Jazz in Australia is probably achieving at the highest level in its history. Looking at the entire world, slowly its best musicians, set against their international competitors, gather praise and recognition. International players visit Australia not because we bring them but now because they choose to come. Here, some Australian jazz musicians do highly original work by any measure. Much Australian jazz fits the international mainstream but much else is local and distinctive.
And yet the Australian audience is tiny, and only a thin top layer of the activity gets any public assistance. As has always been the case, there is very little infrastructure. Excellent jazz schools produce excellent musicians but their career opportunities are sparse.
Eric Myers was once the ‘National Jazz Coordinator’ before funding to the position by the Australia Council was terminated. He disappeared for 20 years. Now he’s back and has formed a ‘forum’ to discuss jazz’s needs. I contributed the paper below.
A long time ago, I got my start in professional music making as a jazz musician and have maintained an interest. Since 2001, I have designed and managed the annual Freedman Jazz Fellowship where I have had the privilege of seeing each year in some depth what our best younger (35 and younger) jazz musicians do, and aspire to. These and other things have kept me current, but not intimate with jazz doings on a day to day basis.
So from there, I put together this overview for the discussion group. Please forgive any misapprehensions and omissions and move on to your next thought.
Though it would be great if you add your comments at the foot of the article.
Also, after the article you will find a link to a SWOT analysis of jazz in Australia.
Can we identify the key circumstances of jazz in Australia? Some thoughts.
The audience as identified is one of the smallest in Australia for an identifiable musical genre. It seems that it is mainly comprised of older people even though many of the performers are young. By report, there is greater representation of the young in Melbourne audiences but a hypothesis to be tested is that the young by and large are not attracted to jazz; this may be affecting its status overall.
So, some theories:
- The audience is too small to support a healthy, financially viable jazz scene.
- The audience is ageing and diminishing.
- The core of live presentation of jazz is through a small number of liquor-licensed venues; their financial viability is very precarious and consequently prospects for spontaneous growth are limited.
- The lack of young people in the jazz audience is apparently not a necessary consequence of the state of the music. There have been reports in the media of the rapid emergence in London of a substantial young jazz audience. My source suggested that this young audience feels ownership of the jazz it listens to and perhaps responsibility for its emergence. I listened to a little of it and it seemed unexceptional but no matter, whatever it may be now, it has the opportunity to evolve. It would be good to investigate the phenomenon and see whether it can be adapted to Australia.
- It may be that the popularity of jazz is episodic – periods of expansion and contraction. If that were the case, some research might give us more understanding and even ways to manage it.
- The in any case fading general media do not feel a strong need to cover jazz; media presentation of jazz is mostly through specialised online sites presumably serving mainly the already committed players and listeners. See below.
At school level, at a guess, jazz performance is found mostly in secondary schools. Are there trends data?
- Strong secondary school jazz programs could lead to an increasing number of students seeking positions in tertiary programs. But we don’t actually need more professional musicians. We need audiences to sustain them.
- Secondary school jazz programs can produce future audiences. On the face of it, whatever is now going on is not sufficient to produce viable audience numbers.
The tertiary training of performers occurs primarily in the main capital city conservatoriums (and not TAFE). These programs began to appear 40-50 years ago and have had a very positive effect on the technical standards of jazz performers. The musical world overall is much more diverse and probably the formal training has contributed in part to the growing diversity in Australian jazz, both in its direct evolution and its evolution through interactions with eg classical music, popular music, and musics of other cultures such as India, Japan, Korea.
- Jazz is what the musicians make it. More educated musicians probably have accelerated its departure from its ‘street’ beginnings; this more complex music has required, perhaps, more informed listening, a bit like classical music. That reduces the size of the potential audience pool.
- Would it be even possible to build a large popular audience with jazz as it is now? The popular jazz of the mid-20C has been replaced by a succession of popular styles that are mostly more easily comprehensible than contemporary jazz.
As noted above, jazz venues are precarious financially and this must discourage entrepreneurs from investing in them. But since government subsidy to jazz venues is very limited, growth depends mostly upon commercial investment. As I understand it, Sydney has three jazz venues. Two have been open multiple nights per week year round. Their programming includes some non-jazz nights through commercial necessity. One of them is just now closing and will reopen one week per month in a different space. The third is open irregularly now and is operated by the subsidised Sydney Improvised Music Association. I understand that Melbourne has half a dozen jazz venues and the scene there has expanded in recent years. I don’t know the dynamics but they obviously are different from Sydney’s. Perth acquired a full time jazz venue. The scene is indebted to all these risk-takers.
- A study is mounted to discover the circumstances in which there is a spontaneous commercial development of jazz venues. This would include an analysis of the dynamics of the Melbourne development.
- It may be that the dynamics of the commercial venues lead them to concentrate on a more commercial, less adventurous jazz. This could enlarge the audience base but strand more adventurous jazz activity and the development of that audience. There could be exploration of those dynamics.
- So a parallel maintenance and development of venues subsidised to support less commercially fettered and more actively developmental jazz could be included in the strategy.
- It may be that an effective strategy would not be based on the development of committed venues but rather on committed presenters who find ways to present jazz on a concert by concert basis in venues where it can be successful.
- This leads also to the possibility of development of jazz entrepreneurs who organise jazz touring.
- Except for activity supported by subsidy, the success of any of this depends upon the development of a larger audience. That cannot be done in the abstract, as it were. But on the other hand, there is a chicken and egg problem which may be beyond the abilities of the venues to solve. Can that be addressed?
- We are old mostly men talking together. If a younger audience is to be developed, young people need to be at the forefront. We may need to step back. But in the present situation, it is we who are having the strategic thoughts and they need to include strategies to involve younger people (and women, and non-Caucasians). Younger people could be entrepreneurs.
- I have asked a couple of knowledgeable people about possible causative factors in Melbourne. Not much joy. One answer was that the venue situation has been in part a result of the private investments of two wealthy men who are committed to jazz. There has also been a government investigation of the decline in live music in Sydney, mostly commercial music and its venues, and the growth in Melbourne. Much of that comes back to the quantum and manner of support from the respective state governments. NSW has been inept, indeed destructive. Victoria boasts a lot but even empty boasting is at least positive and says that the arts are important. And it also does act.
There are jazz festivals and then there are more general festivals in which jazz may be included.
- All festivals are promotional of something. Big multi-arts festivals like the Melbourne Festival promote their city, maybe state, and perhaps some particular view of the arts. Jazz festivals promote jazz. Some festivals are economically driven. Adelaide has a strong arts base but we always hear about the economic benefit to the state and its economic success leads to increased subsidy.
- So some festivals are premised upon turning a profit. That is a reason they are subsidised. (It’s come to this?!)
- Some years ago a sort of census of festivals found that there were more jazz festivals in Australia than any other type of festival. By definition, most of these must have been small and probably took place in country towns. It would be surprising if this is still the situation but it may be worth investigation.
- Jazz festivals promote jazz. At a guess, that is a primary objective of the big jazz festivals in Melbourne. Jazz festivals are a bonding place for jazz musicians and audience members. A festival like Wangaratta with its inclusion of high level awards is especially important to the community of jazz musicians, and supporters strongly committed enough to weather the inconvenience of travel to a country town. (Of course, for some that is also part of the attraction.)
- What are the merits of country town festivals? Tamworth Country Music Festival has put Tamworth on the national map and without it, most people probably would say Tamworth – where’s that. Wangaratta – atta where? The merits of country town jazz festivals? Like all festivals, promotional for jazz and the town. But the town is probably not otherwise committed to jazz. Look at the current stance of the Wanga leaders. They are interested in the festival if it presents pop music and more local profits. Neither Tamworth nor Wanga would give much sustenance to country or jazz musicians outside of festival time. It’s FIFO.
- The big jazz festivals can keep jazz in the public consciousness, maybe help build the audience. They are on a scale that belies the impression that jazz is inconsequential. They can attract media attention at a level not achieved the rest of the time. If they include awards for eg musical quality, that promotes the values they recognise and also the possibility of a level of fame in jazz. There could be a general effect on jazz attendances through the year – could that be assessed?
- There has been a move generally to focus on festivals and forget about the regular presentation of various art forms. I don’t know where that’s at. If it is at strength, then jazz needs to be part of it. But it doesn’t much help the daily viability of the arts.
- Some big festivals simply do not feel obliged to include jazz. Sydney Festival barely includes classical either. What is said is that the festivals can present more daring, unfamiliar work because the audience is more willing to take a risk in its choice of festival events. If jazz wants to be included in big festivals, it probably cannot depend on being given spots for the sort of presentation that can be heard last week in the local club. Festivals require and are an opportunity for something special. The problem is one of imagining, and of planning, and of resources. The imagination is confined to a degree by what is possible. Big, imaginative ideas are needed from top level jazz people along with production money to enable them to be realised, and then sold to major festivals. Success would feed back into the artform and to audience development. How could this be done?
Press, broadcast, recordings, internet.
- The print newspaper is dying. In my apartment block there are 90 apartments. A few years ago, 80 received a newspaper delivery. That is now down to 11.
- Possibly, in an apartment block of young people, the number would be zero.
- It’s good, nevertheless, to have jazz adequately represented.
- Eric gives us evidence that there is further decline. He basically is proposing that the proprietors should be told their duty.
- While of course concerned at the situation, I think that if we had the proposed inclusion of young people in this discussion, they would be saying why waste effort on this. The proprietors are not motivated by such a minority concern and even if they added a review every so often, it’s not where the game is being played out.
- The ABC and community radio carry the can now as they have practically within living memory.
- The ABC has ABC Jazz and James Kennedy is a lively leader. It’s low budget but it is an energetic base. There is some jazz on RN, I believe.
- In my experience, the ABC can be responsive to calls to do its duty and broadcast more jazz via more channels but it is under a lot of pressure and given that jazz has a foothold there, it might be far better to work with and support ABC Jazz. We don’t have to be antagonistic. Recognise where we have allies and work together.
- Community radio broadcasts jazz. As a general rule, it probably goes along with energetic, competent program proposals. Probably, the effective strategy is not to expect the radio stations to be the instigators but to take stuff to them.
- For Loudmouth, I have a backlist of 47 jazz and improv recordings awaiting review. These were all released in 2018 and 2019 and all are by Australian artists. In addition, without making an actual count, I estimate that in the last year, we have reviewed 30+. Of the backlog, 60% are on small ‘commercial’ labels, ABC the largest. We probably receive a higher percentage of label releases than artist releases so the total number of releases is probably a bit larger. An output of say 51/2 + 30 = 55 recordings a year seems pretty good but that’s an off the cuff judgement. It certainly was less only a few years ago.
- It’s a fair bet that almost none of these covered their costs from sales. The motivations are probably to have a tool for promotion and a sort of status, and personal satisfaction.
- Overall, there is an impression of high quality with a few showing exceptional achievement. It would be interesting to have an expert assessment by some dispassionate foreign reviewers. Is that a good idea? How could it be achieved? How could it be used?
- How are these recordings promoted? And to whom, for what purpose? I think their main purpose is to help win gigs, and any sales are mostly achieved at the gigs. It could possibly be very beneficial if a very effective promoter could be employed to create a self-help guide for promotion of recordings whether directly by musicians or in musicians’ engagement with promoters and labels.
- I produce an online magazine but I don’t really know how to promote it. I can clearly see my limitations. This is an area that needs consideration for what it already can do and what can be expected into the medium term. I think someone else should have a go at this. Maybe they are in their 20s.
International movement of jazz musicians both in and out has increased. Inward traffic seems to be mostly self-generating. Our jazz venues are able to offer gigs to visiting artists. Some visitors also are paid to give workshops at universities. A few perform in festivals and that may be made feasible by sharing in festival subsidies.
- Performances by high level foreign jazz musicians used to be rare. Not so rare now. Why is this? Has the reputation of the Australian jazz scene expanded into foreign lands?
- I have organised the Freedman Jazz Fellowship yearly since 2001. Its benefactor had the idea that it would help fine Australian musicians go overseas. But in recent years, it was clear that a lot of the nominees were already overseas, without help from the Fellowship. The issue was not so much getting them there but in helping them to make the best of their opportunity. You’re there. What next?
- Australians succeeding in New York can thereby gain status in Australia. ‘Success’ probably can mean surviving professionally rather than being famous.
- What is ‘fame’ in jazz? Are The Necks ‘famous’, for instance? Is Andrea Keller? Phil Slater? James Morrison?
- It benefits us to have excellent foreign musicians performing in Australia. What benefit can there be to us in having fine Australian musicians succeeding overseas? Possibilities:
- They enhance the profile of Australian jazz in foreign countries and probably stimulate Australian tours by foreigners
- Australia is less likely to be seen as a mediocre Antarctic province.
- If they succeed in a sufficiently public way ‘overseas’, the Australian public’s view of jazz in Australia could become more positive and more supportive of subsidy to it.
- Governments could be persuaded that Australian jazz can earn EXPORT DOLLARS jeez.
- That success could raise the foreign reputation and expectations of Australian jazz and give our musicians greater opportunities.
A few observations. Under this national government, arts funding has declined by 19%. The remainder will be worth less when inflation is allowed for. I believe that overall state funding has held about steady though of course there are differences between states. Local government has increased significantly. We tend to concentrate on national funding because the Australia Council somehow attracts scrutiny but there may be more promise in the other levels of government. I am aware of increasing arts support from Melbourne and Sydney cities.
The existence and development of jazz music and activities depends upon the contributions of musicians and a little from government. Commercial support is so far as I know, marginal, break-even financially rather than profitable. To the extent that it has the possibility for growth, jazz seems to depend upon musicians and volunteers, and financial contributions from governments and donors.
- If there is no advocacy for jazz, it would not be logical to expect major change.
- Who will advocate for jazz and what will be advocated? A vision is needed and a plan for its implementation, including advocacy to persuade an entity with funds to offer them in support. Jazz would need an advocacy body or bodies to do this work.
- If advocacy is to government, it could be to the Australia Council for national programs, state governments or local governments for developments within their jurisdictions. There may be other possibilities of government or private support.
- For support for a national plan,we would look most naturally to the Australia Council, the national funding body. It must be observed that the national organisations responsible in the first instance for art form plans, including the organisations for music, playwriting, dance, visual arts (there was none for theatre nor, I think, literature) were all defunded by the Australia Council and there has been no move to restore them. The Australia Council might support a national jazz plan but is unlikely to support establishment of an organisation to create and advocate for it.
- Jazz performance organisations like SIMA or Melbourne Jazz Cooperative could have an advocacy role, exercised through actions and perhaps advocacy. Their basic funding is for the performance program and advocacy could be an add-on. In some instances, it need not even be specific. For instance, take the very successful initiatives to increase women’s participation in jazz. These implement a vision that could be expressed as a policy. If proposed simply through advocacy, we could still be waiting. Instead, there are effective programs and who would dare to pull their funding?
- The situation in each state or city should be addressed according to local circumstances. There still has to be a plan and some entity to create, promote and possibly implement it.
- Instead of creating specifically a jazz advocacy program, there could be a jazz consultancy group that plans research, develops a plan, chooses priorities, and looks for organisations to implement one or another of them. We might be able to get money for an annual conference or might just have to wing it.
- To fund a national advocacy program explicitly, the best prospect might be a large foundation. I think it quite possible that a well devised plan could attract support but probably for a limited time. Two years perhaps. In that case, there should be a two-year plan with clear outcomes and then further consequences for following years and some concepts about what would replace the advocacy program once funding was exhausted.
Hopefully, the meander above can help devise a set of development objectives and
to implement them.
SWOT ANALYSIS OF JAZZ
The Music Trust manages the Music in Australia Knowledge Base and for that, commissioned a large number of SWOT analyses of various sectors of the musical world in Australia. One of them is for jazz, written by Johannes Luebbers. It begins with a brief summary of the situation of jazz in Australia; that is followed by the SWOT.
Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.