Letters: Jazz Views
With regard to Declan O’Driscoll’s piece in the last JMI, it really is getting tiresome to read Declan’s little hobby horse being taken out for an airing yet again. Anyone with no knowledge of jazz or its traditions would think, on reading his article, that a) the narrow field of jazz in which Declan is interested in is the saviour of the music, and the vessel in which all creativity is contained, and b) that there is some sort of conspiracy against this tradition in Ireland. Both of these views are extremely inaccurate.
In his article Declan’s listing of recent recordings and projects by the musicians he admires most reveal him to have a very narrow focus as far as the totality of the music is concerned. Jazz today is a very broad church, containing many different styles and approaches. I certainly wouldn’t be an admirer of all of these approaches, nor can anyone. And Declan is quite entitled to like the music he likes, and admire its practitioners. But this championing of one tradition, to the exclusion of all others, is myopic and is something that has plagued jazz for years. In fact it reveals him to be possessed of the type of parochial attitude that he infers exists in Ireland to the detriment of the music.
The truth of the matter is that the tradition which Declan champions – one which comes through Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler – has, since the late 1960s, been a minority music within an already minority music. Its practitioners have traditionally become very organised and motivated by necessity. In order for them to have any hope of economic existence they have to be singular of purpose and very dedicated. And they’ve been successful in this, in that they’ve carved out a niche market for themselves, with dedicated fans, such as Declan, supporting them and buying their recordings. But this cannot hide the overall unpopularity of their music within the wider jazz audience. In Ireland, where the jazz audience is tiny anyway (though about the same size, per head of population, as the UK), the market for the music of William Parker, or Susie Ibarra is infinitesimally small.
And the reality is that, even in jazz, someone has got to promote concerts in the real world. So a jazz promoter will hesitate before promoting concerts by people whom they know won’t draw an audience. This is true anywhere – not just in Ireland. Even in mainland Europe, where this tradition has a much stronger following, the practitioners tend to play festivals (such as Moers) that specialise in this music, and to which the aficionados travel long distances to hear their heroes. The really big jazz festivals, such as the North Sea, shy away from programming such artists. So the implication that Ireland is somehow especially averse to this music is simply untrue. The reality is that this music has a hard time getting a public forum everywhere.
Ireland, in recent years, has become vastly more accepting of challenging music, and the list of creative performers who have played here is now quite impressive – Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, The Bad Plus, Nguyen Le, Simon Nabatov, Jim Black. Even the Cork jazz festival has become much more adventurous, programming people such as David Murray in recent years. So where the basis of Declan’s dark insinuation of the ‘jazz police’ patrolling our borders is coming from, or who these police are supposed to be, is a bit mystifying.
And inaccurate. Like most people who have a particular hobby horse, Declan betrays an incomplete knowledge of what’s really going on. For example, he says that ‘none of the people mentioned in this article have played in Ireland’ yet both Archie Shepp and Chris Speed, to name but two, have played here – I was present at both concerts.
He also states, in a tribute to Daniel Carter’s doubling on alto and trumpet that, apart from Benny Carter and Ornette Coleman, nobody else that he can think of plays both these instruments – but Chas Meredith has been performing just such a double in Ireland for over thirty years! Declan not only needs to broaden his gaze in the wider world of jazz, he needs to get out more in his own country.
Published on 1 July 2003
Ronan Guilfoyle is a bass player, composer and Director of the Centre for Jazz Performance at DCU.