HOW WE GOT STARTED
DIGBY FAIRWEATHER SAYS:
"It always bothered me that the art of jazz in Britain has always been devoid of what we might call ‘corporate representation’. I do know too that many people think of ‘jazz’ and ‘corporate status’ as two very different things. But as a professional jazz musician of something like fifty years in 2021, I suppose the fact that I don’t see them as contradictory (in any way) comes from the fact that in my early years I played the trumpet ‘for fun’ and had my eye – however reluctantly – on what people jokingly call ‘a real job’. So I decided on Librarianship. And as a student at Ealing Technical College back in the 60s, I could – and did - go to study at London’s ‘Library Association’. Now known as the ‘Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ (CILIP) – the Library Association was (then as now) a pleasant and welcoming building in Ridgmount Street Bloomsbury. And it seemed, in my young mind, to provide a comforting professional backdrop offering both security and professional status – much in the same way that a doctor has his BMA or a lawyer his Society.
So when I gave up librarianship in 1977 to travel the jazz roads full time I was quickly aware that now I had no professional status at all. Indeed I appeared to have joined a small touring community whose status as such – rather than even queried – was actually joyfully confirmed by the officials of the only union to which we could belong: the Musicians’ Union. I had it in writing too; in 1989 their general secretary (the late) Maurice Jennings expressed the view in a letter to the now-defunct ‘Jazz Services’ company that “ jazz musicians are a wandering tribe who will forcibly resist any form of corporate organisation”. This prompted a swift response from me to Maurice that: “if such a viewpoint was held about mental illness we would still have the Bedlam hospital in London”. And a couple of years later, at my instigation, the ‘Jazz Section’ of the Union was set up – only to be gracelessly discontinued by its Secretary twenty years later.
But by 1989 of course we had already seen the disastrous failure of London’s ‘Jazz Centre Society’ to establish exactly the kind of cultural centre which I believed jazz (by now present for a hundred years in Britain) not only to deserve but to need. After all: every other music form had had one for years: The Philharmonic Society (for classical music, f. 1813); Cecil Sharp House (for folk music, f.1930) and Rock music (the British Music Experience (f.2009, London and Liverpool). So what could have gone so disastrously wrong with what was planned to be the JCS’s first ‘National Jazz Centre’? With a premises already acquired in Floral Street Covent Garden, it was supposed to have included (amongst other things) a performance centre, a jazz cafe and a research library. And in 1983 I was actually called in to advise on the library facility (after all I had the qualifications!); only to be greeted by a committee tableful of merry members; all of them sipping wine and all reluctant to take any such mundane matters seriously. Three years later however all the wine had gone - and so, unbelievably, had the money too. Almost three million poundsworth of public funding from the Arts Council, the GLC and Pilgrim Trust (a lot of money back then) was now ‘missing’; no explanation had been offered; teams of accountants and receivers had been called in. And jazz musicians were hanging off the scaffolding of the fated building to protest hopelessly at this graceless sacrifice of the cultural centre they so richly deserved.
However by 2015 the National Jazz Archive had its own problems with storage. Space was short for non-essential acquisitions, so I approached my friends (at Southend Borough Council this time) to see whether an annexe for the NJA might be possible, and our then-CEO Rob Tinlin agreed. We were given a big empty room in the basement of what was now Southend’s Beecroft Art Gallery in Victoria Avenue (actually the building in which I finished my library career almost forty years before) where everything that the NJA didn’t need was safely stored. But at this point I began to be offered what seemed to me to be central artefacts from the jazz culture – Louis Armstrong’s ‘Special’ trumpet, Sir John Dankworth’s first-ever piano and the complete collections of our own jazz icon Humphrey Lyttelton. For spatial reasons alone such treasures were now outside the National Jazz Archive’s official collections policy, but we acquired them anyway and – after discussions with the NJA – it was agreed that we should set up a separate Charity. And why, I wondered, should this not be a newly-conceived cultural centre for UK jazz? Perhaps now was the time to begin to put right the appalling debacle of 1986?
So in June 2016 The Jazz Centre UK registered its charity (CIO:1167421) and opened its doors, and in October 2018 our great friend Sir Michael Parkinson re-launched our new project; now with three big rooms and a total area of around 3,500 square feet. Today we offer a whole variety of ambitious services including a walk-through history of jazz, two fully-equipped performance centres including a 100-seat arts theatre, a Media Centre for films, record recitals, lectures and discussion groups, a book and record shop, a research library - and much more. Take a look round our website (designed by our Trustee and I/T miracle-worker Matthew Fisher) to explore everything we do.
So why should Southend-on-Sea host the UK’s first cultural centre? Well, to begin with, not every such Centre has to be in London! These days de-centralisation is the watchword – and (for example) the Turner Modern Gallery, dedicated to artist J.W.Turner, has turned Margate (so says the Sunday Times) into ‘the fourth hippest town in the UK’ - despite its seventy-mile distance from London. Unlike Margate we are only one hour from the City with two excellent rail-links and a newly flourishing airport. So I believe we can do it, and this time there will be no failure.
I hope you will come and see us soon."
Digby Fairweather February 9th 2021.
CEO: 2016-20/Trustee/Artistic Adviser/Lifelong Patron (The Jazz Centre UK)