Jeremy Price is a trombonist and Head Of Jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire. We chatted over a pint or two in the Prince Of Wales, the pub behind the ICC, and then followed it up with an email exchange. Here are the results:
Q What first triggered your interest in jazz, and how did you get into playing?
A At home as a young boy, if there was any jazz on the radio or television, it was always held in high esteem and I would be regaled with stories of how great it would be to go to a jazz club. I expect it was this that led to a positive response when I had the chance of real encounters with the music, live or on record. A trombone teacher did me a tape of Urbie Green and Bill Watrous, which I played repeatedly to the point of knowing long sections of the solos. One summer holiday, I took it upon myself to play along with the record and learn by rote the slide positions that would access the notes for me. I didn’t realise at the time that this is a common practice for jazz musicians and takes you straight to the source of the music simultaneously by ear and intuition. Later on, I had a physics teacher who gave me a book of JJ Johnson transcriptions, because he could only play by ear and couldn’t read music. Playing them without knowing the records felt really weird to me and I didn’t have the ear to make sense of all JJ’s “pretty” notes, so next thing was rattling along on the Met Line to Mole Jazz on the Grays Inn Road to spend my pocket money on jazz records. Suddenly I had access to JJ, Nat Adderley and Tommy Flannagan which moved things on to a different level. In sixth form my economics teacher took a group of us up to Ronnie Scott’s to hear the Stan Tracey Big Band; a powerful and empowering experience that was! Some of the musicians in that band are now close friends and colleagues. So it always amuses me to think that trying to temper my adolescent jazz obsessions with the sensible sober subjects of Physics and Economics was completely thwarted by the teachers themselves. Fate it seems wasn’t going to let me do anything else.
Q You were in right at the start of the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course. How has it developed and what is its current state?
A It was being asked by the Conservatoire to run jazz options for classical music students that got my feet under the table here. The success and popularity of these led to the critical mass that had to explode into a fully formed jazz course. It was myself and Mark Racz who wrote the first programme together. Mark was a BMus course director at the time and is now Vice Principal of the Royal Academy. It was 1999 when we auditioned for our first cohort of undergrad jazz students. That first year turned out to be a corker, producing important figures on the scene such as Percy Pursglove, Alcyona Mick, Mark Hanslip, Ryan Trebilcock and Aidan O’Donnell. Almost 15 years on, things have changed a lot. Universities review courses every few years so there have been plenty of opportunities for root and branch change of what we provide.
Q Jazz today is such a broad church of different styles. How do you and your fellow teachers cope with this?
A There is always a fine line to tread between asking the students to show a high level of core jazz skills and making it clear that they have artistic licence to do anything they want. It’s one of the paradoxes we have to embrace. In this art form there is a body of knowledge that needs dealing with at a high level and we all have to accept that. By this I mean certain artists and records you can’t ignore, and certain ways of playing that allow interactive improvised music to happen, which you could paraphrase simply by calling it the “jazz tradition.” We also all have a duty to train our ears to hear more; to reach out and develop to the next level by stretching our limits of what we know conceptually in music. These limits are personal and idiosyncratic for every jazz musician, so we have to be broad and accept where each individual is coming from. We can provide this on the course through syllabus and curriculum, but primarily I believe by hiring the right people to teach. The teachers I ask to be part of the Conservatoire jazz team are artistically very open but don’t have any qualms about getting down to teaching the nitty gritty of how to play. Finding the balance of skills/art, Ying/Yang, discipline/freedom is something we have to be aware of on a daily basis and is a line best trod by finding the right staff with the right sensibility.
Q What most excites you about your job?
A The best thing about my job is being within the centre of this amazing musical community here at the Conservatoire. There’s a constant state of evolution as we all interact with the ever changing myriad of musical personalities that come through the door. Sometimes it seems an overwhelmingly complex scene, from junior school jazz to undergrad and postgrad students to alumni, plus jazz staff, the wider professional scene, the international guest artists, the promoters, the jazz scholars, the journalists and commentators. There’s never a dull moment if all of this lot are expecting a regular contact with you! I have to say, (un-jazz though it may seem!) that I do enjoy institutional life. Fellow senior academics here are a very bright bunch and always stimulating company and I enjoy being around their optimism and drive.
Q Are the UK’s jazz schools turning out too many players with not enough playing opportunities?
A No. It all contributes to a greater jazz culture for the UK. Nobody asks this question of degrees in English, Ancient Norse Literature or Classics. People with a degree in an arts subject increase the intellectual and cultural capital of the economy, whatever degree they take and whatever vocation they take up afterwards. Arts degrees make the UK a better place to live and work in and show the world the level of civilisation we have reached. The UK’s Higher Education arts scene is of immense economic value, it’s just a little bit hard to count it sometimes! Jazz graduates remain highly employable in whatever they choose to do because they are super bright, motivated, personable and passionate. Most will earn a proportion of their living from playing the music they love but this proportion will vary enormously depending on many factors.
Q With so much of your time taken up with teaching jazz do you still get a chance to play it?
A Yes. Couldn’t teach or run the department without the lifeblood of playing. I make sure I get reasonably frequent appearances as a sideman with various characters but am particularly grateful to UK bass legend and entrepreneurial maverick Arnie Somogyi for rowing me into all sorts of projects over the years. The teaching workload isn’t that heavy actually, so I still get to practise and follow my own listening desires. Some of the international guests are equally as inspiring to me as to the students, and the faculty jazz staff are likewise always pushing the envelope, so all in all it’s pretty impossible to quell the desire to play. There’s plenty of fuel here that keeps stoking the fire.
Q What does jazz music have to offer the world? And what does it have to offer a city like Birmingham?
A Big question! What jazz offers to the world right now is the insistence that music is ultimately about a bunch of human beings playing instruments, moving air together in the same room. I believe in the maxim “the best things in life happen off line.” In our digital media obsessed world we need reminders that true interaction, proper high level communication, is a live thing, not an online thing. The very best of jazz music is the perfect example of this and I think is why people will increasingly crave live performance as an antidote to us all having to be online so much these days. Jazz, politically, has always been subversively against the mainstream and I think this spirit is still apparent in the way that live improvised group music highlights an alternative to an ever encroaching digital world.
I think the jazz department of the Conservatoire has had a huge impact on the cultural life of the city. There is now an absolute blossoming of jazz activity in Birmingham City, from our alumni “start-up” gigs at local pubs and clubs to Birmingham Jazz moving into THSH [Town Hall Symphony Hall] as Jazzlines. We can’t take credit for it all by any means but the critical mass of interest in jazz that we have exuded over the years must surely have created a vast momentum for our music to be taken more seriously.
Q What most excites you about the current state of jazz? Do you think it’s in good health?
A I think its in very good health. The exciting thing right now in 2015 is that you see factions within jazz becoming irrelevant. Only a few years ago there were militant mainstreamers against the free scene and musicians wanting to play standards branded as trying to put jazz in a museum. Nowadays people accept that mainstream, free, original-contemporary, contemporary classical, cross-genre is all part of a vibrant scene. In the space of a week it’s good to check out a jam session at The Spotted Dog, Kenny Garrett at the Town Hall, Paul Dunmall at Fizzle and then a new commission at the CBSO Centre. These days you can be into it all without having to be partisan and subscribe to your particular faction. Consequently musicians are less pigeonholed and there is more cultural traffic between parts of the scene.
Q The Conservatoire is going to be moving in the next few years. Where are you moving to and what will the new campus offer?
A The jazz dept are very excited about our move to a new building next to Millenium Point down in Eastside. Long term we will be at the end of the new HS2 terminal and part of what will be known as Birmingham’s Learning Quarter so it will be an absolutely buzzing place to be. But best of all, I’ve negotiated a bespoke “Jazz Space” which is essentially a jazz club venue within the building. The interior designers and architects are basing their own ideas on Ronnie Scott’s in London and Dizzy’s in New York. You won’t be able to look out on Central Park but we’ll be creating a space that has that crucial balance of formality/informality that performers and listeners of jazz thrive on. To have a jazz club space within a Conservatoire will be a first for the UK so it’s going to be something to be really proud of. I’m pleased to say it’s in a prestigious and welcoming part of the building, sharing an equal status with the classical recital hall. This is typical of our beloved Birmingham Conservatoire, that has always given jazz an equal status with classical music for as long as I’ve been here.
- If you want a taste of what the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz students are up to, the student-led Jazz Composers’ Band plays the music of George Russell this evening in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall from 8pm. Tickets are £6.50 on the door. More here.
Contains one of the best rationales for a liberal arts education that I have read. Thank you Peter and Jeremy.
Couldn’t agree more with paulkelly20 – absolutely brilliant !
I think the jazz department of the Conservatoire has had a huge impact on the cultural life of the city. There is now an absolute blossoming of jazz activity in Birmingham City, from our alumni “start-up” gigs at local pubs and clubs to Birmingham Jazz moving into THSH as Jazzlines. We can’t take credit for it all by any means but the critical mass of interest in jazz that we have exuded over the years must surely have created a vast momentum for our music to be taken more seriously. Great article but what is THSH ?Ta – Doug
Thanks Doug – it’s The acronym of Town Hall Symphony Hall.
I love the idea of a jazz club being incorporated into the design of the new Conservatoire. Despite cut backs & the economic climate in recent times Birmingham continues to be Jazz City.