Jazz in our community
Posted on 31st January 2024 at 15:26
When the Watford Jazz Junction was founded in 2020, its festival put inclusion and mental wellbeing at its heart. (It’s one reason we at the Music Workshop Company didn’t hesitate when we were asked to be involved, and we’re delighted to be back this year delivering a special workshop for young people aged 4-12).
Each year, Watford Jazz Junction works to ensure its events represent the various communities it serves, offering people of all backgrounds a way to connect and express themselves. With the organisers busy preparing a diverse programme for 2024, Chris Newstead, the festival’s Director and Founder, took time out to tell us more about the ethos behind the event.
(Image: participants at the Music Workshop Company's 2023 workshop at Watford Jazz Junction.)
Jazz in our community – exploring inclusion and mental wellbeing
by Chris Newstead, Director and Founder of the Watford Jazz Junction
The Watford Jazz Junction is built around a music festival that runs for a week every May across Watford. At other points in the year, we produce a variety of jazz concerts.
Ours is an approach that uses jazz as a convening platform that has diversity at its core. It is not about promoting jazz for jazz’s sake. Rather we believe jazz is one of the most dynamic art forms of the 20th century and has the power to bring people together across a range of personal characteristics, no matter their background.
Watford holds a rare distinction for a UK town or city that our population is made up of several ethnicities where the UK white population is less than 50%. In demographic terms that makes us a rainbow town, and we’re very proud of this fact and want to be producing cultural events that are inclusive and relevant by design.
It is no surprise that across the first four years of our activity (we were founded in 2020) artists have represented a broad mix of identities. Culturally these have included Shri Sriram (electric bass virtuoso from India), Leon Foster Thomas (steel pan virtuoso from Trinidad), Emma Smith (star singer with a proud Jewish identity) and LoKkhi TeRra (a band blending Cuban, Nigerian and London heritages). In 2023 our entire festival was built around the influence of the Caribbean on UK jazz.
We look to provide a safe and inclusive platform for people from all backgrounds to express their musical ambitions without religion, politics or bias, where it’s the music that does the talking expressed through passion, engagement, and, perhaps above all, quality.
So, whilst we don’t have an overt mission to convince anyone of anything (other than the brilliance of jazz!), we do cast the widest possible net to include a variety of voices and influences from Turkish psychedelia to big band swing. As a result, we hope that people attending our shows can relate, make connections, and feel pride, either through seeing people like them on stage or in watching performers connecting across a variety of backgrounds.
We know that young people don’t come to any artform with any knowledge of difference or ideology that relates to what they hear or play. Rather, they’re excited to hear and try something new and will learn about its origins later. Musically, they might just like the horns of Wagner, the blurred beats of grime, the passion of Daniel Barenboim, or the train whistles of Florence Price.
And when it comes to jazz, there are now so many different musical influences in its development and spread across the world, that it’s possible to track a thousand different narratives. But we’d be in denial if we ignored its origins and continued evolution as a Black American artform. That means we can continually track back to spirituals, the blues and many outstanding musicians and composers across the last century. We can never lose sight of that within what we do. And meanwhile the music continues to speak to everyone, no matter their knowledge of its evolution.
With inclusion perhaps now understood as central to what we do, we should stress that we were also founded with a focus on improving mental wellbeing. I was lucky to work at the Wellcome Trust for 15 years before founding the Watford Jazz Junction. And I learned that mental health is a key component of the lived experience.
I remember that we took Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda and his ‘Friendship Bench’ to Davos in 2019 to encourage the good and the great of global economies to take time out to share with just one other how they were feeling. It’s powerful because it's a universal human truth – we all feel up and down – that a simple conversation recognising how you’re feeling can start a process of improved health. And if it’s not just a personal moment, then the wake-up call for anyone in a leadership position must be the astronomical economic costs of negative mental wellbeing, creating a global burden of some $16trillion (yes, trillion) by 2030.
And so relating and enabling the potential mental wellbeing benefits provided through learning an instrument, participating in a musical experience and/or sharing in listening to live music (which is well researched and cited academically) becomes a very compelling part of our mission, and indeed it is for anyone working in music. Creating those friendships and social moments for others to express personal feelings, and share new joys in what they’ve heard or discovered, can deliver significant impact.
It is no surprise that education is becoming an increasing part of what we do. To date we’ve delivered three workshops for young people, most recently working with the Music Workshop Company to deliver percussion workshops for young people (aged 4-12). And we’ll be doing more in the coming years, looking to create more in-school & college workshops, performance opportunities and ‘scratch’ bands & choirs for people of all ages.
(Promotional image for the Jazz for Young Ones workshop at 2024's Watford Jazz Junction.)
We’ve been funded by many different organisations to date, but most consistently by the Arts Council of England, who’ve supported us almost from inception. They recognise the gaps in the market that exist between what people can afford/value and the presentation and production of (non-popular) great music.
We know that when people participate in events and hear jazz in their community that they are surprised by the accessibility of the music and the infectious nature of shared performance. To enable that, we consistently think about our community, ensuring subsidised tickets are on sale for all our shows within a diverse programme, and that more than half of our shows are put on for free as part of a special day called Jazz Steps Around Oxhey Village.
That event is the very essence of what we’re about – providing a platform that mixes more than 180 musicians (amateur, semi-professional and professional) across an afternoon for everyone to enjoy (families, single people, couples, and groups). For me there is no more powerful representation of inclusion and promoting positive mental wellbeing, than in seeing 3,000 of my neighbours walking through their neighbourhood, talking with each other, and above all listening to great live music.
The Watford Jazz Junction festival runs 12-19 May 2024. Tickets and more information available at www.watfordjazzjunction.com
Tagged as: INCLUSIVITY, JAZZ, MENTAL HEALTH, MUSIC WORKSHOP, MUSIC WORKSHOP COMPANY, MUSICAL INCLUSION, watford jazz junction
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