Everyone loves jazz music, until you become a jazz musician. Not to say jazz musicians don’t like jazz – of course they do. But trying to find an audience could leave you wondering just how many people like jazz to begin with.
The lack of performance venues has often plagued Singapore’s jazz musicians and for the first time, a documentary has brought their voices together to shed light on this issue.
‘Why Live?’ features veterans of Singapore’s jazz landscape including Aya Sekine, Jeremy Monteiro and Timothy O’Dwyer, as well as talented young musicians making their mark on the scene. Together, they share their struggles pursuing the passion of live music.
Having filmed previous We Love Jazz SG events such as International Jazz Day 2019, Jungle Jam and Esplanade’s FYI (Feed Your Imagination) School’s Out! Concert, the film’s director, Mitchell Vong, is no stranger to the jazz scene.
Now, with his latest venture into jazz, Mitchell shares his own insights working with musicians without an audience.
‘Why Live?’ talks about how some musicians became interested in jazz by ‘encountering’ live jazz. Yet, there are few places for the layman to experience live jazz. Are there more accessible ways to get into jazz? You became interested in this topic after listening to a video game song.
M: It wasn’t just a Mario song that made me want to delve into live jazz, it was more of the swinging rhythm that my mind associated with jazz. And so I became connected to it.
That’s why I think aside from live jazz, fusing jazz with contemporary and traditional music can introduce younger people to jazz. I do appreciate jazz made in the past; what some may call the ‘authentic jazz’. But in order to make jazz relevant today, there needs to be fusion music to bring in new people. Although some people may not consider it to be live jazz, they need to be more open-minded.
The Jazz Djogets’ take on the traditional Indonesian song ‘Bengawan Solo’ is a perfect example of how to make people want to dance and bring jazz to them at the same time. The swinging groove might inspire them to be curious about jazz and maybe they’ll get into it.
I also noticed during the Jazz Djogets’ concert that they started with traditional Malay music before playing songs with more jazz elements. That is a smoother transition into the jazz genre compared to throwing experimental jazz right at the audience, which I think takes time to grow on people.
So, in order to get the young generation to like jazz, I think we can fuse jazz with music that they are familiar with such as video game soundtracks. People are already emotionally invested in them when they play the video game, so fusing jazz into the soundtracks might grab their attention enough to make them curious about the swing they hear.
Your film also talks about how hotel bars in Singapore play an important role in hosting live jazz, but many young people cannot afford to pay for the drinks at such expensive bars. What about playing at community places like the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre?
M: I think jazz musicians have to play at community places which are more accessible for the audience, even if they will not sound as good as they would in jazz bars.
I heard many complaints about that in the course of making this film and I can understand where they are coming from. They have worked so hard to sound the way they do. Imagine putting in ten years to master your art form but a piece of hardware that doesn’t belong to you ruins your sound. When I went to film Jeremy Monteiro at his gig, he spent two hours balancing his sound! Every musician is particular about their sound.
But I also think that musicians have to find a compromise and understand that these community spaces also cater to other events such as comedy shows. They won’t sound as good as playing in a bar where the equipment is catered to their needs.
At the same time, there needs to be more venues for them to perform. If a few venues don’t sound good, that’s okay. But with a greater variety of sound quality, they might eventually adapt and not be so particular about where they play.
What did you learn from interacting with WLJ SG members?
M: The members of WLJ SG are some of the most passionate and committed people I have ever met. You would think that their love for the art form is unprecedented when you see how hard they work to organise events to promote jazz.
Sixty percent of the documentary could be filmed because of them. They managed to get me an interview with Dawn Ho in Blu Jaz and they also let me sit in the front row of Esplanade concerts to get the footage I needed. Everyone was so helpful and gave me so much. They didn’t have to go out of their way but they wanted to make this film happen.
What is the main message you would like to send out to all musicians and audiences out there?
M: Jazz is a genre that came from small beginnings and should not only be considered an upper-class music meant solely for bars and hotels. Try out live music if you have the chance. Experience something fresh and raw in its essence.
Written by Kenny Khoo