Brexit - some thoughts on how it might affect mobility of musicians between UK and elsewhere in the EU
As Brexit looms closer, it is a good moment to assess how the relationship between musicians across Europe, as shown from the UK perspective, have grown and become intertwined over the past 40 years. The difficulties that will increasingly be placed on UK artists to continue being involved, which could become quite onerous at some stage, and even sooner if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Before one goes on, it has to be highlighted that the UK Department of Culture (DCMS) and other bodies have been as supportive as can be in clarifying the possible costs financially and bureaucratically especially as there are a lot of elements. Culture in general, and jazz in particular are very low down the government’s own priorities however! Similarly, the EU and Creative Europe value the UK artists’ impact very highly and are keeping their fingers crossed that the UK government keeps promises to continue support at least until end 2020.
We British, I presume, are part of a ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ criticised by Home Secretary Priti Patel at the last Conservative Party conference. We shall have to solve our own problems as we are thought of as so financially solvent (!) and ungracious to what the Conservative Party is trying to achieve. UK artists visiting the EU in particular will suffer sooner than Europeans coming the other way in terms of having to sort out visas, social security costs and taking instruments abroad. Ironically, EU artists coming into the UK will have no problems, at least until the end of 2020. The history of UK jazz musicians working in partnership with Europeans probably mainly dates back to the 60s, when there was the start of the interplay of the innovative British improvised music scene (with the likes of John Stevens and Evan Parker in London) working with the Dutch scene around ICP and the German scene around Globe Unity and then FMP. The UK has been a creative leader in this. It is a sign of this that German writer Ekkehard Jost’s book on European jazz starts with the impact of saxophonist Joe Harriott at the end of the 50s. This then extended steadily over the rest of Europe, with musicians such as Irene Schweizer in Switzerland or Frode Gjerstad in Norway working with their British soulmates. It clearly influenced from its earliest days labels such as ECM, where recordings of the musicians from London were crucial (such as the circle around Kenny Wheeler, Johns Taylor and Surman, Norma Winstone, Dave Holland and more) in helping to create the label’s identity. In the 80s the innovative nature of Loose Tubes and Jazz Warriors kicked a new generation further.
However, now, while the creative enthusiasm is as great as ever, where we see Kit Downes and Shabaka Hutchings getting recognised even in the Downbeat polls, there are about to be yet more new barriers erected. The Brexit issue will make it more and more difficult financially for musicians from UK to cross the Channel. But thankfully the musicians in jazz try their hardest to overcome the possible hardships. We already, in our scene in the UK, suffer from a lack of support to help our artists leap over this quite small stretch of water and then go further. Even though there been constant constant verbal encouragement, this hasn’t been mirrored in terms of monetary assistance. There has been a steady decline in British Council and other support over the years to help jazz musicians get to Europe, which has not been made up enough from other sources. So the musicians become reliant on the promoters, labels and other partners to compensate for these costs, as well as bearing a lot of them themselves. (This is in contrast with the supportiveness of many European countries’ cultural strategies. We see this regularly in terms of how ‘cheap’ for the club it often is when they want to play at the Vortex.)
The UK government itself builds upon a resentment for foreign influence at the top levels, possibly because there is a (false) belief that creative collaboration and interplay with other Europeans reduces British musicians’ identity. Needless to say, this is not clearly proved by the music created here in London that we hear regularly at the Vortex. Indeed, based on my own recent visits to ‘border areas’ of EU countries, the opposite seems to be the case elsewhere too. I noticed this when at Südtirol Jazz Festival in Bolzano, where Austrian-Italian culture work well together, then when visiting Inntöne Festival where the German-Austrian border runs along the nearby River Inn up to Passau; as well as a festival run by the Hevhetia label in Kosice, Slovakia, where they are thriving on the close contact with nearby Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. The locals are still proud Slovaks who have worked out how to integrate with their neighbours. Nothing is lost of their own national ‘pride’. The British politicians themselves should come and look. Two of our recent European partnerships have suffered from the lack of British authorities’ (financial) enthusiasm. Jazz Shuttle, which led to some great collaborations of British and French musicians between 2013 and 2017 was already totally lopsided in its financing, in that attempts to get some sort of matched funding from the UK side failed. And the Jazz Alloy project which took place at the Vortex during the first half of 2019 showed the continued desire of Swedish musicians to linked to those from London. But to find the matched funding here has not been straightforward.
Where now? Well, we can’t say for certain. As much as anything the links have become more inextricable than ever. The number of musicians who have been living in UK, some for many years, and who are keen to show proudly the multicultural influences that they have learnt about; and musicians who have moved abroad from the UK and begin to make waves, such as Robin Fincker and Jim Hart in France, Fulvio Sigurta in Italy or Julie Sassoon, Tom Arthurs and Gwilym Simcock in Berlin. With recordings still coming out and musicians’ determination, we shall work harder and harder to get round the difficulties. And this is where the links from a project such as Jazz Connective can only give us energy and hope.
• The latest information on Brexit can be seen on https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/brexit-
• For an interesting perspective from the classical music sector:
Picture © Mikołaj Zacharow | Enemy (UK) Jazz Connective - Łódź 2019