We’ve been surrounded by competition this summer – the London 2012 Olympics, the current Paralympics, England cricketers losing their No.1 ranking to South Africa, then regaining it, though probably only briefly. And what about the Tour de France and everyone’s hero: Bradley Wiggins?
Yep, even the least sporting among us has embraced all these competitions, and our hearts have filled as the winners found their lips quivering and the tears starting at that crucial moment when they have to stand still on the topmost step of the podium as the national anthem plays.
Clearly, we are comfortable with the concept of winners, and therefore with their concomitant: the losers. But they’re not really losers, are they? They have taken part. And though some may, in immediate aftermath, weep and wail that they have let everyone down – their friends, their team mates, their family, the country, Team GB, us – there are others who have come in last yet are still chuffed to have been part of the occasion, and maybe to have achieved their personal best.
Now I know sport is not art and art is not sport. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that while there are many artists, musicians – let’s narrow it down, shall we – jazz musicians and jazz fans who are also avid sports fans – whether it is being a lifelong supporter of the Philadelphia Phillies (Christian McBride – I know this from his tweets) or of West Bromwich Albion (Tony Dudley Evans – I know this from his tweets) – the jazz world starts to get a little queasy when talk is of competition in jazz.
I don’t think I am imagining this, though I am open to correction… Let me know what you think.
Jazz and competition do go way back, and they can have interesting results. Think of the cutting contests, think of how good the pianist Art Tatum became, partly as a result of all his natural talent, but perhaps part of the competition he was up against in those trials of technique and inspiration against other pianists at the time. Think of the famous Big Band and Drum Battles. Yeah, they were showbiz and razzmatazz and all, but are you telling me the bands and the drummers weren’t sharper players as a result?
Jazz players – a lot of them, maybe most of them – are not only highly motivated, self-critical and ambitious (not ambitious for fame necessarily, but to realise their potential, to push at the limits, to get better all the time, in the same way as a golfer is always playing against himself, to improve his won handicap), they are competitive too. Many might hide it, but it’s down there somewhere. Because they want to be in that limelight, they want other people, especially their peers and fellow musicians to react to their solos with: “Damn! That cat can play!”
I don’t think Soweto Kinch regrets having competed for and won the White Saxophone Prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I don’t reckon Joshua Redman curses the day he won the Thelonious Monk competition. These are just as important as ways of marketing and promoting the music as a whole in addition to rewarding personal achievement.
The classical music world – which has been going a lot longer and so is far more advanced in infrastructure but also in marketing and promotion – has always embraced competitions, and awards and winners and losers. And jazz has had some (see above). But this competitive thing is under attack. It’s partly under attack from the same liberal educationists who don’t approve of children competing and are against winners and losers at school (I know this is a slightly different issue and don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about what is the right age to introduce the idea to children that we’re not all equal).
I offer as an example of this general anti-competition-in-the-arts mood, the fact that, as Norman Lebrecht pointed out on his excellent Slipped Disc blog, there was such poor reporting of the 2012 BBC Young Musician Of The Year award. According to Norman, the BBC’s “production and presentation of the final… were low-key to the point of torpor” and “the entire British press… ignored the outcome”. The complete post is here.
Of course, the huge irony is that those very same arts snobs – and there must be some within the BBC, it seems, who feel that competition is beneath the “proper arts” are probably the very same people who love slumming it in front of those abominations of all things musical that Simon Cowell is responsible for.
But the idea of competition also seems to be partly under attack through neglect by the jazz establishment (if that can be said to exist). I remember when there were BBC Jazz Awards. I even remember when they were screened on the TV. I remember that the first time I heard saxophonist Andy Sheppard was when he won the Best Newcomer prize in those awards in 1987. And then the BBC ditched any jazz awards.
For the last few years the Parliamentary Jazz Awards have been the most high profile awards in the British jazz calendar. There are also the British Jazz Awards, organised by Big Bear Music, and with some connections with Jazz Journal and an internet jazz radio station called UKJR. But both these have slightly vague adjudication processes – we get nomination forms for the Parliamentary ones, but I have no idea how the Big Bear ones are judged – and are certainly of insufficient profile to justify major TV, radio or press coverage.
There is some hope on the horizon with the announcement of the JazzFM Awards, coming in January 2013 (and I’m grateful to Sebastian Scotney at LondonJazz for this news – see the blog post here).
As another part of the debate, there’s a great piece here from Patrick Jarenwattananon on the NPR Music’s A Blog Supreme entitled: Could Thelonious Monk Win The Competition Named After Him? The link is here. Of course, this reminds us that the US has always been less queasy about competition in the arts, as in all else.
Sorry this is all a bit rambling, but these are just thoughts that have been swilling round in the back of my mind for a while now. So, what do you all think? Is competition in jazz a bad thing? Or might it be something we can be more sympathetic to in the light of this competitive summer?