10 December 2019
European Jazz Conference 2019: jazz nurturing the soul
As the term 'jazz' maintains its firm presence into the 21st century, we are forced to ask the question as to what we really mean by jazz, and to consider if the form is giving us what we need now.
The Europe Jazz Network's annual conference is attempting to address some of the issues implied by these areas of enquiry. Unlike other jazz markets, the EJC exists as a meeting place to bring people together to reflect on the work that is happening in the improvised music sector. This year, the conference was held in September in Novara, Italy and I was very grateful to be able to attend the conference as Artistic Associate of the Australian Music Centre, to witness these discussions and events.
The Europe Jazz Network is 156 members strong, and is also open to members outside of Europe (the AMC is one of these). Their annual conference is an important gathering of professionals from the jazz sector, in particular promoters, festivals, cultural managers, agents and national support organisations. The full program across the weekend was composed of keynote speeches, discussion groups, networking sessions and a showcase program featuring emerging Italian jazz artists.
Each year, the conference takes place in a different city and has a different focus topic. This year's theme was 'Feed Your Soul' (which, given we were in the homeland of gorgonzola, resulted in us becoming very well acquainted with all the various forms of this pungent cheese!). But on a more serious note, the focus area was designed to make us ask questions such as 'How do we listen and enjoy jazz and improvised music in the 21st century?', 'What is the role of culture and music in nurturing the soul today?' And 'How can a shared artistic experience reinforce the idea of being part of a community?'
The workshops and discussions also related to the areas of research and change that are a focus of the Europe Jazz Network's ongoing work: gender balance, social inclusion, mobility, and sustainable practices. While there is still a great deal of work to do in order to make significant change in these areas within the sector, it was clear from discussions across the weekend that progress is surely happening.
I observed that a major challenge of a group like the Europe Jazz Network is that it has to represent so many different perspectives on improvised music, from the ultra-traditional to the experimental. While some members are championing change and new approaches, others hold onto the idea of jazz as a heritage form. The ideals of the network attempt to advocate for deep reflection on the artform and progressive social change, however the conference itself (which needed to cater for nearly 400 attendees) is perhaps not the ideal context to showcase new approaches to this work. I was slightly disappointed by the program of showcase concerts, which employed fairly conventional musical approaches and standard performance contexts, which I did not feel reflective of the core ideals of the network.
Keynote presentations from Du Yun (China/America) and Tania Bruguera (Cuba) spoke of art as a space for political activism and optimism, art that champions the identity and voices of underrepresented minority groups and art that respects and values indigenous cultures. I imagine that Bruguera's brave and powerful practice was chosen to be represented at the conference as work which is in keeping with the ideals of the EJN, and perhaps also work that is in line with the history of jazz and improvised music as a form of activism. However, one couldn't help but notice that these two artists were not working in a medium that could be referred to as jazz, which, despite being greatly interesting to me, made me question the capacity of jazz now as a medium that can truly push boundaries and work towards the ideals of social change that are being championed by the EJN.
Tania Bruguera coined the term 'Political Timing Specific' to define a type of art that is created to exist at a specific political moment, which gives the artwork potential political and social impact. She believes that it is not enough, any more, to make art as comment, and that it is time to make art for the 'not yet' and the 'yet to come'. Improvised music definitely has the potential to be music of the present (and perhaps also the yet to come) - we are able to focus on its roots as a way of thinking that at its very core, is about change, and as a tradition reflects its own cultural context. But it seems to me that as long as we hold tightly on to heritage forms and contexts for this and other forms or genres of music, the potential to fulfill Tania's requirements for meaningful contemporary art are stifled.
Paul Grabowsky, who had the task of summing up the conference just before its close, went back to the foundations of jazz as a form that originated in African-Amercian culture. For him, jazz represents the idea of different forces coming together, and, wherever jazz goes, it takes on the qualities of the culture around it. He spoke about jazz as a space where traditions can be challenged but also embraced, and jazz as a mode of creating without understanding fully what the outcome of the work will be.
Perhaps if we follow these core ideas as what is truly central to improvised music, and allow ourselves to move away from the impossible task of defining jazz as idiomatic musical language, then we will be able to make real social and artistic progress while continuing to embrace the word 'jazz'.
Being at the European Jazz Conference as an Associate Artist of the Australian Music Centre gave me an opportunity to reflect on the unique position for Australians engaging in music-making in Europe. In many ways, I have the sense that (logistical challenges aside) we are quite privileged in our position. Innovative programming and performance contexts have become commonplace, younger generations are very conscious and proactive about diverse representation, and there are some wonderfully refined and idiosyncratic aesthetics to improvised music coming out of this country. Australia should be proud of the high level of art that we produce, and know that we can support and produce unique work that would be welcome on any European stage.
Attending the EJC created a very special opportunity for me to reflect on and start to form understandings about what is happening in the global networks that support improvised music. I am very grateful for this experience and expect that it will continue to inform my approaches as a musician and artist into the future.
> Australian Jazz in Europe - more information about the market development project (AMC Online)
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