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Americans in London: The politics of the JLCO’s Barbican Residency

by Nivedita Sarnath on September 16, 2010

From 16 to 20 June, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) took over London’s jazz scene with performances, workshops, and jam sessions.  The JLCO’s music director is of course Wynton Marsalis, whose controversial views on the future of jazz and conservative programming at JLC have caused chagrin on the part of musicians and journalists, both American and European, and sparked a discussion of the future of jazz on both sides of the Atlantic.  Recently, although opinions of Marsalis have changed, several of the underlying issues, including funding and international collaboration, continue to cause some tense exchanges.  The London residency was billed as a collaborative endeavor and a celebration of transatlantic jazz.  Ultimately, it was the collaborative aspect that triumphed, but as with many things, it was the undercurrents and individual episodes that made it more interesting.

As part of the residency (full schedule details here), the JLCO played three concerts that, together, took the audience chronologically through the history of big band in America.  In addition, there was one other concert in the Barbican Centre, entitled ‘Big Band Britannia.’  This concert, led by British big band arranger and trumpeter Guy Barker, covered the chronology of big band in Britain.  The concert featured several of Britain’s best players in the band, as well as guest appearances that included the JLCO’s Eliot Mason and Joe Temperley, both born in the UK.  Each piece and guest was received with more enthusiasm than the last, until Wynton Marsalis himself was announced.  I’m not sure I can explain what happened better than I did when I wrote my review for jazzwisemagazine.com, so I’m copying it here:

“Except for the cheers of a few devoted fans, the reception of Wynton Marsalis as a featured soloist on [John] Dankworth’s ‘Zodiac Variations’ was limited to polite applause, an odd reminder of the political undertones of the JLCO residency. Despite an overwhelming atmosphere of collaboration from both sides of the pond, it was clear that Wynton’s past comments rankle among some fans of British jazz. The audience failed to warm to him even after the interaction between Wynton and the band encouraged both parties to some of the better playing of the night.”

Although the opinions of the UK’s prominent jazz journalists (notably Stuart Nicholson and John Fordham, whose review of the first JLCO concert for the Guardian is very fair) have certainly softened towards Marsalis, who has in recent years begun to program a wider variety of music at Lincoln Center for both artistic and financial reasons, my initial thought was that a London audience might not know much of changes that had taken place in New York recently and were probably annoyed because they had heard of Wynton’s comments from a few years ago, notably his statement in an interview on the Academy of Achievement website that “The whole position of British musicians in American music [is] imitating Afro-American musicians. That makes me mad.”

However, it seems that ‘political undertones’ of the JLCO residency turned out to be of a different sort than I had imagined.  Much of the audience that night may not have even heard of Wynton’s interview; rather than musical politics, what irked the Brits about the Barbican residency is instead governmental politics and the economy. Nowadays the problem amounts to the fact that British taxes are essentially paying the salaries of American musicians, while Americans still aren’t funding their arts programs as public services.  In an email conversation Mr. Nicholson told me that the Barbican receives a public subsidy that supports its collaborations with various organizations, including London Symphony and other UK groups.  But in the case of the JLCO residency, rather than funding British musicians, about £290,000 ($435,000) in public money is going to Americans (these figures come via the Freedom of Information Act).  The residency continues in 2012, meaning that instead of focusing on Britain during the London Summer Olympics, the spotlight will be on musicians from another country.  Add that to Wynton’s previous stance on jazz in the UK, the political debacles of George W. (the jazz community is largely left-wing) and the impending arts cuts by the government of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and the result understandably rankles.

However, the political undercurrents of this particular collaboration turned out not to be the point.  One redeeming factor is that, as part of the residency, the JLCO is working with young musicians in Hackney (in East London) and has partnered with Tomorrow’s Warriors, a jazz education organization widely respected in London by musicians and the jazz media alike.  The other factor is that the music turned out to be more important to everyone involved, and the one thing everyone agreed on was that there was a lot of good music in London that weekend.

Nivedita is a violinist, vocalist, and junior at Harvard College.  This summer she spent two months researching the UK jazz scene in London, five weeks of which were in an internship at Jazzwise Magazine.

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