This week

The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Keith Bruce

If ever fine words but­tered no parsnips, then Jack McCon­nell’s fa­mous St Andrew’s Day speech is prime un­gar­nished root. I was for­tu­nate enough to be present at the First Min­is­ter’s ad­dress at the Royal Scot­tish Academy of­Mu­sic and Drama. It was a well-trailed oc­ca­sion and the guest list in­cluded many sig­nif­i­cant play­ers in the arts.

Far from preach­ing to the con­verted, McCon­nell must have been con­scious of a healthy level of scep­ti­cism. The third an­nual re­port on the progress of the Na­tional Cul­tural Strat­egy had just been pub­lished and progress on its lim­ited set of ob­jec­tives could hardly have been de­scribed as swift. The St Andrew’s Day speech was McCon­nell’s first ma­jor pro­nounce­ment on the arts and it needed to set out an agenda that de­vel­oped the mom and ap­ple-pie en­thu­si­asms of the strat­egy into some­thing that more closely re­sem­bled pol­icy.

Most who heard it were pleased. The ex­am­ples of good prac­tice and in­ter­na­tional suc­cesses which McCon­nell cited showed a per­sonal touch as well as a well-re­searched brief. His vi­sion of the place of the arts in the de­vel­op­ment and pro­mo­tion of Scot­land was en­thu­si­as­tic and ap­peal­ing. The idea of build­ing a frame­work of en­ti­tle­ments for ev­ery cit­i­zen, mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for artis­tic ap­pre­ci­a­tion and per­sonal de­vel­op­ment unalien­able rights in a self-gov­ern­ing Scot­land, was ex­cit­ing.

That was more than three years ago. Ten days ago I was at the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment for the launch of the Scot­tish Jazz Fed­er­a­tion, an um­brella group for many jazz in­ter­ests and a lob­by­ing body un­der the new chair­man­ship of broad­caster and trom­bon­ist Dave Bach­e­lor.

Bach­e­lor knows how to push po­lit­i­cal but­tons. Much of what he said chimed well with the pri­or­i­ties out­lined in 2003. He spoke of ev­ery re­gion hav­ing an ensem­ble to match RichardMichael’s Fife Youth Jazz Orches­tra. He cited sta­tis­tics show­ing that jazz (al­ways seen as a mi­nor­ity mu­sic) was “sur­pris­ingly” pop­u­lar and ref­er­enced a her­itage of prom­i­nent play­ers that stretched back into the first half of the last cen­tury. He noted how our mu­si­cians were sig­nif­i­cant am­bas­sadors, reg­u­larly sell­ing Scot­land abroad. Sax­o­phon­ist Tommy Smith fol­lowed up with a re­fined ver­sion of his long­stand­ing ar­gu­ment for the es­tab­lish­ment of a Scot­tish jazz academy.

Both of them played sec­ond fid­dle, how­ever, to the mu­sic, in­clud­ing the Scot­tish Na­tional Jazz Orches­tra, Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orches­tra, and the small groups of Colin Steele, Fionna Dun­can and Paul Towndrow. The MSPs should know what they missed, be­cause while it was staged for their ben­e­fit, their at­ten­dance was poor. Two days later, Pa­tri­cia Fer­gu­son an­nounced the pub­li­ca­tion of the draft Cul­ture (Scot­land) Bill, which con­tained no sur­prises and noth­ing in the way of ex­cit­ing ini­tia­tives. This week, one plank of that leg­is­la­tion, “cul­tural en­ti­tle­ments”, was clothed in the bare flesh of the Pathfind­ers Scheme and a miserly £1.2m of ex­ec­u­tive and lo­cal author­ity cash. That was much trum­peted, of course, while ex­tra cash to the RSNO and to the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val to clear a deficit for the in­com­ing di­rec­tor, was only grudg­ingly re­vealed in­stead of be­ing recog­nised as wor­thy ex­pen­di­ture. Gov­ern­ment’s at­ti­tude to the arts re­mains un­re­con­structed.

Dur­ing the first week of the New Year, three of Scot­land’s ac­claimed jazz groups – Colin Steele’s Stra­mash, Trio AAB, and pi­anist David Milligan’s Trio – will be play­ing at a fes­ti­val in Ger­many. Their per­for­mances will surely en­hance Scot­land’s stand­ing, but I’d be sur­prised if any MSP is aware of them. Equally, it seems un­likely that they had to turn down gigs at home to take up the in­vi­ta­tion.

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