Despite what some claim, academia is not an ivory tower. However, much science communication is indeed challenging to locate and access for a general public, often ‘locked away’ behind paywalls of academic journals or presented only at specialist conferences. This blog (now archived) aimed to make certain parts of this research readily available for all interested, be it scholars, music educators, students, reporters and critics, or fans. Most posts will discuss preliminary research results or report on certain activities such as research trips and conferences made in the context of my research on international jazz competitions.

(NOTE: This project was hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, as many planned activities such as a symposium and multiple archival field trips were cancelled. Therfore, this blog turned out to be much less expansive than initially planned.)

This project was funded by the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) under the project number 208720N. It was hosted by the University of Antwerp (Belgium) within the Media, Policy, and Culture research group, and ran from 2019 to 2021.

11th Jazz Education Network conference – New Orleans

January 2020

Reaching out to jazz educators is an essential aspect of this project. Many jazz students take their first steps in the competition scene through their teachers, some via recommendation (“Have you heard of this competition?”), others through participating to band competitions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington (although the high school band competition is typically a U.S. phenomenon). I hope to offer those active in jazz education a better understanding of the values at play in jazz competitions. To that end, I participated in the 11th conference organised by the Jazz Education Network (or JEN), held in January 2020 in New Orleans (U.S.). As the name implies, JEN is a global (though primarily U.S.) organisation dedicated to networking, knowledge exchange, and the promotion of jazz education. One of its primary tools to achieve this is hosting an annual conference at which educators, students, artists, scholars, and other stakeholders of the education industry meet.

It wasn't my first time at a JEN conference (at the 2017 conference, I presented on the mythologies surrounding early jazz bass playing), nor was it my first time in New Orleans (I have been a regular visitor since 2017, even guiding a 20+ group of Belgian tourists there in 2018). It was, however, the first time I presented on jazz competitions at JEN, and I hoped my presentation would draw some attention as virtually all conference attendees have been involved in jazz contests in one way or another; through competing, judging, or witnessing a local, regional, national, or international competition.

I was slated for a twenty-minutes presentation entitled “For Horses, Not For Artists: Meaning and Value in International Jazz Contests” on 8 January 2020 in one of the venue’s smaller rooms. Here's a summary:

“Competitions are for horses, not for artists,” Hungarian composer Béla Bartók reportedly once said. While many might share this opinion (e.g., see the heated debate triggered by Ethan Iverson’s 2012 blog post), it cannot be denied that today, jazz competitions are an integral part of many a music scene. With a history dating back to the 1920s, they now are to be found throughout the world in all forms and guises, and for all levels. Due to this high level of visibility, such tournaments can act as a powerful context for (re)producing, challenging, or disrupting certain cultural meanings and values.
I will begin this presentation with a historical overview of jazz competitions, discussing some of the various functions these have fulfilled, for example by providing budding musicians with much-needed access to a network of professionals, critics, and fans. Next, I focus on two of the oldest on-going jazz contests worldwide: the B-Jazz International Contest (Belgium, 1979) and the Herbie Hancock International Jazz Competition (U.S., 1987).
Employing semi-structured interviews with the contest organisers and judges, thematic analysis of recent promotional texts, and non-participant observation, I examine how both tournaments explicitly or implicitly mediate certain cultural meanings and values, in particular relating to authenticity and ownership. In the process, I demonstrate how these competitions aid to the global circulation of jazz through their international ‘cast’ of contenders and adjudicators. Overall, this paper reveals how contests offer a fruitful field for further enquiry, not only on the level of cultural mediation, but also relating to education, tourism, and economy.

Written about ten months before the actual presentation, I wasn’t able to deliver everything I had promised. For example, the interviews with contest organisers and judges had only taken place with a select few former participants of the B-Jazz International Contest and none of the Herbie Hancock International Jazz Competition. Still, as a generic overview of what the research project entails, it was a relevant presentation, one I hoped would spark some debate on the very nature of competitions. One of the attractions of the JEN conferences is the sheer scale of it, with many activities going one at once, from high-profile concerts over workshops to presentations such as mine. But this is also the downside: one simply cannot attend all sessions. Unfortunately, my paper didn't gather too much of a crowd, and the ensuing Q&A was not very engaging. This lacklustre reception seems to confirm my earlier observations that educators and students are either not interested in contests (which ties into the perpetual aversion some musicians have of competitions, more on which in later blogs), or are not very (self)reflexive about them.

In all honesty, I held a mix of these attitudes myself when I participated in a few competitions as a member of Sullivan Street Trio (with Tim Finoulst on guitar, Wim Eggermont on drums, and myself on bass). For example, in 2011, we partook to what then was still known as the Jazz Hoeilaart International Contest, but our motivation was not necessarily what one would expect from a contest participant. We weren't particularly enthusiastic about having been selected as one of the six finalists (out of ca. hundred submissions) and only participated because it didn’t require too much of an effort: it was nearby so we could arrive the night itself, play our regular set (save a mandatory composition which, as luck would have it, fitted our band’s style perfectly), and drive back home the same night. We didn’t really participate, we merely appeared. It’s not that we disliked playing there (we always enjoyed performing, no matter where and when), but to us, it was just another gig. We never gave it much thought, nor were we ever encouraged to participate by our (by then former) teachers. We ended up being rewarded the Fourth Prize but failed to seize the momentum, and at the time not much came out of this.

By contrast, it seems that some institutions such as the Conservatory of Amsterdam (the Netherlands) actively encourage their students and alumni to participate in competitions. They understand that contests offer their students opportunities to further their careers, but they also realise that it provides the institute with an efficient and, above all, inexpensive way of promotion. To this end, they grant their students a small fee to cover (travel) expenses. This is one way of exploiting the competition scene, and with success: their students and alumni often end up reaching the finals or winning international competitions. Further research will have to point out whether this initiative occurs elsewhere too, and whether it leads to a different understanding of the jazz competition scene within such institutions.

In any event, while jazz competitions are an integral part of the jazz milieu, it seems that many educators and students are not very engaged with them. Admittedly, many U.S. high school bands will participate in contests, but this doesn't automatically mean that the band directors and members critically consider what their participation entails. What values do they inscribe to by participating? What do they hope to gain by partaking? And does ‘losing’ automatically implies (educational) failure? An interesting albeit a fictional example of this lack of reflection is portrayed in Damien Chazelle’s 2015 movie Whiplash, in which a student’s struggle to win the respect of his band director as they prepare to participate in a (fictive) competition stands central. Further analysing further this movie and its relationship to the perception of jazz competitions is something I hope to offer in due time, in a future post. Until then!

Birmingham, here I come!

March 2020

Working in relative isolation for the past years as Belgium’s only scholar specialising in jazz studies, I felt I would greatly benefit from being embedded in a cutting-edge research environment that allows me to interact daily with fellow scholars working on related themes. A significant advantage of a postdoctoral fellowship by the Research Foundation – Flanders is that it enables exactly such opportunities.

To this end, I planned several research stays at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University (BCU) during my three-year fellowship. Over the last few years, the BCU has invested significantly in jazz research, and it now supports the largest cluster of jazz researchers in Europe (c. 40 pre- and postdoctoral researchers and tenured staff), making it one of the largest, foremost jazz research hubs in the world with strong ties to the industry. Among the staff at BCU are Prof. Nicholas Gebhardt, Prof. Tony Whyton, Prof. Tim Wall, Dr Nicolas Pillai, Dr Pedro Cravinho, among others. In short, a great crowd to discuss the project with, exchange expertise, and seek collaborative opportunities!

In March 2020, I went on my first of three research trips this spring semester. For about nine days, I spent time at BCU, getting to know the campus (City Centre), the building (Parkside), and the city (primarily ‘my’ neighbourhood, Digbeth). But the main reason was to connect with the many colleagues working on jazz and popular music, a concentration rarely found in one institution (the Arts University in Graz, Austria, is probably the only other such institute). During this trip, I had the opportunity to talk about my research with Nick Gebhardt, Pedro Cravinho, and Nic Pillai. With the latter two, I also discussed other prospective projects unrelated to my competition project but relating to my other research interests, such as historical recreation. Also, Pedro, who is Keeper of the Archives at the Faculty of Arts, Design, & Media, showed me around the premises, showing the wonderful array of workshops and the state-of-the-art media facilities. In Belgium, I have to encounter yet an institution that combines such a wide range of disciplines in one building, not to mention the Conservatoire being just a block away. Inspirational!

While this was only a brief trip, it did give me enough food for thought. In my second visit, I will be able to present on my research during a Jazz Studies Cluster meeting. Looking forward to a fruitful exchange of ideas!

Birmingham, an eclectic and fascinating mix of old and new!

And then the pandemic struck!

April 2020

In mid-March 2020, mere days upon my return from Birmingham (see post from March 2020), the Belgian government decided to implement a mandatory semi-lockdown as part of the countermeasures against Covid-19. This impacts every segment of society, including academia. This project is affected too, in particular through me being able to work only half-time (with schools closed, parents have to self-teach their children at home) and a series of cancelled events.

Most impactful is the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the B-Jazz International Contest. While I have been present at the 2018 and 2019 editions as an observer, this year's edition was an important one as I would have been allowed to observe the jury deliberations, and would have presented my project to the jury members and organisers. As of yet, it is not clear if the 2020 edition will be postponed to the fall of this year or to 2021, or will be cancelled altogether.

As you might have read in my bio, I dedicate some of my research time to studying historical recreation in popular music, primarily in Beatles tribute bands. To this end, I was scheduled to appear at the conference “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today – An Academic Tribute to The Beatles” in Lisbon in April 2020. After having presented at the conferences that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the White Album (2018 in Monmouth, U.S.) and Abbey Road (2019 in Rochester, U.S.), this would have been my third Beatles conference in as many years, allowing me to reconnect with various Beatles experts such as Ken Womack, former Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend, and my good friend Richard Mills. It seems it is postponed to September of this year in hopes that the global pandemic will have lessened enough to allow for international travel. I certainly hope so!

[UPDATE: the Beatles conference was indeed postponed to September, but next it was decided to move it online. In what to me seems an unprecedented refusal by many presenters, including the two keynotes, to present virtually, the organisers decided to postpone it to mid-2021 and hold it once again ‘live’.]

Also, my second research stay at BCU was cancelled too. Not only was it an opportunity to continue my stimulating talks with the colleagues there and further shape my project, but it would also have included a weekend to Liverpool to prepare for a Beatles-themed trip I will (pandemic provided) take to Liddypool, guiding a group of ca. 25 Belgian fans. Hopefully, this research stay and a future Liverpool trip will happen sometime later this year.

Lastly, on a somewhat unrelated note, another conference that was affected is the IASPM Benelux International Conference – RE-peat, Please! In September 2019, I was elected as a board member of the Benelux branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. One of the responsibilities relegated to me is the organisation of a conference for our branch. Every two years, IASPM’s Executive Committee holds an international conference while most local branches hold a conference of their own in the interim years. As the Benelux branch (really only the Netherlands and Flanders, as Wallonia is part of IASPM Francophone) is small compared to our neighbour branches, we cannot host a conference that regularly, and as the last one dates back to 2014 in Rotterdam, one of our first acts as newly-installed board was to plan a branch conference for 2020. As it had been many years since the Benelux conference had been held in Flanders, I was appointed conference chair and was tasked with setting it up at my institution, the University of Antwerp, and find sponsoring. Mid-May was chosen as date, and we launched a successful call for papers.

Shortly after releasing the completed program, we were confronted with the pandemic and had little choice but to postpone the conference to October of this year. Let us hope the pandemic has eased and we are able to hold our conference.

A room with a view: Digbeth.


June 2020

Due to the ongoing global pandemic, (reports on) activities are currently diminished. I hope to be able to post more news soon...