Ian Patterson addresses the JPN Conference in Belfast: photo Nigel Slee

Writer and journalist Ian Patterson surveys Where Pathways Meet: the JPN Conference 2022

Belfast’s The MAC was host to Jazz Promotion Network’s (JPN) annual conference on the 3rd and 4th of November. 

The JPN is the only network dedicated to supporting and promoting jazz across the UK and Ireland. Its growth in membership over the past decade is testament to the need for such an umbrella organisation with the potential to leverage funding, to realize collaborative projects and to effect change. 

Present in this UNESCO City of Music were promotors, festivals directors, musicians, journalists, arts curators, venue owners, educators and representatives of regional jazz networks. Clearly, with the wide-reaching expertise of its members and associates, JPN is well positioned to support  jazz musicians across the five nations.

The conference, under the banner Where Pathways Meet,  got underway with a dynamic Keynote Speech by Belfast’s first Music Laureate, Brian Irvine — a tirelessly creative composer who defies categorization. The messages in an animated talk entitled Jazz as a Beacon of Hope,  were unequivocal. Humans are innately creative. There is joy and discovery in the act of spontaneous creativity. 

Conducting the audience in spontaneous ‘noise’ improvisations, Brian demonstrated not only each individual’s creativity and the child-like joy in the making of spontaneous noise, but also the connectivity, the group bonding at the heart of the exercise. The act of improvisation, Brian said, is “a transferable skill that impacts way beyond the boundaries of music.” The journey, not the destination, was a recurring theme of the talk.

Creativity in a collaborative setting, Brian explained, “inspires us to see new perspectives and become more aware of new forms of relationship, appreciative of different voices or new bewilderments. It celebrates the absurd and affirms the existence of oneself and validates one’s place in the world.”

One of several musical interludes saw harpist/composer Úna Monaghan present a video performance entitled And The Goals Will Come,  an absorbing marriage of improvised music, spoken word and hurling. Echoing Brian Irvine’s notion that when it comes to music ‘you can only opt in,’ Úna’s film underlined that music and rhythms are everywhere, even in the ritual practice of hitting a ball against a wall. 

Speaking afterwards, Úna suggested that musicians are not trained or educated to deal with ‘defeats’ or setbacks the way that sportsmen and sportswomen are. Úna reiterated Brian Irvine’s maxim that there is “no such thing as failure, only learning” and that music could learn from sports in this regard.

L-R Claude Deppa, Paula Gardiner, Orphy Robinson: photo Nigel Slee

The tightly packed schedule featured six panels and discussion groups. On Thursday, three panels, all falling at the same time, covered various aspects encouraging all-comers to jazz. In the Orphy Robinson-led panel, the emphasis was on ways to involve young musicians from pre-school upwards. 

All the panellists agreed on the desirability of attracting youngsters while they are still “empty vessel,” open-minded and unafraid to try to learn an instrument. Musician  Claude Deppa of Kinetika Blocco stressed the need to involve parents, a sentiment shared by all. 

Paul O’Reilly of the Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra spoke of the ability of music to make connections that would otherwise not happen. Remembering Northern Ireland’s recent troubled past, when civil strife was an every-day reality, Paul described how music  was able to bridge political, cultural and religious divides, bringing together young people from polarized backgrounds. 

Pauline Black, lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, raised the possibility that young people deeply affected by the pandemic may still have confidence barriers to overcome. 

Roger Wilson of Black Lives In Music: photo Nigel Slee

In the panel What Does Inclusion Really Mean?, led by Roger Wilson of Black Lives in Music, the panel agreed that more welcoming spaces are required for people with disabilities. Gideon Feldman of the disability advocacy organisation Attitude Is Everything presented some startling statistics. In the UK, there are 14.6 people with disabilities.

In a survey, 70% of artists said they had withheld information about their disability from a promotor from a fear of not getting the gig.

Emilie Conway, singer and co-founder of Disabled Artists and Disabled Academics Campaign for Human and Cultural Rights (DADA) revealed that artists receiving disability allowance have that vital financial support removed if earning above a certain amount, a situation that makes them especially vulnerable.

This panel concluded that disabled artists require rights, not charity. It was also suggested that it should be the norm for promoters to enquire if any member of a group has any access requirements. And in a nod to all those present, the panel agreed that what is needed above all is action, not words. 

One successful model for involving young people in jazz is Jazz Camp for Girls (JCG), an initiative inspired by Jazz Danmark’s programme. A video presented by JCG’s Helena Summerfield showed the attraction of such programs to young girls. The meeting of like-minded girls in an encouraging environment and the spur of successful female role models breeds confidence, friendships and provides a safe and fun pathway into jazz.

Helena Summerfield of Jazz Camp For Girls: photo Nigel Slee

Another panel, led by Heather Spencer, Programme Manager of Jazz North, discussed where the new breed of promoters, agents, managers, labels and journalists are coming from. Scott Flanigan, pianist/composer and venue owner, felt that the next generation of promoters will be musicians themselves, as “they know the industry better than anyone.” 

However, not all musicians have the skill set required to successfully promote their own career, never mind that of other musicians. Belfast musician Conor McAuley argued that it is often responsibility enough for musicians to concentrate on making music, and that the promotion side of the business should be left to professionals. 

Another musician, in private conversation after the session, described her experience of Jazzahead! (the industry’s annual trade fair) as “just exhausting.” All on the panel concurred that promoters/agents are an essential part of the jazz ecology. 

Afternoon panel discussions touched on a wide variety of topics. How to attract volunteers and widen jazz’s funding base provoked a range of interesting opinions. A few organisations represented at the conference were anxiously awaiting news on make-or-break funding for the year ahead, with more than one person questioning the sustainability of a funding-driven festival or organisation. 

Musical interludes served up the best of music north and south of the border. MOBO-nominated drummer/composer David Lyttle led youngsters from the non-profit Jazz Alliance project in a selection of standards. It was instructive to learn from the children, aged between 10 and 17, how this project has given them greater confidence in themselves.

On Thursday evening delegates gathered at the Black Box for four Irish showcases. Scott Flanigan Quartet featuring Ant Law, RBG Trio, Izumi Kimura and Lana Andonovska, and Robocobra Quartet underlined the depth of talent on the island. 

RBG Trio: photo Nigel Slee

Friday kicked off with a panel offering broad perspectives on the health of jazz across the five nations. Each nation faces its respective challenges, (geography, population size, talent drain, politics and economy) but all the panellists were of one voice in stating the importance of building community. Steve Mead, Artistic Director of Manchester Jazz Festival noted that the health of music is directly related to the health of the general economy. He emphasized the need to adapt and change in order to thrive.

Music provided pause from all the talk when local drummer/composer Stephen Davis gave a highly nuanced solo performance, hi stickwork accompanied by drone and subtle electronics.

One of the more robust panel discussions was that dedicated to funding across Ireland and the UK. Several people in the audience voiced their frustrations at the complexity of the funding application process of Arts Council England. One JPN member suggested that it is not always the most deserving who access funds, but rather those who are best at managing the funding application process. Several members called for joint funding collaboration across the five Arts Councils. 

Niall Doyle of Arts Council Ireland opined that funding bodies “need to act in a more strategic way.” Strategic thinking  was a leitmotif that sounded in discussion groups over the two days, in connection to audience development, green touring initiatives, showcasing talent nationally and internationally, and much more besides.

Strategic thinking is behind what JPN does. With the call for action not words on disability issues, funding, outreach to youth, touring and widening the base of volunteers, amongst other matters, the JPN will doubtless harness its expertise and get its thinking cap on. A busy year looms ahead before the JPN’s 2023 conference. 

Routes into Jazz panel, chaired by Heather Spencer: photo Nigel Slee