BBC jazz season in May

Programmes include unseen Nat King Cole material and the first BBC Young Musician Jazz Award. Jazz Journal talks to commissioner Jan Younghusband

Lord Reith once called jazz a "a filthy product of modernity" but the modern-day BBC takes a kindlier view and this May focuses on the music through a number of jazz-themed TV and radio programmes, including rare archive footage and previously unheard material.

Afraid Of The Dark, a new documentary on the life of Nat King Cole (pictured right), is on BBC Four on 23 May, presenting the life of Cole from his private journals and a series of interviews with those who knew him, including his widow, children, contemporaries and friends such as Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. Jan Younghusband, Head of Commissioning, Music & Events for BBC TV, told Jazz Journal the film will offer "fantastic access to never seen before archive." She said: "We have a long term relationship with producer Jon Brewer, who did the BB King film for us. He came to me and said he had gained access to this extraordinary Nat King Cole footage, so we put funding into it."

The same day, 23 May, Soweto Kinch and Josie D'Arby present a programme covering the final of the inaugural BBC Young Musician Jazz Award, held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff in March 2014 (covered here). Alexander Bone was the winner, selected by judges Django Bates, Trish Clowes, Julian Joseph and Jason Yarde from five finalists (pictured below) aged between 13 and 18 years. Jan Younghusband said: "What's exciting about this is the possibility to bring the next generation of jazz artists through. The idea is we can capture this young talent and bring it up through our programmes. We can take these great young players to a broader audience inside the great brands we have like Later . . . with Jools Holland and across our platform. I wonder whether these are going to be the people you and I are watching at Ronnie Scott's in the future. I hope so."

Two programmes on BBC Four on 24 May delve into the BBC jazz archives. Jazz Legends In Their Own Words, featuring Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and others, is modelled on the idea used for last year's David Bowie documentary, as Jan Younghusband explained: "With jazz musicians in their own words the idea is to get musicians to narrate their own stories from the archives. It's a technique we used with the Bowie film, which was to find everything that David Bowie ever said about himself and use it as the foundation for a film.

"We work with journalists and academics and sometimes musicians say to me 'How did that person know that? Because they weren't actually there.' What these musicians in their own words programmes do is tell the story from the horse's mouth, what really happened, because they were really there."

This is followed by Jazz 625 At The BBC, which features performances originally broadcast in the BBC jazz concert series in the 60s from Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley, Marian McPartland and others.

Radio listings during May on the BBC are also flush with jazz highlights, including broadcasts from Cheltenham Jazz Festival, a concert set from Iain Bellamy recorded at Kings Place, London, a performance from Loose Tubes to celebrate their 30th anniversary reunion, and a set from Barry Guy’s New Orchestra.

Jazz speech programmes on BBC radio this spring include Bombay Jazz, charting the story of jazz in India; In The Cult Of Sun Ra, looking at the life of Sun Ra, born 100 years ago; an Iggy Pop special on his love of jazz saxophone; classic jazz sessions played by Gideon Coe from the BBC Archives; and jazz tracks picked by listeners on the regular shows of Lauren Laverne, Craig Charles, Cerys Matthews and Gilles Peterson.

On the more general question of jazz on BBC TV and the possibility of the BBC matching the kind of concert coverage given to the Brecon festival some decades ago, Jan Younghusband said: "Bob Shennan, the new director of music, is going to be making an announcement and I know you will see in that a further ongoing commitment to jazz." (This may seem something of a reversal: while under Bob Shennan's direction, Radio 2 disappointed many listeners by discontinuing Big Band Special and Russell Davies' show - two programmes that the BBC's Feedback programme called 'firm favourites'.)

Jan Younghusband continued: "In the new music announcement there's a big commitment to live performance, and going forward you will see that we're developing our platforms. When we say 'television' these days you're also watching iPlayer or red button; you're watching filmed performance. We're filming radio all the time now. Radio is no longer a purely audio medium - we film it. So going forward you will see more live music across our platforms."

Younghusband answers the challenge of YouTube, perhaps the ultimate music-on-demand service for the fragmented and factional music world, with context: "We live in an extraordinary world where you can get any piece of music you want at the touch of a button and so it's an important question - what should television be doing?

"We listen to our audience, and our audience like context. They like performance but they like to understand about the performance as well - how it was created, what was the historical context of it, the social context of it. Our audience is interested in having interesting musicians and clever people explain things more than just watching straight performance, so across our platforms we offer contextualised programmes with great moments of performance.

"If our programmes are really working you'll watch the programme and if you get interested in the music you'll go off to YouTube because you'll find it all there if you want. I think for us the context and understanding are the key things."
Keep an eye on the BBC TV and radio listings for programme times and more information.

Sally Evans-Darby & Mark Gilbert

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