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Contemporary Jazz Collectives in the UK May 8, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in British Jazz, Jazz.

Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are broadly comparable UK cities based in the Midlands and the North of England, all several hundred miles from London. They each have self-sustaining vibrant jazz and improvised music scenes built around the activities of an impressively large contingent of young jazz players, many with close ties to the internationally-renown jazz performance courses found in each city. While they share some common features, a comparison between them raises some interesting differences. As we will reveal in greater detail later, these scenes are driven by ideas of jazz as a transnational progressive music, and collective organisation has developed as a means to sustain participation in what is understood by participants to be progressive music-making, even in the face of a difficult economic climate for such activities.

These localized scenes certainly reflect Will Straw’s (1997) suggestion that the local and the global are intertwined in the construction and development of localized music scenes. Straw contrasts a community, which he sees as a stable entity having a geographically-specific history, with a music scene which he presents as developing across geography, ever-changing and characterized by cross-fertilisation. This distinction between community and scene has proven to be a useful justification for the methodology presented here as this research found fluid and ever-changing relationships between all of the components within the scenes. To add further nuance, Sara Cohen’s primary analysis of other geographically-rooted scenes reveals a less confident conclusion: that scenes are fragile and threatened by cultural and technological change (Cohen 2007: 84). This work demonstrates that the fragility identified by Cohen is a central driver to the practices of adaptation and transformation in the music scenes we observed.

For the purposes of this article, the word ‘collective’ can be understood to describe a partnership of individuals who have achieved a creative or political consensus and who typically wish to operate via some sort of egalitarian system. Although jazz ensembles have historically been organized around the notion of a band and its leader, collective organisation is an idea that has had a great deal of power within jazz ideology. Jazz collectives have played a significant, yet neglected, part in the development of jazz having been associated firstly in the late 1950s and early 1960s with mainly black musical cultures in a range of American cities, and later with European approaches to free improvisation from the mid-1960s onwards. More recently, London-based jazz collectives of the twenty-first century, such as F-ire (Fellowship for Integrated Rhythmic Expression) and Loop, have been given attention by the jazz media. This article aims to examine collectives operating in cities outside of London, where the practice has received less attention, and where they take on different complexions and roles. We do, though, use published research on these other forms of collective organisation as a reference point in our discussion of our primary findings.   In particular, we are interested in the degree to which there are continuities or differences in cultural practice and meaning between these the collectives at the centre of our research and those in operation elsewhere or at an earlier time.

The notion of the ‘progressive’ within jazz is less easy to define, and we seek to understand the idea from the perspective of the musicians and scene we have studied, rather than to set a definition against which we evaluate their cultural practices. In DeVeaux’s study, focused upon ideas and practices prevalent in bebop, progress is a personal and collective sense of improvement, often associated with creating new and more demanding musical performances. In particular, this was linked strongly to music education, innovation, African-American identity and an anti-commercialism (36-42; 278-9). Studies of the 1950s and 60s black arts collectives, and of the 1960s and 70s European collectives have also highlighted many of these same ideas (see, for instance, Carr 1973/2008; Wickes 1999; Tapscott and Isoardi 2001; Looker 2004; McKay 2005: 191-241; Lewis 2008). In simple terms progressiveness is the attribute of musicians who make progress. While we see these ideas as part of the discursive repertoire open to young contemporary jazz musicians in Britain, we found that they were adopted and adapted in distinct ways.

In conducting this research, we started with a broad analysis of the political economic structure of each scene, before moving on to examine the cultural relationships and practices which governed music-making in each area. As part of this research we interviewed musicians who self-identified as members of jazz collectives operating in Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester from the lists of artists included in the web pages published by these collectives. We recorded interviews in person, or over Skype, with a range of musicians, promoters and course leaders in jazz studies programmes. In setting out our findings we have organized the article into three sections. We start with an examination of collective organisation in our selected cities, arguing that they developed to create an economically-viable way of pursuing collective interests in playing live jazz and improvised music. We follow this with an investigation of the way that these collectives create a meaningful scene from ideas and music cultural practices drawn from both the jazz tradition and wider popular music. We evaluate in what sense and to what degree this could be understood as a progressive practice. Our analysis suggests that forms of naming drawn from jazz history, along with distinct approaches to live music and improvisation, are used to distance this scene from the dominant organisation of popular music, and from other local jazz activity. Finally, we look at the significance of jazz education revealing that the role of performance courses is both central and yet complex within the scenes. Although a relatively modest, localized study, our findings suggest that the practices of musicians off the bandstand are as important as their live music-making. Equally, we find that the ways that these musicians engage with jazz’s past in the present, the permeability of the boundary between jazz and other forms of popular music for these collectives, and the inter-relationship of this localized improvised music to its global presence are all important in understanding contemporary jazz practice. We also raise some questions about the way that the relationship of jazz education to graduate careers is usually characterised.

In each city, the collective organisation of musicians, for all its similarities, has had strikingly different orientations. In Birmingham, the collective activity has tended to focus on the organisation of performances in live venues and the use of the internet as a branding, promotion, and connective tool. This activity has been particularly welcomed by the publicly-funded regional promoter, Birmingham Jazz (now known as Jazz Lines), in their attempt to find new audiences for jazz. By contrast, in Leeds, according to our interviews with early activists, the collective activity emerged as a means to create a space for what was seen as a more progressive form of music-making than that supported by existing local jazz institutions. In Manchester the collective action is most apparent as a public face through a record label, and large-scale music ensembles.

The majority of the examples presented here are from the Birmingham-based collective known as Cobweb (Creatives of Birmingham Web). As part of its online branding, Cobweb describes itself as an independent jazz and contemporary music collective made up of around 40 active musicians.[1] The collective attempts to promote its activities and provide a networking context in which Birmingham-based musicians can develop, collaborate and perform. The primary method employed by Cobweb to facilitate these activities is the organisation of regular live music events which have, over the years, taken place at a variety of venues across Birmingham such as the Yardbird and the Lamp Tavern (both in the city centre), the Brown Lion (in the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter), the Spotted Dog (in Digbeth, one of the city’s old industrial quarters redesignated as the cultural quarter), the Edgbaston Tap (in an upmarket suburb), the Drum (the black arts centre north of the centre), and the Cross (in Moseley, a Victorian suburb). Over the years the collective is recognized for its links to the following artists and ensembles: Aaron Diaz and Moon Unit, Chris Mapp and Gambol, Percy Pursglove, Sam Wooster and Husk, Sid Peacock and Surge and Macondo Village Band, Steve Tromans and the Howl Band, Lluis Mather and Noose, Jim Bashford, Rob Anstey, Mike Fletcher, Euan Palmer, Jonathan Silk and Sam Jesson. Many of these musicians are graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire.

LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) and EFPI of Manchester are collectives also closely affiliated with music schools, namely Leeds College of Music and The Royal Northern College of Music. LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) characterizes itself as an experimental UK music collective engaging in musical activities ranging from performances in rock/DIY clubs, concert halls, and international music festivals, to interdisciplinary collaborations with architecture, dance, and film.[2] There are approximately 25 bands that have permutated from LIMA’s 17 members. The most recognisable name is arguably trioVD, however, the collective claims an association with Matthew Bourne, Chris Sharkey, Christophe de Bezenac, Dave Kane, Petter Fadnes, Chris Bussey, Colin Sutton, Kari Bleivik, Paul Hession, Simon Kaylor, Ståle Birkeland, Richard Ormrod, Maria Jardardottir, Ninon Foiret, Jonny Flockton, Paul Moore, Rus Pearson, Simon Beddoe and Elisabeth Nygård. It also acts as an umbrella organisation for bands like LIMA Orchestra, trioVD, Bilbao Syndrome, Metropolis, The Geordie Approach, Sonic Stories, Sharkestra, Minghe Morte, EGG3, Inertia Trio, Klubbeduppe, Melatonin, Mort Butane, Swinepipe, Røyst, Curious Voice Duo, Bourne/de Bezenac duo, Argentinian landscape project, Le Temps de la Brume, Stockpot Stopcock, The Electric Dr M, The Points System, The Thin Red Line, Conquistador and Dave Kane’s Rabbit Project.

EFPI is a record label based in Manchester comprising musicians and promoters who wish to explore improvised, jazz and experimental music.[3] Founded by Anton Hunter (The Noise Upstairs), Sam Andreae (Freedom Principle) and Ben Cottrell (Beats & Pieces Big Band), EFPI describe themselves as an umbrella organisation with the goal of promoting their own work and the work of musicians connected with them. On its website, the label claims to enjoy ‘healthy professional and artistic relationships’ with other UK musician-run organisations such as the F-IRE, Loop and Cobweb collectives.[4] EFPI have been affiliated with groups like Beats and Pieces Big Band, HAQ, Aaargh!, Silence Blossoms, 265 Quartet and Trio Riot. By way of comparison, London’s F-ire collective names 27 bands from 12 core members including Polar Bear, Finn Peters Quintet and Acoustic Ladyland. Loop collective claims 23 bands out of 17 core members. Outhouse is probably the most recognisable group to have emerged from Loop.

Although jazz as a form of music has been distributed primarily through records, and our understanding of its history and meaning is based upon these texts, at the heart of its music-making discourse is live performance, particularly the celebration of improvisation. In this age of recorded music and online music culture, we found that the notion of ‘liveness’ was still central to the ethos of the young musicians in these jazz scenes. Our analysis suggests that, in all three cities, it is possible to discern in the operations of a collective a clear political economic purpose: to create a financially viable space in which to pursue their interest in the artistic ideals of jazz. We also conclude that this speaks to the motivation of young musicians to work in diverse musical forms and to understand jazz performance, particularly improvisation, as a collective act that represents and communicates important values.

The musicians that have contributed to this study tend to view the life of a jazz musician as an attempt to fulfil artistic ideals. Describing the personal motivations of musicians in these local collectives, one Cobweb member remarked: ‘we decided that we wanted to be true to an artistic vision rather than to have something stable in a financial sense’ (interview with authors[5]). Given that a large number of musicians earned part of their living outside the collective scene, in teaching and doing the occasional lucrative function, gig or tour, it is notable how much of their interviews focused on the importance to them of the collective, and that the latter opportunities were most often presented as ways to earn enough to carry on with the artistic practices they valued.

The place of the musicians in our study within this semiotic and organisational field of practice is of interest here. First, the musicians we studied self-identified themselves as ‘collectives’ eschewing the naming systems in use in our pop and rock examples, which most often deploy nouns associated with larger forms of commercial production: ‘corporation’, ‘factory’, or ‘organisation’. It is also notable that the names of jazz collectives under analysis here specifically relate back to the first and second generation of jazz collectives. Cobweb, LIMA, and EFPI, along with London-based collective F-ire, use initials or acronyms to formulate their names in echo of AACM, BAG and PAPA or ICP and SME. Second, the contemporary collectives share an emphasis with the earlier collectives on a political economy and culture of live music-making, while these other examples broadly operate in the mediation and dissemination of music as recordings.

Nevertheless, none of the musicians who contributed to this research presented their activities as a serious attempt to reproduce the practices of jazz collectives from the past. A co-founder of LIMA remarked:

I don’t think we sat down and discussed the links with other collectives. What we saw with F-ire and the earlier European collectives was that it was a useful brand, and that if we stuck together under a certain umbrella, people would notice us.

In fact, as we have shown, the idea of collective organisation in the UK tended to be a London-based phenomena, and the bands that carried it into the 1980s and 1990s dispensed with the collective tag when they named themselves Jazz Warriors[6] and Loose Tubes, emphasising a black American post-bop tradition and a more British humour respectively. Collective organisation, as it pertains to jazz music making in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, is a localized phenomena with intrinsic links to city spaces, cultures and individuals. One thread that ties together most of this activity is the notion of achieving creative independence, expressed in these terms by a member of LIMA:

It’s the independence that you get. You don’t have to answer to anything or anyone. It’s empowering being able to do these things without having to ask for handouts. We had the ability to go out there and perform without spending any money on it.

While most jazz musicians within these scenes engage with collective practices in an attempt to sustain their artistic growth and remain true to an artistic vision of self-expression, in practice, the organisational work has as much in common with a DIY independent punk or rock aesthetic than typical pop or jazz production routines. Through the attention that these jazz musicians award to live performance and improvisation, it is evident that distribution and consumption are intentionally woven into the experiences shared by live audiences. Unlike labels such as Motown, jazz musicians tend to avoid repeat use of a stable cohort of musicians in different musical settings. Instead, each ensemble starts out with its own individual musical and artistic goals. Again, though, the young contemporary musicians do not connect their activities to the more overtly political founders of the DIY rock ethos, like Crass, nor do the activities themselves represent the sorts of collective political action promoted by the anarcho-punk movement.

For the jazz musicians who have participated in this study, the practices of collective organisation do signals independence, financial sustainability and artistic growth, even if these are not understood in the political terms of the past. Nevertheless, these are values that have great power in the lives of contemporary jazz musicians and are frequently employed and reflected upon by those working within urban jazz scenes. It is within these urban scenes that most live performance activity takes place and collective activity within jazz typically orientates around live work. When jazz musicians self-consciously describe themselves as being members of a collective, they are drawing upon, and pointing to, a range of attributes that they have identified as desirable, such as ideas of collective power, reinforcement of creative goals, shared economic resources and resistance to commercial influences.

An important aspect of this study is the role of jazz studies courses in these regional jazz scenes. The role of jazz education in jazz culture has been the subject of some debate since such courses became institutionalized in universities, schools of music and conservatoires. Stuart Nicholson’s contribution summarizes the common accusation that a standardized US approach encourages stylistic conformity contrasted with a more eclectic European approach (Nicholson 2005: 99-127). Nicholson’s discussion is limited only to issues of musical style and does not address questions that relate to the political economy and culture of self-sustaining scenes. In contrast, David Ake’s (2010) more thoughtful discussion of the role of jazz education notes its absence or marginalization as a theme in both jazz histories or contemporary analyses. He argues that jazz education is seen unfairly by its critics as ‘unhip’, stifling of innovation, and associated with conservative tendencies in jazz However, there has been very little research on the actual relationships between college jazz programmes and vitality or diversity in jazz scenes.

The fact that all three jazz scenes we examined were based in cities with internationally-known jazz programmes, and that large numbers of the collective members had studied on those programmes is prima facie evidence of the importance of jazz education in each of the scenes. As researchers, we initially speculated that perhaps the young musicians were applying lessons from their studies by taking direct inspiration from American or European collectives of the 1960s or 1970s. However, this is not the case. The jazz collectives in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are not coherently or consciously operating in a tradition; the process is more organic and autonomous than expected and the inspiration for collective activity is more widely diffused. Neither do musicians appear to be learning didactic lessons from jazz history courses about how to organize themselves, but are instead taking inspiration from what is absent in the courses, such as a focus on free playing, improvisation, self-marketing and live work with a host of different musicians. To refer back to Straw’s comments about the construction and development of music scenes, the collective organisation of contemporary jazz musicians in the UK is less about the localized community and more about learning how to operate within an existing infrastructure in order to develop new, eclectic, potentially global scenes.

Historically, one way that musicians have learned about the philosophies and objectives of music collectives is through the free training programmes instituted by cooperatives like AACM and BAG. Dave Laing describes collectives like the AACM as ‘musicians’ self-help bodies’ (2002: 325), and these organisations have done a great deal to educate and empower musicians living in cities like Chicago and St. Louis. Likewise, the work of UK based collectives have long been associated with ideas of community music, or with the educational jazz outreach programmes of music schools (Carr 1973/2008; Higgins 2007; McKay and Higham 2011). While not overlooking the importance of self-help learning within the collectives, the existence of the jazz programmes is important at three levels. First they attract a sizable number of new and talented musicians from across the world to the cities each year. Many remain in the area, and these graduates form the backbone of each collective. Secondly, the structure of a jazz education, in which musicians must play with a range of other musicians in different combinations and playing different forms of jazz provides an encultured blueprint for the operation of the jazz collectives; members permutate themselves into different ensembles to enable them to play in a variety of different ways. The college courses, along with the institutions of the local scene, also seem to establish some sort of notion of the jazz establishment against which the activity of the collective is meaningful.

Members of Cobweb have noted that there is very little overlap between Conservatoire students and older, more established, Birmingham jazz artists. One Birmingham based jazz promoter saw this partly as a generational divide, but also a sense that the younger musicians view experimental expressions of avant-garde free playing to be their domain versus the more traditional straight-ahead jazz played by the older generation. One Cobweb member described his perception as follows:

People who go to music colleges tend to be younger, or perhaps a bit more open to learning new things about the music. If you’re prepared to waste thousands of pounds studying jazz at a Conservatoire, then you are probably more open to exploring things as an artist. If you haven’t had that, you’d probably be a bit more mainstream and go where the work is.

Contemporary jazz musicians who are also members of Cobweb characterize their pursuits as passion-led. A local jazz musician and member of Cobweb stated: ‘wanting to be better at your instrument and express yourself more easily is really the main thing. I don’t think anyone would go to the Conservatoire thinking ‘I want to be a jazz star and this is my route to it’. It’s more of a self-exploration thing.’ Indeed, these routes to self-exploration are rarely rewarded with personal fame or commercial success. The desire to explore the boundaries of artistic freedom can even conflict with the requirements of educational assessment, as one Birmingham-based jazz musician noted: ‘the more creative musicians might find it hard to exist at the Conservatoire because it’s hard for what they are doing creatively to be assessed within that criteria.’

We should first explicitly answer our version of DeVeaux’s question that we posed at the outset of this article. For these locally-based musicians at least, collective activity gives them an identity as a progressive jazz musician, the means to participate in the sorts of regular and diverse music-making situations they desire, and the opportunity to use improvisation as means of achieving a satisfying aesthetic experience. This is a notably different sense of progressive than that used by either DeVeaux’s bebop musicians, or the earlier generations of collectives. On could almost say it was an idea of progressiveness with out an overt political notion of progress. While use of the term collective, and the naming of the groupings themselves, ties back to other historically-located collectives, the practices adopted by the groups are not directly modeled on these collectives, but on ideas of the less politically-motivated end of the spectrum of DIY activities within rock music. The music colleges from which many of the collective musicians have graduated offer important lessons about the purity of musical experience and the technical skills to deploy them but, in the musicians’ minds at least, much of their activity is set in opposition to the colleges, and indeed the older local scenes.

This article has examined the conditions under which the production and dissemination of music are organized by young jazz musicians in three major UK cities. In particular we examined how collectivisation is institutionalized in the working lives of young jazz musicians to organize a series of live venue club nights into a viable scene, and allow then to play in a multiplicity of settings in what some of them understand is a postmodern take on jazz improvisation. We argue that the semiotics of collective organisation is as important to the musicians as its political economics. Both are more important than any sense of political progressiveness. This certainly suggests that the role of the European conservatoire, in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester at least, has a more complex relationship to graduate music-making than suggested by Nicholson.

We have also been able to point to questions in wider popular music studies about the economic organisation of music, and the relationship between the global and the local. These young musicians, at least for a while, turn their back on the traditional career paths of the recording industry, while at the same time using some of the basics of live music promotion and an approach to the branding of the music which gives a prominence to venue and collective over the single stable band or the single musician. Equally, it asks us to produce a sophisticate approach to understanding how contemporary practices relate to those of the past, to education, and the actions of an individual musician in a local scene to the globalized ‘planet jazz’.


Ake, D. (2010). Rethinking jazz education. Jazz matters: sound, place, and time since bebop. Berkeley, Calif.; London, University of California Press: 102-120.

Carr, I. (1973/2008). Music outside: contemporary jazz in Britain. [London], Latimer New Dimensions.

Cohen, S. (2007). Decline, renewal and the city in popular music culture : beyond the Beatles. Aldershot, Ashgate.

Higgins, L. (2007). “Growth, pathways and groundwork: Community music in the United Kingdom ” International Journal of Community Music 1(1): 23-37.

Laing, D. (2002). The Jazz Market. The Cambridge Companion to Jazz. M. Cooke and D. Horn. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 321 – 331.

Lewis, G. (2008). A power stronger than itself : the AACM and American experimental music. Chicago, University of Chicago Press ; Bristol : University Presses Marketing [distributor].

Looker, B. (2004). Point from which creation begins : the Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis. St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press.

McKay, G. (2005). Circular breathing: the cultural politics of jazz in Britain. Durham, Duke University Press.

McKay, G. and B. Higham (2011). Community music: history and current practice, its constructions of ‘community’, digital turns and future soundings. Swindon, Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Nicholson, S. (2005). Is jazz dead? : (or has it moved to a new address). London, Routledge.

Straw, W. (1997). Communities and scenes in popular music. The subcultures reader. K. Gelder and S. Thornton. London ; New York, Routledge: 494 – 505.

Tapscott, H. and S. L. Isoardi (2001). Songs of the Unsung: the musical and social journey of Horace Tapscott. Durham [N.C.], Duke University Press.

Wickes, J. (1999). Innovations in British jazz. Volume One, 1960-1980. Chelmsford, Soundworld Publishers,.

[1] http://cobwebcollective.com/wordpress/about

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leeds_improvised_music_association

[3] http://efpirecords.com/about-efpi

[4] http://efpirecords.com/about-efpi

[5] All quoted statements are from interviews with the authors. We have not included references to specific individuals, and in most cases the quotations represent views expressed more widely within our dataset.

[6] Jazz Warriors alumnus Courtney Pine, for instance, has pointed to the importance of Wynton Marsalis for the young black London jazz musicians in episode 3 of the Jazz Britannia (2005) documentary.

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