What is JazzJanuary?

If you ask four friends about jazz music, one will tell you: “It’s so inspiring. Especially, er, Miles Davis.  He’s incredible.”  Ask more questions and it will turn out that he bought a Miles Davis record ten years ago to impress a girl, and he’s only listened to it once. He can’t tell a trumpet from a teapot.

The next one says “it’s all a bit random.”  The third remembers a wedding ruined by jazz:  “The saxophone guy played non-stop solos, like there was nobody else in the room.  We ended up taking our drinks into the car park.”  The last is still bearing the scars:  “At school, they sent us to a contemporary jazz workshop.  A man tore up pieces of paper into a microphone.  He was really into it.  He had his eyes closed. It lasted an hour.”  This was a long time ago, you say. Have you not been tempted to give jazz music another chance?  “No, I bloody haven’t.”

And yet there are people who love it.  Are special powers needed to understand it? Is the brain of the ‘jazzer’ really different to yours?

You enjoy music. You could waste a whole rainy afternoon watching the coverage from Glastonbury on TV. So what is it with jazz? You can stand outside and listen for as long as you want, but you can’t get in.  Is it because of the jazz-people and their secretive, nocturnal underworld? Or is the music just impossible for all but a chosen few?

JazzJanuary will get to the truth.

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Tom Gardner, Royal Academy of Music Big Jazz Band, 21st November 2015

How does it work?

To find out whether jazz music works on normal people, you need:

Some normal people. 20 jazz-testers of different ages and tastes will be subjected to various performances, to see what they think. They come to this music with clean hands: none has previously watched any of the JazzJanuary bands, nor set foot in any of the performance venues. JazzJanuary is grateful to Matt, Evie and Oliver Barrow, Joff Bird, Dan Butler, David Crease, Andrew, Joseph and Jack Gilmore, Andréa Grosbois, Ziya Hakki, Kate Harrison, Sophie, Charlie and Emma Smith, Jamie Swannell, Reena Tan, Finn Toop and Alex Watson.

Some jazz-advisers, to give the testers a chance. JazzJanuary is grateful to advisers Karen Cheney (music teacher) and Joel Barford (session drummer) for help with the test programme, for attending some of the performances and answering a lot of questions.

40 tickets have been booked across nine performances at six venues.  You can find out what happens here.

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Nick Smart, Director of the Royal Academy of Music Big Jazz Band, pictured with Greg Barker, Jim Gold, Tom Smith (saxophones) 21st November 2015

How did this begin?

My name’s Matt and I’m a normal person. I love music – the same music everyone else loves.  Jazz music, not so much.

But at 4:30pm on 21st November 2015, on the advice of a musician, I watched the Royal Academy of Music Big Jazz Band play at London’s South Bank Centre. I’d seen hundreds of live music performances but this turned out to be the most exciting of the lot.
Afterwards, I went and bought myself some jazz music, but it was fragmented, complicated, impossible to follow.
In that situation, would you continue listening to music that you don’t get?  Or would you quit, and risk missing out on a whole world of intrigue?  Was that Royal Academy performance some kind of freak event, never to be repeated?  To find out, you need a proper trial programme.  JazzJanuary is designed to answer the big question: can jazz music work on normal people?  Every stage of the test programme – and the result – is documented via the headings below.

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Benoit Sourisse with the Royal Academy of Music Big Jazz Band, 21st November 2015

Story and photos: Matt Pannell