SEMINAR SERIES| Sid Peacock on ‘Surge in Spring’

As a way of exploring cultural translation in jazz, Sid Peacock presented Surge in Spring as an example of the way a jazz festival might lend itself to a melting pot of cultural influences.

This video will give you both a flavour of the festival and a window into the way it is saturated with examples of cultural translation. It’s a marvellous example of the way in which a cultural form such as jazz serves as the medium for creativity and cultural transformation.

Thanks, Sid, for allow us to share the video.

SEMINAR SERIES: Jazz Studies | Melinda Maxwell on ‘Crossing Lines and Sharing Spaces’

Crossing Lines and Sharing Spaces

by Melinda Maxwell

The lines to cross and the spaces to share are affiliated to music that lives in the moment, exists in the spaces between the notes, and is driven by instinct. As a classically trained musician my in-roads into jazz improvisation have re-awakened this inner space. I have always enjoyed improvising but now I am thinking about melodic and harmonic structures that can enrich my improvising activity as a composer and player. The inner space led by the ear has become embedded in my performing, teaching and practicing.

Today in the classical world there is a bridge over this inner space that connects composers and players. That bridge is notation. It was exceedingly common until about the early 19th century for composers to play and vice versa. A cultural change began when composers wanted their own specific notes to be played and not those of an improviser. The notation of musical language became more complex in its instructions, so much so that in the 20th and 21st centuries the sheer look of a score could resemble a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting with its complex layers of texture. The style in music that has similarities to this expression has been labeled New Complexity. Composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon and Richard Barrett compose music whose notation is on information overload.

There is a wealth of instructions to distil and internalize before a note is sounded. Sometimes there is not enough time to garner all that is needed for performance and the eye is forced to wing what it sees and choose the right path in which to steer the music. This has its own energy and drive but it puts the player in a curiously restricted space. The instinct is more aligned to the eye than the ear. If one were to transcribe a free improvisation by Evan Parker the notation would most probably look identical, but the two methods of music making are worlds apart, and even if you were to learn and play the Evan Parker transcription it wouldn’t quite live up to the energy of the original because the notation “bridge” restricts and adversely changes the immediacy in communication of an improvisation.

My improvisation on the opening oboe solo of Octandre (1923) by Edgar Varèse is an attempt to link these two worlds of composer and player. It is a gesture of reverence for the music, a way of getting under its skin. Making sister versions by ear deepens the understanding of the original. I have performed it many times and often felt the tempo marking too fast. But, classical musicians are trained to stick to what the notation dictates. Tempo is an elusive thing and trying to fix it can cause problems for the music’s character. I know from my own work with living composers that they are aware tempi can be affected by many things, not least different acoustics, but there is a need to be as precise as possible, because once it’s written down, it’s “fixed”.

For me the opening solo of Octandre feels like a blues with its soulful falling minor ninths, minor sevenths and whole-tones. My instinct says it needs space to breathe and express itself and this seems to open up the inner space and crosses the line into where the music begins to live of its own accord and carry its own momentum. Certainly, I would like to think that Varèse  (who attended jazz concerts in New York in the late 1950s and invited jazz musicians to his home to improvise using his graphic notation) would grant my wish to explore the instinctual aural space between his notes.

Melinda’s paper was delivered on 28 February 2018 as part of the BCMCR Seminar Series

SEMINAR SERIES | Tony Dudley-Evans on ‘British Jazz’ – part 1

British Jazz: Cross Atlantic Partnership or European Integration?

by Tony Dudley-Evans

I begin with the assumption that it is legitimate to talk of European Jazz as being stylistically different from American jazz and that it is more relevant now to talk of European Jazz rather than jazz of particular countries, e.g. Norwegian jazz, Swiss jazz etc.  This is not to suggest that there are not specific characteristics of jazz in certain countries, but rather that there  are so many bands based in Europe with members from different countries and also, that since many musicians have moved to centres such as Berlin or Amsterdam, it is relevant to talk of European jazz and of European bands.

My argument is that British jazz players have tended to draw their influences from the USA and for various historical, linguistic and political reasons still lean towards the US model.  It is only since the 1970s that certain British players have begun to take on influences from other European bands and players and see themselves as part of the European scene.

There are clear echoes in all this in the division in British society about the European Union.

In the late 1940s and 1950s British modern jazz players took their inspiration from the bop scene in New York, and many players played on the cross-Atlantic liners in order to have a day in New York listening to the pioneers of modern jazz, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al.  The growth of modern jazz in Britain developed from these visits and its players were invariably judged by how close they came to matching the American stars of the day.  Saxophonist Tubby Hayes was probably the finest British exponent of the bop/hard bop style and he was always acclaimed as being ‘as good as the Americans’.  Fans of Hayes were delighted when he eventually went to play in New York for a series of dates and received excellent reviews and the acceptance of the jazz community in the city.  Similarly, alto saxophonist Peter King is regarded as a player who would be considered a leading figure in the bop style had he been based in New York.

It is sometimes argued that a distinctively British style emerged with Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite that featured saxophonist Bobby Wellins.   While the compositions do have a distinctive voice different from the American style, I would argue the solos from Tracey and Wellins do still follow an American model and the overall impression is that the album is highly original but still essentially following an American model.

Saxophonist Andy Hamilton was a key member of the Birmingham and latterly the British scene, but his playing was in the tradition of the saxophone tradition of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  In his later years he developed a strong musical and personal relationship with American saxophonist David Murray.  I have suggested this was partly due to a mutual feeling of a cross-Atlantic culture taking in Britain, USA and the Caribbean (Dudley-Evans, 2017).



SEMINAR SERIES: Jazz Studies | Brian Homer on ‘Jazz and Photography’

The Iconography of Jazz and Photography

by Brian Homer

My proposal is that the styles and techniques of photography translated into the use of photography in jazz made a profound impact on the iconography of jazz and how we view jazz. To illustrate this I am going to take some selected examples of jazz photography and look at how they were possibly influenced by other photographic uses. First, I am going to take the iconic image of John Coltrane taken by Francis Wolff, and used on the cover of Blue Train, by the designer Reid Miles.

The Blue Train session took place in 1957. The image chosen shows a reflective Coltrane with his hand to his chin looking down and intent. His sax is slung across him. This image is not in the common language of the gig/playing image that is very prevalent in jazz. Rather, I would argue that this image is in a documentary photography style and has similarities to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Woman image (1936) taken California while working for the Reconstruction Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) of a destitute and starving family.

The mother has her hand to her chin and is looking reflectively to her right with two of her children either side of her but facing away from the camera. The effect is very similar in both images – allowing the viewer into the picture to speculate on what is going through the mind of the subject. Wolff was a migrant from Germany and being a keen photographer would, no doubt, have been exposed to the documentary styles becoming prevalent in Europe and the USA.

Turning to the cover of Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective, also on Blue Note from 1964, a different photographic influence is at play. By this time, corporate identity and conceptual graphic design were developing rapidly. In this shot, by the designer Reid Miles, the main element is not the musician but the eccentrically shaped headlight cover of a Jaguar E Type, situated in the bottom left of the image. The lines of the bonnet, wings and windscreen lead to Byrd.

This kind of wide angle shot is unusual for the time. I suggest this was influenced by Russian Constructivism. Photographers in that movement were looking for modern, futuristic ways of representation that would foreground progress and technology; to achieve this they used angles, shadows.

European emigré designers and artists came to the US during the 1930s; one of these was Russian Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch became the designer of Harper’s Bazaar and in his layout style and use of photography was very influential. He taught many photographers including Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and while there is no evidence of a direct link to Miles it would not be surprising if in the creative milieu of New York in the 50s and 60s such influence rubbed off on an up and coming designer.

I’ll finish with two questions:

  1. First: does jazz photography now have an impact on how we perceive jazz?
  2. Second: are jazz photographers like me missing a trick in concentrating mainly on performance pictures?

Both of these would bear further study.


Brian’s paper was delivered on 28 February 2018 as part of the BCMCR Seminar Series

SEMINAR SERIES: Jazz Studies | Nicolas Pillai on ‘Duke Ellington in Coventry’

Duke Ellington in Coventry: discovering television and jazz in the cathedral archive

by Nicolas Pillai

In February 1966, as part of the British leg of their European tour, Duke Ellington and his orchestra travelled to the Midlands city of Coventry to perform their first Concert of Sacred Music at the new cathedral. This remarkable event was televised on the Midlands ABC channel and, in this paper, I considered the concert as both a live experience and recorded artefact. I argued that the Coventry performance is significant in the way that it occupies different, seemingly contradictory, spaces: both local and national, secular and divine.

It also proposes a startling environment for jazz music; the severe, modernist cathedral designed by Basil Spence as part of a larger spatial re-conception of Coventry occurring over the 1950s and 1960s. The sound of Ellington’s orchestra echoing within this cavernous place of worship suggests a shift in the British reception of jazz, expressed through the juxtaposition of music and innovative architecture.

I described my journey through archives both regional and national, attempting to create a composite of a programme thought lost, my eventual discovery of the badly degraded programme in the Studiocanal archive and my collaboration with the archive TV company Kaleidoscope and the University of Warwick Ghost Town project which aims to screen a restored version of the programme in the cathedral, along with a recreation of the concert by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Duke Ellington Orchestra. I concluded this paper by reflecting upon the survival and afterlife of archive television, demonstrating ways in the Ellington in Coventry research it builds upon and widens the scope of my current AHRC-funded project Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969.


Nicolas’s paper was delivered on 21 February 2018 as part of the BCMCR Seminar Series

SEMINAR SERIES: Jazz Studies | Translating Curatorial Practice

For the first seminar in the BCMCR Seminar Series, Fiona Talkington and Sid Peacock explored how curatorial practice might be understood in terms of cultural translation.

In this post, I’ll explore Fiona’s talk in a little more detail and tease out a couple of the questions that interested me.

Fiona Talkington (BBC Radio 3) – If Mountains Could Sing

Fiona presented a paper on her experiences curating Norwegian Jazz. She described how her passion for the promotion and circulation of Norwegian jazz began; and traced the journey it took, from the humble, self-effacing musicians she spoke to in Oslo’s jazz bars, to the intricate, highly creative musical collaborations she organized later in her career.

Among the collaborative highlights outlined in her paper, one stood out: Fiona set up the ‘conexions’ series wherein she brought together Norwegian and British musicians for live performances (you can see the Intro to the 2013 event here). The twist here being that in some cases they’d never played with each other before. The music they played or improvised together took on the characteristic of an informal dialogue, produced in the moment, and proved both culturally enriching and profoundly creative.

What struck me about Fiona’s account was her intuition that something about Jazz managed to transcend linguistic differences, at least to some degree. Fiona spoke of its capacity to move and affect the listener, and that the effects it produced in the listener were comparable between British and Norwegian cultures;  put another way, what she liked about Norwegian Jazz (rhythms, peaks, harmonies) was what Norwegians liked about Norwegian Jazz.

This gestures towards an interesting point about the translation of affect from Norway to Britain. It suggests that common or equivalent feelings might be produced and experienced via non-linguistic medium, even if the specific articulation of those feelings takes place in different languages. In other words, we might feel the same things (but  articulate those feelings in a different language, according to local and specific ways of understanding feelings, and so on).

I was also interested in the limitations to the cross-cultural movements of jazz. Money for jazz festivals, said Fiona, was in relative abundance when she first visited in the 90s, at least in Norway, but the shifting political and economic landscape had changed considerably since then and she reported that funding has begun to dry up. The consequences for the continued flourishing

Fiona also raised an interesting point about gender: a high proportion of the musicians that found prominence on the Norwegian Jazz scene were male, while those involved in managing festivals and setting up collaborations both in Norway and transnationally tended to be female. This gendered division of labour, at least to me, could be seen as gesturing towards broader structural patterns of inequality that shape the ways in which music is circulated globally. Certainly food for thought.