Play Jazz Weekend – why a workshop weekend creates a lot of winners

Play Jazz Weekend is held annually at the end of May and is a weekend long ‘jazz school’ for all abilities and experience.  It always gets me thinking…

“They told me I wouldn’t be able to see you”. The shaky exclamation from a debutante performer was greeted with a warm chuckle from the clearly visible audience of mainly fellow workshoppers.  Midway through the concert at the end of the of an intensive pjaz_concertweekend, everyone shared in a significant moment for what turned out to be a remarkably assured singer.

This weekend was the ninth edition under Rachel Kerry‘s direction of this annual pop up jazz school for all-comers held at the Wiltshire Music Centre.  Having been pretty closely involved with the course each year, lending a hand with catering logistics and general factotum duties, I’ve had a chance to muse on different aspects of this type of increasingly common and well attended mini- course. Last year, I wrote about the people who make it happen. This year I’ve been thinking more about the people who come and the musicians who work with them, prompted in part by that moment in the concert that brought into sharp focus the personal significance making music and performing can have for anyone who dares, whatever their skill or experience.

The weekend students are a varied group. There are seasoned work shoppers for whom music making is a regular part of their life but not a source of income; just a few aspiring musicians or serious semi-pros for whom its manna from heaven to have the opportunity to work with tutors equally at home with conservatoire students; less experienced players nervously exploring new territory both technical and emotional. Motivations and expectations are complex and sometimes conflicting and what unfolds over the weekend isn’t quite within the control of anyone.  It’s a heady brew and the skill of the tutors, Nikki Iles, Andy Hague, Craig Crofton, James Chadwick and Brigitte Beraha were this year’s team, is that they can be demanding of these volunteer, paying students formed into small bands for the weekend without losing them. A genuinely thrilling performance of Dave Holland’s Pass it On by Nikki’s group was another highlight of the concert . Serious leisure time music making guided by professionals is not unique to jazz. Just checking out how many community choirs, amateur orchestras and folk sessions there are in a locality will illustrate that. The fact it is jazz though adds a special dimension. It’s music that demands a lot of the performer and improviser.

pjazz_groupshotThe connection between tutors and students is another striking feature of this and other weekends like it. Peter Bacon has been running occasional pieces on ‘Jaz Biz’ over the last few months, exploring some of the challenges and issues for musicians, particularly jazz musicians, trying to make a living. Those discussions understandably focus on gigging and playing and selling stuff with some references to teaching. This weekend suggests another way of contributing to longevity. It obviously provided a ‘teaching gig’ as do others like it, but there seemed to be more going on than that. A connection and relationship was being established (and in some cases re-established and strengthened) between the musicians and people who will perhaps connect more deeply with their music, seek it out more as well as related music. To sustain that process of ‘making connections’ over time and years in the case of this group of fantastic musicians means, I suspect, they get back at least as much as they invest, probably in unexpected ways. It may be materially, perhaps in appreciation of their music, perhaps  in new opportunities and they may benefit from others who have been doing the same. I suspect musicians and jazz musicians have always known, if only intuitively, that they are sustained by a large community and they help sustain and grow it in many ways other than just playing; that process was going on in front of my eyes over the weekend.

And finally, an obvious point but worth reflecting on. The hard cash invested in the Wiltshire Music Centre has created a space that allows people to create and make without any further help. On this weekend people paid, played, learned, had fun and sometimes literally life changing moments. Musicians were paid, worked, made connections, played and had fun. Money circulated; the weekend is not subsidised but pays for itself and the Wiltshire Music Centre receives income from the hire. The money isn’t why anyone did it of course, but nothing could happen without it. If the centre, managed by a charitable trust didn’t exist, the course would be a lot harder to run. The investment in the centre has made possible a huge return that won’t appear on its balance sheet. The relatively small but significant amount of income in pockets aside, much was created that was valued by everyone there. You could see it, it was just harder to count.

As the final rousing chorus of Free at Last faded away to end the concert and instruments were put away one last time, the warm hugs and contented smiles were probably a more eloquent summary of everything that had been going on than this slightly extended ramble.


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