What is it to be a New Zealand jazz artist

I want to try get at some ideas on what it is to be a New Zealand jazz artist. I’m not sure where to start, mostly because I’m not sure how strong a foundation it is to try build upon the concept that there is an actual intrinsic way that New Zealanders make jazz, but there’s some kernel of something in there so I’ll try investigate it.

There is definitely a Jamaican dancehall sound, or a London grime sound, or a New York 21st Century Jazz sound. It’s difficult to put into words but when I think of Kurt or Eric or Glasper or Tain or Vijay or Marcus or Christian or Wynton etc. there’s an energy that relates across all of them despite how different they are. For lack of a better term I’ll call it the New York “motherfucker” tradition. In a similar vein closer to home, there’s something that connects Trinity Roots and Fat Freddy’s Drop and Shapeshifter and Ladi6 and other artists in the local scene. There’s the co-influencing of each other as well as drawing from similar influences internationally that has developed a sound or approach to putting music together. Long form jams and slow sonic builds, pulling influences from soul, hip hop, bass culture etc. so there’s definitely something in there locally too.

I’m not really sure where I fit into the mix, and whether I have a sense of place. When the question becomes “what is it to be a New Zealand jazz artist?”, I think that foundation is still free to be molded. We’ve had a number of brilliant musicians emerge from here that are working and making great music in the jazz idiom, but maybe the history books are still being written on what the unifying principles are. At the moment we’re largely drawing from a Black American tradition but haven’t collectively made it our own yet. Perhaps that will take time to emerge. I believe we need a greater body of work to draw from and trace the lines of history through before we can, as a nation, say that this music is our music. There’s an undeniable New York jazz thing, or a “Welli-Dub” thing, but I struggle to find a common denominator with the New Zealand jazz thing yet.

Is there even anything wrong with that? Well – as a very good friend of mine saliently put it – there’s only so far you can go making American style music and repackaging it back to people.

It’s a damn good point that should make any local jazz school trained musician seriously re-evaluate what it is that they’re trying to do. Individually and collectively, if we can find some new ways to play this music and make it our own, then we actually have something real to offer the world. The value of having something original to say is huge. It’s something we can give to the world and it’s something we can hand down to the next generation of artists to build upon and take it further. It’s legacy.

All big words coming from me, but what am I doing to help shift the dial? Well, I can only be of influence if I’m leading by example. However there’s plenty of black holes that I can inadvertently get sucked into if the settings of my guiding principles aren’t right. Here we get into what I meant earlier about being unsure how stable a foundation it is to build upon being a “New Zealand” jazz artist. I don’t primarily define myself as a New Zealander. I’m an individual human being first and foremost. I’m not much of a nationalist.

For my own artistic practice, the lens I need to look through when making a musical decision is not “is this New Zealand enough?”

The right questions are:

“Is this true to me?”
“Is it undeniable?”
“Does the music want to go in this direction or that?”

The musical idea itself must come first, and take precedence over any genre, cultural or traditional considerations. I know that from experience the most artistically successful music I’ve made has come from a mind clear of any conscious effort to fit it in a cultural box.

And yet, putting culture and tradition to the side in order to make the most genuine music seems to undermine the idea that, from an artistic standpoint, having a “New Zealand” sound is even worth trying to achieve. If we’re going to have a sound that’s ours then by default it needs to be definable, for what could a New Zealand sound be if not defined by some traditions that tie it to a broader cultural framework?

Here we have a philosophical split emerging. On the one hand, the “conservative” sense that we need to define our sound by tying it to traditions and heritage, and the “progressive” sense of searching for the new, following the creative spark and not letting anything other than an almost mystical sense of what the musical idea wants to do dictate the process.

I could take the political analogy even further here. A healthy, functioning democracy is enabled when there’s a dialogue continuously happening between progressive and conservative factions.  The progressives invent things and move things forward. The conservatives embed things and give them structure. Either side having too much power causes imbalance and dysfunction. In the same sense, the greatest artists regardless of time and place had a balance of a progressive inventiveness and a conservative grounding. They knew the rules but knew how to break them too, and the dialogue between their progressive and conservative aspects gives them far greater strength compared to others who know all the rules of theory but have no creative spark, or the ones who are wild and free but have limited knowledge of the foundations.

To take it a step further to the New Zealand jazz scene, that continuous dialogue between our progressive and conservative tendencies will be key to the strength of the scene as a whole, and when extrapolated over generations, yesterdays innovations can become tomorrow’s traditions.

As far as how we go about creating that, well it’s really down to individuals – several individuals – deliberately working on finding their own way of making music but also collaborating and consulting with each other so it’s not all in a vacuum. Recording their ideas and putting it out to the market. We can have our heroes and legends who rise to great heights, but we need to keep in mind that it takes a village to produce them.

It also means building an audience and infrastructure that supports us and helps us to gain recognition and clout on a national and international level. We need the Jazz Tui’s to on national television alongside the rest of our country’s artists, and not in a little silo at the foyer of the Opera House being presented by someone who forgets the damn trophy up in Auckland, insulting a room of musicians with 10 times the talent getting a 10th of the exposure of the cats up at the Spark Arena.

Thankfully, it’s starting to happen more and more. I’m seeing a lot more artists of my generation owning their shit, presenting their own music and not relying solely on playing jazz standards. We’re starting to think more about what it is we want to build and present to the world, and we’re also starting to organise.

I know I don’t have all the answers, but one thing I do know is that I can’t do it alone. So seeing some of these ideas starting to bubble up to the surface within our little scene is giving me some real hope, and maybe in the next few years, or in the next generation, someone will be able to look back and say “This is what it is to be a New Zealand jazz artist”.