Gale Searcher speaks to Josh Jennings of British Jazz Blog
Leeds University's Parkinson Building, 5pm Friday 17th January. I met the illustrious and alliterative Josh Jennings: writer, founder, and editor of British Jazz Blog. We shook hands on the steps outside, established a rapport, sauntered into the innards of the university, and sat at a table with moderate surrounding volume levels. I proceeded, 'Tell me about the British Jazz Blog.'
'Right, well, it's a blog aimed at people sort of - I mean, how old are you?'
'You're twenty; I'm twenty-one. It's a blog aimed at people from our sort of age group. I am looking at that demographic, because there is such a stereotype surrounding jazz. I'm sure you've heard it before: men in tweed suits, smoking pipes. It's predominantly middle class. I'm from a working class background; I don't even particularly fit in at a university, honestly. The whole jazz scene can appear very convoluted, and it's become a little bit pretentious - not just in my eyes, in a lot of people's eyes. So, the blog is essentially - not forward-thinking, that sounds a little bit pretentious in itself - but perhaps forward-facing. It's a forward-facing jazz blog, focussing on the contemporary side of the genre.'
'What are your aims for the blog, if you didn't cover them all in your first (comprehensive) answer?'
'Apart from the obvious dispelling of the myths surrounding the genre, it's just to promote. There really is a lot of fantastic jazz now - predominantly in London, but also in the other big cities. There's some great venues and a great deal of talent within Leeds (where I live currently), and I aim to give it a platform really: jazz doesn't have much of a stage in the commercial market, so it's just to give the genre a bit of presence.'
'Do you cover British contemporary jazz exclusively, or do you include older or international musicians?'
'Well obviously jazz comes from New Orleans: it comes from the blues, and the African slaves going over to America. So, obviously, to completely disregard anything outside of Britain would be a little bit, sort of, defeatist. There's a lot of great contemporary jazz from abroad, and I suppose I did start it off just focussing solely on the UK; but, for example, I've covered a fantastic pianist I just discovered called Kekko Fornarelli, he has just come in from Italy and hasn't even broken into the jazz circuit here yet really. It'd be a bit narrow-sighted not to mention them. I tend to talk about anything that's going on within the UK, So if it's an international artist that's performing inside Britain, and it's a really exciting tour - for example, Robert Glasper, who's a fantastic American pianist coming over to play the Barbican in May - I'll mention that, even though he's not from the UK; it's UK-based.'
'How long has the blog been going?'
'It's been going for a year, about a week ago!'
'Oh! Did you throw an anniversary party?'
'I did an anniversary blog post.'
'It wasn't even very exciting; it was....it was alright. I'm happy with how it's progressing!'
'Do you plan to keep it going long-term?'
'It all depends how it progresses. I mean, without sounding too career-focussed, it's a nice thing to have on my CV; it's a nice thing to be able to do in my spare time and it makes up a big part of who I am now, so yeah, I'd like to do it long-term. It's not something that I've particularly thought about to be honest; the blog is something that I started at university and I'll definitely continue to write while I'm here. I'll just see where it goes from there really. Even in this year a lot of exciting opportunities have arisen, and if it develops into something bigger and better, I'd love to keep doing it.'
'Would you ever like to go to print, or make a living out of it?'
'Absolutely; print is a strange one, because the print industry is on the decline - supposedly. I don't know enough about it. From an outsider's view, and from all the journalistic views, it seems like it's on a bit of a downward slope - I'm not a hundred per cent, you probably know a bit more about it than I do.'
I know nothing.
'Perhaps one-offs: maybe a once-a-month publication that I published, and then gave out for free. It's more about raising awareness than it is anything else. The blog's been going for a year; I attract just over six thousand page views a month - which in the grand scheme of things is nothing - but, when you think that it's been going for a year, it's a nice little thing, and it's fifty to a hundred people a day.'
'So you'd like a wider readership, rather than to remain niche?'
'That's the thing: jazz is a niche within itself now. It's become another niche obscured by an ever expanding market of niches, and that's another one of my aims: to drag it from the quagmire of this label that's surrounding it. If you go back - not even 60 years - it was this huge, massive movement, and now it's become such a small market; and especially British jazz, which is so overlooked, and so underfunded. It's a shame, because some of the best musicians in the country are jazz musicians, but because it's got this "difficult" tag to it, it does come across a bit pretentious, and it has descended into a level of obscurity; but, as I said in the first question, that is what I'm trying to dispel.'
'What do you typically cover in your writing; reviews, interviews, discussion, news?'
'I actually don't do reviews. I get a lot of e-mails from British jazz artists asking me to review their material; because of the nature of the genre, as it's such an intertwined and interspersed music, people are playing with everyone all over the shop, so there's a lot of material coming forward. You've got the same musician playing with five quartets on the circuit, because you have to make a living if you're a professional musician; and you can't really make a living with one jazz quartet, unless you're really blowing up, Jamie Cullum being really the only example.
'But, I don't do reviews; I write about what I like. I have a real problem with critics: who am I to say in the public domain if something is shit? If I was a well-established, really well-educated jazz musician, and I'd studied for years (you've got to remember that some of these musicians won't break through until they're at least about twenty-five), I'd been to conservatoires, done years and years of rehearsal to get my improvisation and my composition up to scratch, and some twenty-one year old at Leeds University came along and said, 'That is absolutely awful! What have you done that for?', when he's released no viable product of his own, I'd think he was an idiot. But it seems to me that there's this pretentiousness surrounding the critic thing - no disrespect to you because I understand you're a critic and stuff -'
'- but I think when you are criticising the (supposedly) higher art forms where a lot of work has to be put in - classical music, jazz, maybe contemporary art - I think you just need to have a bit more of a solid grounding in it than I do. Do you know what I mean?'
I do, and I couldn't agree more. 'Do you play anything yourself, or are you solely an avid listener?'
'I'm a jazz guitarist myself. I play manouche jazz. You know, Django Reinhardt - have you ever heard of Django Reinhardt?'
'I have - gypsy jazz.'
'Gypsy jazz, yeah, that's the one. I used to play in a band at home with three old boys (they must have been about sixty years old); we used to do weddings and stuff, and that was great, because that was one-hundred and fifty quid a gig - that's each. So, when you're sixteen, and you're earning that sort of money, you can't believe it. So, perhaps there's a financial aspect as to why I got into jazz, but that was soon dispelled as soon as I realised there's no money in it.'
We both laughed at the pecuniary desolation of the jazz musician's lifestyle. 'What is it that attracts you to playing and listening to jazz over other genres? Is it the improvisation, which seems to be its distinguishing quality, and which seems so difficult to me, and many others: the idea of writing successful, convincing, interesting music on the spot?'
'That is where the admiration comes into it for me, because, obviously, I'm going through the process of being a musician: I'm studying music at university. I'm learning all these techniques that these fantastic performers have acquired, and I understand how much work and time you have to put in. So, the improvisation thing is a hard one: that is what makes jazz the "difficult" genre that it supposedly is; the fact is that a lot of the improvisation is quite tonally free makes it quite a niche market because of its dissonant nature. They don't conform to the stereotypical diatonic Western practices, but if you approach it with an open mind, which is what I try to do, then it really is no big deal.
'I don't think that just applies to jazz though; I think that applies to every sort of music, classical as well: it's not something I've been brought up on, but through being exposed to it and approaching it with an open mind, you can appreciate it, and I think more people need to do that with jazz. I think that why it's become such a niche. I read an article today about how vapid and terrible the music industry is at the minute. The BBC's sound of 2012 seems to be a big indicator as to what the year ahead is going to bring, and this journalist was infuriated by the fact that it was just going to be another year of vocoded voices and R&B music, supposedly. I mean, there's plenty of good jazz out there, but because no one's going to make money off it, and people don't believe that it can sell records, no one's going to pay any attention - no one in a position that could bring the genre forward, at least. So, I'm not sure really; it is sad, but there are worse things in life... but yeah, I listen to it for the improvisations, for everything.'
Said I, 'I think part of what makes it so niche is that it's challenging to the ears - atonality, difficult timings, etc. Some people can't process it because they've never trained their ears. They've never even had occasion to find that the ear can or should be trained. Whereas people with musical training or ability can hear and appreciate that modulation, or that chromaticism, those people who have no musical ability or training can only make sense of easily-digestible pop melodies, with large, easy, and diatonic intervals.'
'Well, that's true, but when I started the blog that was the avenue I went down: accessible jazz. Contemporary jazz is becoming a lot more accessible. There are fantastic trios: Portico Quartet, do you know them?'
'Yes, with the hang drum.'
'Yeah, I think it's a Scandinavian or Swiss instrument. Their first two albums were very jazz-heavy, and their third one, which they've just brought out recently, is very electronic, ambient - sort of Thom Yorke-esque, with a jazz twist. They don't class themselves as jazz, but the powers that be - that segregate them into their genres for HMV or whatever - they have labelled them firmly in the jazz mould, and they're really accessible. Loads of people, who haven't listened to jazz before, really like Portico Quartet. There's a band called The Neil Cowley trio: they've just brought out their latest record with a string quartet. It's beautiful, beautiful music: three-and-a-half minute songs, catchy melodies.... The only thing people need to get their head round is exemption of vocals - I mean, that's it, and otherwise it's just a more intricate form of a pop song.'
'I think acts like that can also help ease people into the more demanding music.'
'Absolutely, it's a ramp at the end of the day. I didn't go in listening to the most highbrow form of free jazz. I'm still not particularly into it, because it's just not my type of thing. I like the accessible, the more poppy approach to jazz. I think contemporary jazz and the way it will move forward is somewhere in between the poppy and the atonal and free.'
'Where do you think jazz fits in? Where is its place historically, culturally? Was it a twentieth century art form? I know you won't say that, being interested principally in contemporary, but I wrote this question before I knew that, and it's too late to change the questions now. Anyway, it's a very new music - only a little over a century old - and it's hard to say what the future will bring.'
'I've stated before - and gotten quite a lot of flak for it - that jazz, essentially, is not happening anymore. Jazz, now, is a reiteration of sounds from a bygone era. Most people think of jazz and they think of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, maybe Duke Ellington, and that far back. I think what contemporary jazz has become is something that's derived from that, and something which takes its roots directly from that, but from other places as well, which is what it has to be to progress. This reiteration of old sounds from a bygone era is not going to take it anywhere. I've got books on jazz, none of which are written after 1980, because since then it's been so stagnant. Esbjorn Svensson trio, a Swedish trio - he actually died in 2008 -they were one of the leading lights in the progression of the genre I think. Where it fits in now is, contemporary jazz is something that's derived from jazz - and takes its roots directly from jazz - but isn't jazz, but it is labelled as jazz. I don't think that just because something has a saxophone in it and it utilises improvisation, you can necessarily call it jazz. If you listen to a record from 2012 and a record from 1950, they're completely different. There's an obvious progression there, but it's just where it goes now... I do think that it's progressing nicely though.'
'Tell us about the man behind the blog.'
'I was born in Hertfordshire; I'm studying now at the University of Leeds. I'd like to be a writer one day, perhaps. I think I'd like to go into a bit of everything: I'd like to do more writing, some composition. It's quite important to me that I'm from working class roots, because a lot of the people on the jazz scene aren't anymore, and that's where jazz started: in New Orleans clubs, in brothels - not that I was born in a brothel -'
Of course not!
'- but it's become very highbrow. My housemates, my friends, still take the piss out of me for listening to jazz, but it's not like that at all, and I'm just trying to dispel that. They're ill-conceived stereotypes.
'I would say my main point is what I said about contemporary jazz taking its roots from old jazz, but it's not being jazz. I think that's my whole ethos behind this music. I don't listen to much old jazz at all; I've got a 'Real Book' (a book of jazz standards) which I play through, and I occasionally pick a song out of there that I've not heard, and have a listen to it. Apart from Django Reinhardt, I try to stay 1999+, which in one sense is very narrow-minded, but in the sense that I'm thinking of contemporary jazz as an entirely new movement... That's essentially where it started: this is a new era for it and this is the genre moving forward.'
'What attracted you to jazz in the first place? Can you convert Leeds Music Scene's predominantly indie-entrenched readership?' I should add that that is a throwaway, generalised assertion, based on nothing more than a vague impression.
'That's a really good question.'
'What brought me onto jazz was my guitar teacher. My old guitar teacher used to play double bass, and I hated - absolutely HATED - jazz when I first started learning guitar. I did up until I was about eighteen. I'm only twenty-one now - that's nothing, that's no time at all, three years. So, up to seventeen, eighteen, I was completely within the mind-set that it was this pretentious set of self-absorbed musicians, who weren't fussed what other people thought about their music, and it was just more about them playing - I just didn't get it. I was introduced to it very gradually by my guitar teacher. I think it was just because I had so much time and respect for him, that I took on board what he said. He was an incredible, incredible man: a PhD from Oxford in Politics, but he taught kids guitar. That was his day job: teaching primary school children the guitar. So, I had a lot of time for him. I think being introduced to something - even though they're far-out concepts that you're not comfortable with - by someone that you look up to and you respect that much, I think you can take on board anything. He could have told me that the sky was green and I would probably have considered it.
'In terms of converting the readership, who are predominantly indie, I'd say that there are a lot of exciting contemporary jazz acts around that don't fall far from the indie tree. I've mentioned before the Neil Cowley trio: it's a piano, bass, and drums, but you've got a string quartet on the side. Biffy Clyro do a lot of their songs with a string quartet and it's not far from it. Obviously, it's a different approach - it's a different type of music - but it is worth listening to as an exploration and as something new. Jazz albums are much more of a journey than other albums, perhaps because singles aren't so much cherry-picked, as no one's going to be playing your songs on the radio! The flow of the album is an important thing, an important compositional tool. It is accessible now: if you listen to Zoe Rahman's 'Kindred Spirits', Neil Cowley Trio, Portico Quartet, there are riffs in there - they're riffing! There are pentatonic riffs - that's a rock riff - and just because it's got a jazz beat underneath it, and a saxophone perhaps improvising over the top of it, doesn't mean you can't engage with it in much the same way as you can with indie songs. It's the same engagement and level of engagement required, but you've just got to think about it in a different way, perhaps.'
'What made you start the blog, a lack of written material on the subject?'
'I felt there was a lack of written material about British jazz. There are a few blogs online, that I wasn't actually aware of when I started. There's The London Jazz Blog, The Jazz Breakfast - they're good blogs. In fact there are some fantastic blogs around, but I just wanted to bring it from a different perspective, a younger perspective. I'm the only one my age who's writing a jazz blog. I know about three people my age that listen to jazz, seriously anyway. They all included CD reviews and gig reviews and stuff. I just wanted to come at the scene from a different angle, and just give my two cents: give my thoughts on the scene, and promote the scene, to the best of my ability.'
'Who is your jazz hero - the greatest jazz musician, apart from your guitar teacher?'
'That's such a hard question.'
'You can pick a few if you want.' I will not report you.
'I would say Esbjorn Svensson, for what he did for the genre. Jamie Cullum: as much as I'm not particularly into his music, it is undeniable what he's done for the genre, and how much he's brought it, essentially, to the forefront. I don't know anyone else, in the last twenty years at least, that's brought it so far forward, into the public domain; so, for what he's done for the genre - and some of his music's real nice too. Neil Cowley: I always bang on about him, but I really, really do love his music; it's really fantastic. There are so many.'
'Do you have anything to add?'
'I'm studying music; I'm always a bit apprehensive to state it, especially on the blog, because as I am trying to dispel the myths around jazz and push contemporary jazz forward, at the same time there's this whole "middle class effect" going on. There's also this whole cliché of "it's only music students/musicians who listen to jazz", which I'm trying to dispel... but I am a music student.'
'It seems to me you listened to it, and you liked it so much, you chose to study it; so, the interest and curiosity were there prior to the musical, theoretical, and technical faculties. So, people who say it's for music students, in your case at least, have the causal relationship between jazz-fandom and music-studentism confused, backward.'
'Yeah, but, for people that aren't music students, and aren't musicians at all, it's still a beautiful art form. It's strange to me how I find classical music a lot less engaging than jazz. I presume that a lot of people have them on a par, as really un-engaging. People, who like contemporary music, probably find jazz and classical music equally as disenchanting; but if you think about it, when they're watching a film, the soundtrack adds to the story and provokes an emotive response from people. When your mind is on the screen, and you're still listening to the sounds, the sounds can be overwhelming; but people don't realise that they're listening to a classical score, or a jazz trio piece, or whatever. So, I think it's just taking the two separate things as separate entities and just giving them a chance, as it is with trying to push anything forward. It needs more funding: it needs a lot more money going into it, but I think a lot of people, if they gave it a chance, would be pleasantly surprised, especially at a lot of the recent releases.'