So what next?

Music - Richard Cook enjoys a harmonious awards ceremony

Jazz was always a music dominated by outsize personalities, from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, but in its current incarnation as art-music without a cause, it has seemingly lost its capacity to generate stars. For British jazz in particular, this has helped to push the music ever deeper into a margin one beat away from complete obscurity as far as a popular audience is concerned. The singer Norma Winstone, for instance, is British jazz's Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Sarah Vaughan; yet she is all but unknown to anyone other than the specialists.

So it was pleasing to see Winstone honoured at the BBC Jazz Awards at the end of last month, taking the gong for best vocalist. Having had a generally quixotic relationship with the music over many years, the Beeb has at last marshalled its resources and given jazz what every small cranny of the arts gets sooner or later - an awards ceremony, even though this one was largely gimcracked around the BBC's own line-up of jazz-related programmes. Just as Radio 2 has been ruthlessly remodelled as a modern soft-rock station, so the BBC's jazz coverage has received a modish facelift over the past few years, although often at the expense of actually broadcasting jazz. Instead, the dread hand of crossover, one of the music industry's most popular marketing terms, has seen jazz airtime padded out with other kinds of music, as if jazz by itself were not strong enough to deserve its slots.

That kind of thinking now permeates much of the jazz business. Festival organisers hire rock and world music acts to serve as bankers if they are uneasy about their jazz ticket sales, while it has begun to seem as if the major record labels would rather do anything other than record a group featuring nothing more than a couple of horns, a piano, bass and drums. It's a bit like the old fad for dressing up classical music's greatest hits with disco beats. Yet the peculiar resilience of the musicians who actually play and present this music is as particular as the diehard audience that still supports it.

One of the disappointing things about the BBC awards - voted for by a 100-strong panel, enigmatically described as made up of "experts" - was that they focused entirely on performers who are based in the south-east. Actually, much of the most creative and persistent jazz is being made elsewhere in the UK. Where London was, 20 years ago, a teeming jazz city, now it seems relatively tame and undernourished, lacking in venues and organisers. In Scotland, by contrast, even unlikely locations such as Aberdeen have plenty of indigenous jazz activity. Brian Kellock, perhaps the most outstanding pianist in Britain today, lives in Edinburgh. The city's Caber Music label is one of a number of assertive, British, independent operations that have set out to document and sustain local activity.

In an odd way, jazz has become akin to a British roots music. Like punk and pub rock, it thrives in a circuit of micromanaged venues, playing to stalwart audiences. While Londoners fret over whether this or that style of jazz is cool or contemporary enough, elsewhere one can find trad, mainstream and modern strains contentedly coexisting. If the music seems short of Oscar- winners, Britjazz relies instead on this country's knack of producing an unrivalled family of character actors, from the hard-core trad of the clarinettist Mart Rodger to the bracing piano improvisation of Howard Riley.

On what was, by and large, an evening full of bonhomie, it was a pity that the only sour note at the awards came from Courtney Pine, the most famous British jazzman under 50, whose group won the Best Band prize. When they hit a nice groove, they are very like Dudu Pukwana's Zila, one of the best live bands Britain could boast in the Seventies. But Pine's taste for what he imagines is crowd-pleasing seems to have got the better of him - he waves his hands around while holding a single note on the saxophone by using circular breathing, a comical display that reminded me of a similar trick I saw the despised pop-jazz player Kenny G do a dozen years ago. Then Pine remarked that "the critics won't like us being up here on the same stage as the BBC Big Band". Nothing wrong with that. It was the music that hurt.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street