The AHRC, Cheltenham and all that Jazz

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez 1 Comment

By Professor Martin Cloonan

Martin Cloonan is Professor of Popular Music Politics at the University of Glasgow’s Music subject area. He is currently Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project The Musicians Union: A social history.

In early January I joined other contenders aiming to be chosen by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to present our research findings at the prestigious Cheltenham festivals this year. Part of the AHRC’s tenth year anniversary celebrations, the Council’s links to the festivals provide academics with a number of opportunities to present their current research to festival audiences. This is a key part of current knowledge exchange activities, that is, of ensuring that publicly funded academic research gets disseminated, and has impact, well beyond academia itself.

What was involved on this occasion was a training day held at the AHRC’s Swindon HQ and involving academics, AHRC staff and representatives of the festivals. The day was designed to whittle down the 20 or so academics who had applied to present down to the 6 (or so) who would actually get to do so. In effect this was a Dragon’s Den style audition. Following some introductions and tips on presenting to a public audience the assembled academics were divided in to small groups and invite to “pitch” their ideas to each other and some of the judges. We were given feedback and then invited to refine our pitches over lunch before the afternoon session at which the judges would make their final selections.

My pitch was to present at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival with a talk entitled “When Britain Banned Jazz”. This is born out of my current research on the Musicians’ Union and consists of telling the story of, and reflecting upon, the time between 1935 and 1954 when the UK’s Ministry of Labour imposed conditions on the issuing of work permits for “alien” (i.e. foreign) musicians. These conditions made it all but impossible for bands to tour the UK. For various reasons they came to disproportionately affect American jazz musicians wishing to tour the UK. For me raises a number of interesting questions about the interactions of national governments with the international live music industries – questions which resonate to this day.

Of course, I think that my research is fascinating, but my problem was that of making sure that would the “Dragons” concur? Here part of my pitch included explaining how academic work can appeal to a wider audience. I suggested that a jazz festival audience might automatically be interested in this history, as the “ban” resulted in the genre’s greatest artists being excluded from the UK for a number of years with important ramifications for the development of the genre in this country. I noted that issues of immigration remain high on the political agenda and that the talk would take place just before a general election in which immigration policy was likely to hot topic. I also suggested that my talk would be a somewhat revisionist account and that I’d take issue with previous accounts from within jazz histories with which some audience members might be familiar. In short I suggested that the talk would resonate and be both entertaining and provocative.

This seemed to work and two days after returning to Glasgow I received an email from the AHRC informing me that I had been successful and I would be presenting at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May. Hopefully I’ll be able to repay the “Dragons”’ trust.

See you in Cheltenham!

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