Michael Connarty MP on jazz in Parliament
This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
While seeking to extend my musical tastes beyond protest folk, R&B and loud rock, I came across a 1957 LP called Blue Saxophones, featuring the saxophones of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.
Those howling blues saxes cut me deep. I was hooked, and am still awed when I come across an unknown live recording, like ancient treasure, from that period. Over 30 years, except for free jazz, I’ve grown to appreciate much that is new and modern.
I caught international stars during post-voting, weekly visits to Ronnie Scott’s, The 606 or Pizza Express Jazz clubs, and major concerts at London’s Barbican or South Bank, but new music created by UK talent also excites me.
Senior talents such as Guy Barker (trumpet) and Stan Sulzmann (sax) are being challenged by younger talent, from Zoe Rahman (piano) to Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Seb Rochford (drums). There’s a high quality of jazz musicianship and improvisation countrywide, as I know from my work on the board of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Jazz has so many aspects, from blues to swing to bop, and speaks, more than any other music genre, of the variety of modern life.
For us jazz lovers, it’s all about the music, but APPJAG (the all-party parliamentary jazz appreciation group) is about much more than that.
It broke the mould first in 2001 by gaining the right to have live music at events on Parliament’s terrace, and continues to host four highly-praised jazz events each year.
Since 2002, the parliamentary jazz year has started each November, with APPJAG members from the Lords and Commons mingling with guests at Jazzing The House.
The musical talents are brought in by creative production company SERIOUS, which organises and stages hugely successful performances at the London Jazz Festival, and collaborates in world-class programmes for BBC Radio 3, who sponsor the evening.
Each January, APPJAG hosts an evening for a regional youth jazz orchestra, teaming it up with a well-known jazz instrumentalist from its region.
In May, it was the turn of the UK Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Regarded by the jazz music industry as the premier UK jazz awards, over 1,800 nominations were made by the public in 2012 for the nine categories.
Winners came from all of the UK’s vibrant jazz scenes. July’s final annual live music event, the Yamaha Jazz Scholarships, aims to encourage the UK’s growing jazz talent.
Yamaha awards bursaries to outstanding students on each of the UK’s full-time degree courses in jazz music. Main support for the January, May and July events comes from PPL, with assistance from Jazzwise magazine, Jazz Services, the 606 and Ronnie Scott’s.
The reward for APPJAG’s hard work is that it enjoys a unique relationship with the creatives and organisations that nurture and enable jazz musical talents.
One of the consistent comments from the jazz music industry is: “It’s great to have people in Parliament who actually appreciate and support creative effort.”
In the 20 years I’ve been in Parliament, the APPJAG has helped abolish prohibitive live music licensing laws, and supported Lord Clement-Jones’ Live Music Bill, which will allow live unlicensed music in venues holding up to 200 people.
Our most successful campaign, however, was the extension from 50 to 70 years of copyright payments for the selling or playing of recorded music in the EU from its first release.
This is particularly important for session musicians such as Pat Halling, who played first violin on The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and All You Need is Love. Payments for his unique contribution would have run out in 2014. They’ll now be extended till 2034.
I recall the meeting with EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy when he took up the challenge, backed by a petition from 38,000 EU musicians who will also benefit from the extension.
And I pay tribute to my fellow Scottish MP Pete Wishart, who also lobbied McCreevy. It was a pleasant surprise to be given a personal award by the music industry for helping “the little guys”.
The UK needs to do a lot more if it is to give jazz its proper due. Jazz generates comparable audience figures to opera, yet gets just 7p per seat in funding support compared with opera’s £7 per seat.
But APPJAG members also support UK film, drama, writing and other music genres. Parliament’s Performer’s Alliance, of which I’m vice chairman, gives the UK’s creatives a voice, because when all the speeches are forgotten, the arts will be remembered.
The only duke many people remember, after all, is Duke Ellington.