Our newest feature in the magazine, welcomes a monthly guide on how to find a new cultural passion, and get yourself lost in a new world. We talk to experts across various fields, to break the walls down for the favourite art-forms and welcome in some new fans. This month, it’s Paul Bream of Jazz North East, talking us through the world of jazz music. Over to you Paul…
I’m a lifelong jazz enthusiast, and for the past dozen years have been living the fan’s dream of hanging with my heroes (and heroines) as a concert promoter with Jazz North East.
It all started many years ago with a stroke of luck. I didn’t have to seek jazz out – it crept up and hit me over the head, and I’ll be eternally grateful. The radio was on but I was barely listening, when suddenly music blared out that jolted me into delight and wonderment. It was a performance by bassist Charles Mingus; two days later I had the record, within a month I’d been to my first live gig. And jazz – especially live jazz – has been the soundtrack of my life ever since.
If you’ve a spirit for adventure, and want music that is vibrant, unpredictable and evolving, then you really should give jazz a try
So what’s so special about jazz? It’s been called “The sound of surprise”, and that’s about right. As a largely improvised music, no two performances should ever be the same, and that thrill of the unexpected that I experienced at the beginning has been delivered on countless subsequent occasions – the “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” moment when musicians spontaneously pull out a new twist, a riveting juxtaposition. If you’ve a spirit for adventure, and want music that is vibrant, unpredictable and evolving, then you really should give jazz a try.
And evolving it certainly is. Jazz that seemed revolutionary fifty years ago is now part of the mainstream, while today’s young players, having absorbed all sorts of influences into their musical DNA, are trying out any number of new ideas. I can’t remember a time when jazz was so exciting in its creative diversity. If you’ve had one jazz experience and it didn’t work for you, don’t walk away – there’s something different coming along any moment now. That’s why, if I’m asked about my favourite gig, the answer has to be “The next one”.
But with such glorious diversity, where, as a new listener, do you start? Well, festivals provide a good taster experience, and the Gateshead International Jazz Festival in a few weeks time (starting Friday 31st March) offers many different approaches, from the relatively conventional to the daringly experimental. Even if you don’t feel ready to lay out money on the unknown, the free programme on the Sage Concourse features everything from solo piano to contemporary jazz-rock.
But jazz is for life, not just for festivals, and in any week there’s a wealth of worthwhile gigs on offer. On Tyneside it’s worth checking out what’s on at the Jazz Café and the Jazz Co-op, both presenting local bands and touring national groups, while Jazz North East deliver a hugely adventurous programme that ranges right across the stylistic spectrum, with a strong international strand that taps into Europe just as much as jazz’s traditional homeland of America. There’s less activity elsewhere in the region, but Darlington, Durham and Hexham all have clubs that keep the appetite whetted with at least monthly gigs.
In fact the problem can be just keeping track of what’s happening where, so fortunately there’s a weekly email listings service, ‘Jazz Alert’, that provides details of forthcoming concerts right across the North East, with a bit of advice about the kind of jazz on offer – you can join the circulation list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s jazz as a listener, but what if you’re a musician and want to give it a try? Most jazz venues run regular jam sessions, and welcome players with all levels of experience. In general these focus on more straightahead approaches to the music, but for the more adventurous there’s a monthly ‘Improvisers Workshop’ at the Bridge Hotel where players from any background – folk, classical, rock, as well as jazz – get together to stretch their creative boundaries.
And it’s the pushing at boundaries that has always made jazz so exciting to me. Its neglect in the mainstream media means that it’s too often thought of as yesterday’s music, irrelevant to today’s scene. It’s not – it’s full of energy, imagination, and innovation. Let it hit you over the head, and could could well become a convert like me.