to those not ‘in the know’. It is created, perpetuated and used by musicians, promoters, broadcasters, researchers, audiences and artistic directors of jazz festivals. It has always evolved with the same technology changes that cause all our information networks to evolve. Now that I am embedded, it is a struggle to see how I could have missed it for so many years – but the truth is that even five or six years ago, unless you knew where to look, it was nearly impossible to find out what was going on in the scene.

The impact of the Internet

The relatively recent – but widespread - uptake of the Internet as a communication tool has represented a massive change in our opportunities to document music and its infrastructure.

Adrian Jackson is well known in the Australian jazz scene through his ongoing role as Artistic Director of the TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. He has also been a reviewer for many years and has a deep appreciation of the music and its perpetrators. He has two main things to say about the advent of the World Wide Web as a resource, and they’re both positive.

Firstly, accessibility has improved enormously. When researching and booking musicians for the festival, he can now find information and contact people more quickly and easily than he could in pre-Internet days.

Secondly, the Web provides a way to rise above the space constraints that rule print media.

Other writers, musicians and broadcasters also consistently raise these two attributes of the Internet. We all seem to agree.

Jackson points specifically to the American-based All About Jazz (AAJ) website (www.allaboutjazz.com), which harnesses the energy and enthusiasm of jazz-loving writers all over the world. The majority of contributors to AAJ are volunteers. It’s a moderated environment that promotes the idea that a by-line to a well-written article or review is its own reward. This seems to work and, given the lack of money to pay jazz writers, it’s a model we’ll probably see more of here.

Searching and finding

The other factor that makes the Internet a boon for our particular style of ‘community’ is the advent and ongoing improvement of its search engines. A global search for the keywords ‘Australian jazz’ on ye olde Internet this afternoon and I suddenly have access to a wide range of information from local music outlets to venues and online forums and magazines. I no longer have to be part of a secret information network. The network is still useful, but it is no longer a vital first step.

Flexible technology that meets the needs of users

In the early days of my own exposure to the music, it was easy to see a match between my own web and writing skills and the growing need to make use of the available technology. That’s when I started building websites for jazz musicians and even opened an Internet shop selling music online. I don’t sell music online any more. I manage websites for only two musicians and one small label. Jazz-planet.com is what remains of my own jazz-related domain names, and I don’t update it nearly as often as I should. What I offered was too structured, too time consuming and too labour-intensive for what most of the musicians I met actually needed. Luckily, Internet technology is evolving in line with the demands of its users.

Musicians need web technology that allows them to update regularly, on their own, and at 3 a.m. after a gig rather than having to call their webmistress for help. Managers of magazine-style websites need technology that allows them to publish and manage content without having to spend time and money on staff or infrastructure. That’s exactly the direction in which the technology is already moving.

For a community that’s as loose and flexible as this one, it seems that the Internet may be a communication and documentation solution that’s as good as made-to-measure.

Building communities

Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has created an excellent example of how the Internet and its tools is helping our loosely knit band of music makers and music lovers look like a community. In 2001 he set up the Ozjazzforum discussion group (www.ozjazzforum.com). Although on more than one occasion the site has embarrassingly been the repository of free-to-air slander, it is a credit to Isaacs’s patience and commitment to the best aspects of the idea that the forum is still active and mostly interesting. After trying a number of different models, Ozjazzforum is now largely self-moderating and constitutes a core group of new and longer-term members, a couple of known rabble-rousers and a large family of silent lurkers who read but do not contribute. It’s a model adopted by many discussion forums. Not dictated, but natural. To the casual visitor, it might even make our jazz world look cohesive.

There are now more and more jazz sites popping up. From the start, the Jazzgroove site (www.jazzgroove.com.au) impressed me with its fresh, interesting content. The SIMA website (www.sima.org.au) becomes more interesting and informative each month. The Jazz Australia website (www.jazz.org.au) has evolved from its original vision of website-as-database to a magazine format with links to other sites – connecting fragments to create a picture of a community that hangs together.

Content, content, content

Yet despite these advances in technology, it appears that some of the documentation issues that face the jazz world are much as they have ever been. There just isn’t enough writing being done that satisfies the considerable appetite that exists among audiences, and indeed musicians, for more information about the music and its makers.

Let’s look at a specific example. When people talk about jazz writing, they are often talking about reviewing. When starting the National Jazz Writing Competition (www.jazz-planet.com/njwc), I found myself asking the question: ‘What constitutes a good review?’ Most agree with Andrew Ford when he says: ‘I want expert opinion, even if it’s opinion I disagree with’ (Carey 2006, p. 39).

Most also seem to think that good reviews are rare outside the small pool of reviewers who write regularly for our newspapers and other paper and web publications. Many of the reviews one sees outside this context are either collections of wooden factoids or inappropriately gushing or scathing subjectivity. Neither of these approaches provide useful information about the music in question.

To be fair, an important aspect of becoming a better jazz writer is the same as for becoming a better anything: practice. And there are limited opportunities for that in this country unless you’re prepared to contribute your efforts gratis. It is one of the reasons that the National Jazz Writing Competition felt like an important initiative. Winning it may not guarantee an income but it does provide some incentive and allocate some value to quality reviewing.

Other than practice, a writer needs feedback to help them improve. And, let’s be honest, most of us find it morally difficult to criticise the quality of something we haven’t paid for. Maybe the lack of practice combined with a shortage of rigorous critiquing of the writing about jazz is why we don’t have a Gary Giddins equivalent, someone who is almost a household name and with his prodigious output? Good writers get better with an income and some career development. Our best jazz writers here have always done it tough.

Maybe this will change as more websites start actively seeking articles, reviews and interviews, and more people develop a taste for reading it. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing for the luxury of too much content.

Goodwill hunting

What remains true about jazz writing in Australia is the astounding level of goodwill that goes into generating and publishing it – at all levels.

We are fortunate that our jazz world includes writers, broadcasters and musicians (some of whom write and review) who continue to contribute free or for nominal fees. There are many of us. We pay our dollars at the door and we buy the CDs. We go to festivals. We participate in forums on the web and in real life. We contribute to the body of work that continues to be created about the music by actively listening, by talking and writing. Some of us are funded. Many of us are not. But if you speak to any of us, we will say that ultimately it comes down to the music and the musicians.

Speaking personally, I don’t ever start a piece of jazz writing with an idea that I am about to do something as weighty as contribute to the body of work that constitutes the ‘documentation’ of the Australian ‘jazz world’. The concept bemuses me.

What I want to write (and read) about jazz is anything well written that talks about and honours the music and its musicians. By well written I mean informed, informative, in context and appropriate to the medium.

I’m sure we will continue to see more of such writing. I look forward to reading and producing more of it.

In mid-January, one of the best pieces of documentation I’ve seen in a long time arrived beeping onto my mobile phone. Willow Neilson was promoting a gig that same evening via text message to those of us lucky enough to be in his phone’s contact list:

come hear the don rader (count basie, woody herman, elvis etc.) quintet 9pm tonight at bennets lne, off lt lonsdale, featuring sydney musicians gerard masters and brendan clarke plus myself and craig simon.

Needless to say, I went.


Thanks to Mark Isaacs, Adrian Jackson, Mike Nock and Gerry Koster for their time and input.


Carey, D. 2006, ‘Confessions of a Writer: Interview with Andrew Ford’, Sounds Australian, No. 67.

Miriam Zolin (www.miriamzolin.com) is a Melbourne-based writer who enjoys listening to jazz. She has had a novel and a few short stories published and has written for a number of jazz websites including All About Jazz (www.allaboutjazz.com) and Jazz Australia (www.jazz.org.au). Miriam started the National Jazz Writing Competition (www.jazz-planet.com/njwc) in 2005. She does not consider herself sufficiently knowledgeable to write reviews.


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