Jim Gilchrist: The race to capture Scotland’s jazz stories before they are lost forever

Haftor Medboe
Haftor Medboe
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Jazz, by its essentially spontaneous nature, is not an art form one might associate with something as entrenched sounding as an archive. Yet like any other music, jazz has its history, its back stories and the memories of its practitioners and listeners, not least in Scotland, with a vigorous jazz scene stretching back the best part of a century.

This Wednesday, Jazz Stories from Scotland at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Bar will launch an ambitious initiative to establish a national jazz archive for Scotland. The idea comes from Dr Haftor Medbøe, the Norwegian-born, Edinburgh-based jazz guitarist and acting Head of Humanities and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, who plans to build on collections established since 1998 by the industrious Edinburgh Jazz Archive.

Medbøe, who is writing the first overview of Scotland’s jazz history for the forthcoming Oxford History of Jazz in Europe, laments the dearth of formal documentation, with sources such as the National Jazz Archive in Essex tending to home in on Scottish musicians who went to London or elsewhere to establish their reputations.

“We’re focusing not just on the jazz music made in Scotland by Scots,” he says, “but also at the music made here by visiting non-Scots who came and inspired”.

The idea of such an archive had been floated in the past, but Medbøe’s interest was piqued when the diminishing active members of the Edinburgh Jazz Archive asked him for help: “I thought that they’d done such good work, couldn’t we replicate it for all of Scotland?”

As a musician and educator, he regards the situation as urgent: “Despite the richness of Scotland’s jazz heritage, many tangible and intangible sources are in danger of being permanently lost. Artefacts that predate the digital era are degrading or being disposed of, and many individuals directly involved in the earliest years of jazz are no longer with us. There is, therefore, a pressing need to engage with those with connections to the past before the opportunity escapes us.”

The first step will be to record Scottish jazz’s oral history through video interviews with some 50 intergenerational contributors – musicians, promoters, enthusiasts and others, many of whom are invited to Wednesday’s event. The National Library of Scotland’s Sounds Scotland facility and the Scottish Music Centre have both offered expertise in recording and digitising.

Further consolidation of the archive, which Medbøe envisages as being on a par with European counterparts such as Germany’s Jazzinstitut Darmstadt or the Centre d’Information du Jazz in France, will depend, inevitably, on funding, for which the Arts and Humanities Research Council and/or Creative Scotland will be approached.

“Even if all that comes out of this is the event on Wednesday, I’ll be moderately happy,” he says, “because we’ll have got all the people together, we’ll have a network and will do some pilot interviews on the night.”

Appropriately, Wednesday’s performance element will span generations: young pianist Fraser Urquhart, who scooped the Rising Star category in this year’s Scottish Jazz Awards and saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, who won the Best Instrumentalist accolade in the same awards, will be joined by veteran singer Fionna Duncan, an influential presence on the Scottish jazz scene since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, “trad” music of a different stripe will be celebrated amid much glitz next Saturday as the folk scene dons its glad rags for the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, held this year in Paisley’s Lagoon Centre. As the town waits to find out whether its bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021 has been successful, the awards celebration, organised by Hands Up for Trad, will see performances from a host of guests including a specially assembled Shee Big Band, and from current award nominees Elephant Sessions and Siobhan Miller. ■

Jazz Stories from Scotland is free but tickets must be booked through www.eventbrite.com/e/jazz-stories-from-scotland-tickets-37869954052

Tickets for the Scots Trad Music awards ceremony, which will be broadcast live on BBC ALBA and BBC Radio Scotland, are available at www.paisley2021.co.uk/events