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Why debates about jazz festivals should be about more than genre purism

The question arises time and time again about why jazz festivals include other genres - and the answer is really simple.

South Africa hosts three large-scale international jazz festivals each year: the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in late March; the Grahamstown Jazz Festival in July; and Johannesburg Joy of Jazz in late September.

No sooner is the lineup for each announced than one South African publication or another will run a column questioning the title because the event headlines music outside the genre.

Genre definitions are beset by debates of almost theological intensity, and none more so than that of jazz. But setting those aside, the question persists. What it reveals most vividly is how little the South African media understands the disruptive transformations happening in the music industry. What it masks is a lack of informed debate about other music industry issues far more important than genre purism.

Over more than two decades, the value chain of the music industry has been reversed. Live performance used to be merely a route to the high-value goal of a recording deal. Digital disruption – first, the capacity to download (legally for purchase, and illegally); latterly, the music-hire model of streaming – now mean that recorded music is becoming merely one route to accessing the high-value endpoint of live performance. The former standard product, the album, has been disaggregated into its component tracks.

Old model dying

The former distribution model, via record stores, has undergone disintermediation: whether buying, hiring or stealing music, the online consumer no longer requires a middleman. Feature phones and smartphones have enabled Africa, not an early adopter of these technologies, to leapfrog its way far beyond fast follower status. Digital music sales in South Africa grew by 54% in the first half of 2014, with downloads accounting for almost 75% of this.

The digital world can aggregate fans of even a specialised sound such as South African jazz into a sizeable market across national boundaries. There, genre does matter. However, in the world of live performance, with cost and distance limitations on attendance, numbers matter more.

Jazz in South Africa represents a minority audience in an already relatively small music market. To cover costs, let alone turn a profit – and to give artists access to the performing opportunities that now crown the value chain – the aggregation of fans must be across genres to maximise numbers.

In this, South Africa is not unique. This year, the New Orleans Jazz Festival included country artist Keith Urban and reggae veteran Jimmy Cliff among its headliners; Montreux showcased pop singers Emeli Sande, John Legend, Mary J Blige and more. Legend and others of his ilk popped up at the ostensibly more purist North Sea festival too.

Large, commercial music festivals literally cannot afford narrow programming. Grahamstown succeeds in presenting the least diluted fare of all South Africa’s jazz events because it is already embedded within the mass-scale, multi-genre National Arts Festival. Fans hankering after more specialised bills of fare on the model of, for example, the Cold Castle Jazz Festivals of the 1960s, will find them at smaller events such as Cape Town’s A Taste of Sonar or the live events around Chimurenga’s Pan-African Space Station.

Perhaps more like those are needed. Because while this year’s festivals tell some good stories about the state of South African jazz music, their narratives about social context are less heartening.

More effective showcasing

The Cold Castle Festivals of the 1960s would have been swamped by the sheer numbers of adventurous, original and world class South African jazz performers on show at, for example, 2015’s Joy of Jazz. That is as it should be. Yet while original South African music is beginning to be showcased more effectively at all these events – Cape Town has had parity in numbers of visiting and local bands since its inception – there is not always parity in fees, conditions, or promotion exposure.

The explosion of good music is, in part, a result of the opening of university music schools after the end of apartheid to young musicians of colour, and to genres other than Western art music. (The often unacknowledged skill and creativity of South African jazz players during apartheid laid the foundation.) The opening of the curriculum has moved more slowly, however. The history and intellectual discourse of African music-making is still too often on the margins, or confined within ethnomusicology rather than its prefix-free cousin.

Given the prevailing business model, audience access is tailored to a festival’s revenue needs and branding targets. Events take place in closed venues. Joy of Jazz, for example, has moved, until at least 2020, from Newtown to the elite Sandton Convention Centre: a resounding vote of no confidence in the inner city. A two-day pass costs R1 250 per person, plus another R500 for the opening gala night. In this setting, the music itself is both commodified and used as a vehicle to market other commodities, most notably alcohol, but also the brands of other sponsors.

Bridging the gaps

Community music-making is equally marginalised by this process. Last year at Joy of Jazz, what were dubbed “development bands” were used to provide background music in the Convention Centre’s lobbies, with no coverage in the programme.

There are attempts to bridge these gaps. Cape Town holds a schools music project in the week leading up to the jazz festival, and a free concert as part of it. Grahamstown hosts a parallel National Schools Jazz Festival. Joy of Jazz stages advance “Road to Joy of Jazz” workshops, performances and collaborations with jazz appreciation societies.

Historically, it was at small neighbourhood venues and in community gatherings that South African jazz players honed their creativity, and listeners developed sharp critical skills. Today’s media focus on mega-festivals masks the absence of debate (outside specialist lobby groups) about where similar contexts are today. For young players without good music teaching in their schools – or for listeners who lack R1 250 – the Gini coefficient of the cultural economy is rising.

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