Celebrating their 120th birthday this year, the BBC Promenade Concerts – universally known as “The Proms” – rank as the world’s biggest classical music festival. With 76 concerts, running from July to September, of which the vast majority focus on classical music, not only do the events reach a sizeable audience live in London’s Royal Albert Hall, or for the earlier daytime concerts, the Cadogan Hall, but there’s a much bigger audience for the nightly live broadcasts on BBC radio and for the highlights on television.
The Proms today include music that lies well outside the classical world that would be recognised by its founder, the conductor Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944). With DJ Pete Tong celebrating house music in Ibiza, Mistajam and Sian Anderson exploring hip hop and grime, and Bollywood plus contemporary Asian sounds in Bobby Friction’s Asian Network Prom, the series has caused a great deal of controversy among those who are appalled at the loosening of its remit to include non-classical genres. The Sibelius Society has written to The Times (20 July) calling into question how this dilution squares with the two “once noble institutions” of The Proms and The BBC. Other readers have questioned whether the Ibiza Prom is a spoof in the manner of the satirical television series W1A, which debunks the BBC’s style of internal management. Yet if broadcasting these fringe late-night concerts via other BBC networks helps to draw in new listeners to the core classical events, that would seem to be an advantage, not least because over 70 of the concerts remain purely classical.
But in just the same way that jazz has hovered at the margins of the BBC’s classical station Radio 3 for over 50 years (the programme I present, Jazz Record Requests, celebrated its half century last year) it has been an integral part of Proms programming for almost thirty years. Its presence infuriates some individuals, both on the radio station as a whole and in the concert series in particular, but nowadays it is generally regarded as a perfectly acceptable adjunct to the core classical repertoire. Unlike house music, hip hop and Bollywood, its presence in the programme passes unremarked upon in most quarters, and is positively welcomed in others.
Almost every year there has been a jazz event that has blended seamlessly into the core programming. Just like the classical concerts, this has included distinguished overseas visitors to London (Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 2004), pillars of the UK jazz establishment (Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine in 2007), young revolutionaries (Loose Tubes in 1987), and their not-so-young present-day manifestations (Django Bates in 2013, celebrating Charlie Parker, and Nigel Kennedy crossing over from classics to jazz in 2008). There have been celebrations of particular artists and repertoire too, such as Martin Taylor and Guy Barker’s 2012 collaboration on “The Spirit of Django” exploring new settings for manouche gipsy music.
This year sees a bold and ambitious project, putting two big bands, formed of the UK’s major players, together to tell the story of the development of swing, linked by the singer and radio presenter Clare Teal. It is an outgrowth from a late night event last year, in which Clare sought to recreate the duelling atmosphere of “big band battles” that took place in New York’s Savoy Ballroom in days of yore. But this year, there’s an attempt to add some scholarly weight to the concert, with a pre-concert event (which will be broadcast in the interval) at which I’ll be discussing the history of the music with Dr Harvey Cohen of Kings’ College London and Dr Catherine Tackley of the Open University.
It’s a chance for me to round up some academic hares that have been set running over several years. When I was researching Cab Calloway’s life, I found my investigations were dovetailing with Harvey’s. He and I were both working on the Svengali-like figure of Irving Mills, who more or less invented the role of artist’s agent, but who also extended his activities to publishing, record production, nightclub programming and — on an unprecedented scale in the arts — marketing. He managed both Calloway and Ellington. This is a chance for us to look at how Mills affected much of the growth of the swing era across several bands and decades. Equally, back in the 1980s, I published a series of oral histories, including the life of saxophonist Art Rollini, who played tenor saxophone with Benny Goodman for many years. This event gives me and Catherine the chance to compare Art’s uniquely personal view of the band with Catherine’s forensic account of its gestation and — significantly for this particular Prom — its move into the classical arena of Carnegie Hall.
So thank you BBC for offering the opportunity to pull together live performance and jazz history. Let’s hope that when David Pickard arrives from Glyndebourne to direct the BBC Proms from next year he’s not deterred by the naysayers, and continues to find a place for deeper and more searching explorations of jazz and its history in the programme for the 121st year and beyond.
Featured image: Jazz players. Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.