The form struggles to find its place in an increasingly commodified cultural landscape, writes Gwen Ansell

“By constructing [artists] solely as subject matter,” warned writer Percy Mabandu, “we run the risk of denying them a voice.”

Mabandu was reading from his forthcoming book, Yakhal’Inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic, at the inaugural meeting of South Africa’s formal International Jazz Day (IJD) movement on April 29. Venues in both Cape Town and Johannesburg have marked the day (April 30) since its proclamation by Unesco in 2011, but the formal movement – whose patron is Hugh Masekela – plans to take commemoration further by supporting a pitch from the City of Johannesburg to host the event in 2016.

Yet for multiple reasons, the first day of the two-day launch only barely avoided fulfilling that prophecy.

Those reasons did not derive from any lack of goodwill, sincerity or hard work. As the organiser, the Spin Foundation had worked diligently with the host, the Market Theatre, to assemble contributing voices and construct an engaging programme.

In Johannesburg terms, participants were diverse: artists, arts administrators and organisers, educators, and students. However, Unesco normally requires host cities for its various days to be able to demonstrate national – not just local – backing for their bids. The only fully national body represented at the gathering was the South African association of jazz appreciation societies. Its participation was thus vital – there was no other indication of mechanisms for mobilising support around the country.

Two contradictory threads of debate dominated the day. Spin Foundation founder and jazz broadcaster Brenda Sisane, in introducing Joburg’s deputy director of museums and galleries, Ali Hlongwane, also introduced the contradiction. She recounted how the city had predicated its involvement with IJD on a demonstrable relationship between jazz and social cohesion.

That’s rhetoric we have heard before, most loudly in the (thankfully now sidelined) 2013 Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, alongside another requirement mentioned during the proceedings: that arts, culture and heritage should be engines of job-creation.

Both employment and social cohesion are unarguably worthy goals. But as critiques of the White Paper have repeatedly pointed out, such perspectives grant the arts space only in so far as they are subservient to state objectives. Access to jobs, equality and a sense of community derives mainly from the broader socioeconomic context that arts bodies alone cannot alter. This view de-emphasises key elements of an enabling cultural environment, such as freedom to access artistic expressions as both makers and audience, freedom to innovate, and freedom of expression.

And that was how the day see-sawed. On the one hand, there was a massive and heartening wave of support for jazz music, musicians, and the power the music has to help us discover and express who we are. On the other, there was continual resigned acceptance of globalised consumer capitalism and commodification, creating conditions that constrain the discovery, and obscure the expression, of who we are: “We have to be realistic. That is how the market works.”

Nowhere was this clearer than in the vehement debates about Newtown and its decline from a crossroads for creative meeting and networking to a complex of shopping malls, offices and closed arts spaces where entry must be purchased. Composer and cultural consultant Motsumi Makhene urged: “We should not be locking artists into spaces, but making every space vibrant with artists”; another musician reminded the audience that Dorkay House had achieved its status by being affordable and accessible. Hlongwane – whose heart was clearly with the complainants – could respond only with administrative answers about planning and consultation processes.

Much of the debate was not about IJD, but it was both important in its own right and relevant to the context in which IJD will happen. A particularly well-organised caucus of educators and students from the Central Johannesburg College lobbied for memoranda of understanding with the city for the provision of musician-educators and for gigging opportunities. It was the wrong occasion, but the right set of questions – because to realise its aims, a “jazz day” cannot be limited to discrete events in a few locations such as big-ticket theatres. Diffusing skills and opportunities will be essential.

As will diffusing knowledge. Important but tangential questions filled the day with a pervasive sense of déjà vu. Poor radio exposure for South African jazz was raised, but few seemed to know that airplay quotas (albeit unsatisfactory) already exist and the lack is of an effective campaign for enforcement. Requests were made for a distribution system for local recordings – but there is Independent Record Industry Solutions, which has theoretically operated since 2005. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was urged to take samplers of local music to overseas trade fairs – yet the Association of Independent Record Companies has, according to publicity, been working with the DTI on that very project and regularly sending representatives and samples to events such as Womex. The impression was of a boiling kettle of questions and grievances whose lid finally got the opportunity to pop, illustrating vividly the scarcity of useful information and genuine opportunities to engage.

An IJD in Johannesburg would be, for many fans, like multiple Christmases all coming together. But making it happen effectively will be a major task in its own right, and the launch event demonstrated that the music community needs many other forums to deal with these other questions so that the initiative can focus on the day. It also demonstrated the need for the music community to link its struggles with those of other groups working against the privatisation of city spaces, the commodification of the arts, the lack of decent jobs, and the breakdown of community.

Jazz is a music of resistance. Through resisting, it simultaneously creates its own social order in the dialogic spaces where improvising artists meet as equals, audiences supply unspoken meanings, and dancers interlace new rhythms. As pianist Yonela Mnana urged: “Jazz helps you search. It’s not for helping you stay in the fortress.”


Main Photograph: The crowd at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club, in Pinetown outside Durban, in the 1980s. The club, a hotbed of jazz and politics brought together non-racial crowds in direct defiance of the apartheid state’s racist imperatives. Will the post-apartheid government’s focus on “social cohesion” through the arts neuter the authenticity of jazz and other art forms?   – By Rafs Mayet


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