It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

There isn’t much jazz in Cornwall. It’s not generally the publican’s choice for live music, there’s only one festival, in Bude, and visiting groups tend to tag the county on the end of a tour hoping that knock-down prices will help them unload the last of their latest CD. Too frequently this brings second rate or self-indulgent groups who perform in less than ideal venues to inevitably small audiences. Much of what does appear is so devoid of emotion that in my opinion it isn’t jazz at all.

Successful bands play with feeling, reflecting the reality that jazz is emotional. The most frequently mentioned exemplar is Charlie Parker and the Lover Man sessions when the agonizing mess of his life is there for all to hear. Also listen to John Coltrane’s Impressions, an 11-minute sax-drum duet at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival that leaves the listener in no doubt as Coltrane’s (pictured above) state of mind, struggling as he was with his ethnicity, spirituality and musical ideals.

Getting what jazz we do in Cornwall is a struggle for the hard-working organizers who have to manage without Performing Right Society Funding and deserve better. When they can, they link up with events in St Ives and Calstock so that potential bands get three gigs instead of one.

Some of the groups we do get unfortunately worse than mediocre. I’ve walked out of two gigs, one because the vocalist was insufferably awful, and another because what was being performed did not qualify as jazz as I know it. The band appeared to be playing only for itself, the audience was of no obvious consequence, the material was devoid of feeling and the band didn’t swing, and not just because the drummer appeared to be backing a band other than the one performing.

Some of the musicianship might have been high, the display of manual dexterity impressive, but was it jazz? Not for me. There are exceptions, and these stand out. The last brilliant gig came from the Nigel Price Quartet, but I also recall Pete Oxley & Nicholas Meier, Andy Sheppard and Thommaso Starace.

If good jazz doesn’t come to you, then you have to go to it. That’s why, along with my old school friend Jeff Burbidge, I patronized jazz festivals in different parts of the UK, including Norwich, Scarborough and Wiltshire, but most recently near Paris in Fontainebleau for the 37th Django Festival.

Sadly and surprisingly, Jeff died at the beginning of the year and without his encouragement I haven’t been tempted to support events on my own. Sharing the driving and booking the accommodation along with all the wining and dining was as much fun as the music.

The lack of quality is not confined to Cornwall; jazz isn’t going through one of its more creative periods. Given the body blows it has suffered since it peaked in 1959, in many respects it’s amazing it survived at all. Although 1959 was the year Billy Holiday and Lester Young died, this has been dubbed the most creative year in jazz thanks to the release of Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, Dave Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’, Ornette Coleman’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, Bill Evans’ ‘Portrait in Jazz’ and Charles Mingus’ Mingus ‘Ah Um’. Each of them amazing, ground-breaking albums which still sell today.

Charlie Parker

It was also the year that saw the release of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘George and Ira Gershwin Songbook’ with both Nelson Riddle’s orchestra and arrangements. As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a film, Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara, with a jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

All seemed well set for the future. But within three years along came the Beatles and jazz was instantly marginalized. Gigs disappeared and album production slumped. But the music didn’t die, and neither will it. There are enough young players around who understand jazz and respect its traditions. If only more of them came to Cornwall.