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Gigging, Busking and Bending the Dots

How People Learn to Be Jazz Musicians. Case Studies from Bristol

John Berry

This book traces the learning experiences of the jazz community in Bristol, UK from 1945 to 2012. Grounded in a methodology of participant observation and case studies, it documents changes in the economic, cultural and educational circumstances faced by the players. In their own words, the musicians recall the influences that initiated and developed their musicianship.
Drawing on first-person accounts, the study traces the historical development of jazz music and musicians in Bristol. In the post-war years, players began to develop significant stylistic aspects in the jazz lexicon. Drawing on media sources and interaction in performance, players garnered a host of performing skills whilst suffering dwindling audiences and declining venues. Reforms in English music education in the 1980s offered formal opportunities to study jazz in the city’s schools, drawing minimal attention from institutions. Practical learning and playing opportunities offered by the Local Authority music service sustained a modest membership over the years. Post millennium, local schools, with one or two exceptions, showed little interest in jazz education. Nevertheless, maintaining its traditional stance, Bristol’s jazz community continues to exhort top quality jazz performances including compositions that match national and international standards.

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This is a comprehensive history of jazz which goes far beyond its apparently localised title. The word jazz can signify ‘trad’, dance music or big bands but the art of improvisation lies at the heart of the genre, and the author has given it appropriate emphasis. The Associated Board, finally if belatedly, instituting graded practi- cal examinations in the subject, defined jazz in cogent terms: ‘[ Jazz] is a richly expressive contemporary musical language, combining the freedom of improvisation with the disciplines of musical structures and involves musicianship of the highest order’. However, as the author notes, school music teachers in general know little of the subject, while the woolly direc- tives concerning jazz from responsible educational bodies make depressing reading. John Berry’s survey of the experiences of professional jazz musicians in the Bristol area makes clear the uphill struggle to keep the genre alive as gigging opportunities changed from Dance bands (with the disappearance of formal dances), to swing bands and then to big bands, later discouraged for reasons of expense. One jazz authority described improvisation as ‘a leap into the unknown’, a description that defines the genre most eloquently. This book is a thorough and thoughtful look into a subject that has received less than its share of serious investigation. — Eric Wetherell

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