Stephen Keogh & GMF Interview: The social awareness of jazz. By Sergio Cabanillas 1

Stephen Keogh & GMF Interview: The social awareness of jazz. By Sergio Cabanillas

Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

Jazz fans may know Stephen Keogh as the Irish drummer who has shared the stage with names like Brad Mehldau, Sonny Fortune, Johnny Griffin, Lee Konitz, Mark Turner, Art Farmer, Benny Golson or Charles McPherson, just to name a few. They can also be aware of his activities as a permanent member of the bands of pianist Bill Charlap or British sax legend Peter King. But Keogh has a less known side heading Global Music Foundation, a non-profit oganization that since 2004 offers seminars and festivals in places like London, Saarwellingen (Germany) or Certaldo, in Tuscany (Italy), among others. These mettings gather students from all over the world searching for a fresh and different teaching environment with a top level collaborators list, both in music and other art forms like Poetry or Painting. In this in-depth chat we discover a passionate musician committed to his environment and willing to change the world of jazz for a better future.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Why was GMF born?

STEPHEN KEOGH: There were a million reasons, really. One of them was that I went through the classical training on various different instruments. The way music is taught in some of these institutions can be very mechanical and sometimes beats the student down. They want to produce a certain kind of student and it can sometimes kill the joy of making music. So Global Music Foundation was a way of creating a learning environment, which removed this kind of oppressive manner of teaching. That was one of the big reasons. Another one was that very often, because of what is happening on the business side of music, the musicians have lost too much control of their own lives and work. We wanted an organization that was run by ourselves, because we actually don’t need all of these people who have decided that they know how to manage and control us. We’re actually very good at a lot of those things as well. We are able do those things by ourselves and we don’t actually need any of that.

The events that GMF run are proving to be successful businesswise. Students and music lovers are filling our courses, and the concerts are attracting a growing audience.

Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

SERGIO CABANILLAS: How does GMF raise funds? Can individuals contribute to GMF?

STEPHEN KEOGH: GMF is a non-profit organization. This is important because it keeps the focus on the music. We try to make courses and performances as affordable as possible so that the music is accessible to as many people as possible. We raise money through student fees or ticket prices. We also enter into partnerships with private organizations and town/city councils in the different countries where we stage events.

People will be able to donate via our website soon. At present if they wish to donate they can let us know and will receive donations via bank transfer or PayPal.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Have you thought about crowdfunding?

STEPHEN KEOGH: To be totally honest, I’m lazy about the funding issue (laughs). That’s just the truth. I mean, we are in need funding of course but there is a lot to do and not enough time. Sometimes it feels like a miracle that these things are working.

Of course it can be worrying, even terrifying leading up to an event, but they do seem to pay for themselves, which is a thing that makes me very happy because we don’t have any public funding, we haven’t needed it. I guess we must be doing something right.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: No sponsors?

STEPHEN KEOGH: No, very few. The only thing we have now for King’s Place is because Perico [Sambeat] endorses Rico reeds, and they got in touch with me and said they wanted to do something, and I said ‘well, give a scholarship to a saxophone student’, so they’re doing that. There’s a talented student called Victor Jiménez from Valencia who we awarded the scholarship to, so Rico are paying for him to come to King’s Place. We really try and keep it about the music, it’s not a money making exercise, it’s about this music.

Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

SERGIO CABANILLAS: But you still have expenses: flight tickets to pay, hotels to pay…

STEPHEN KEOGH: Yes, but we’re playing music that I believe that people want to hear, the ticket sales are pretty good, students are coming from all over the world. We have students coming all the way to London and to Germany, from as far away as Japan, China, New York, from all over the world and they’re paying… not a lot, because we try and keep it as cheap as possible, but they’re paying money in flights, hotels, and the course fee, so we must be doing something that’s worthwhile. And we don’t need to hire artists that are costing 150,000 euros, for which you get one concert. There are so many great musicians these days. I believe the money should be distributed in a fairer way.

With that kind budget divided in a better way and given directly to band-leaders, composers and arrangers, or people who were a little bit more imaginative with their programming, we could do fifteen festivals and be able to attract an audience.

I wanted to make that point. If the programmers at large established festivals are now only focusing on artists who already have a “big name”, how do they intend to have a future? I really would like to hear their answer to that question. And if artists who don’t have a name but who are great – and there are lots of them out there – are not getting a chance to be heard, how is there ever going to be a future? The programmers – not all – are often celebrity obsessed and looking backwards – it’s a dead end.

There are plenty of people who want to hear this music and they want to be surprised by seeing musicians that they may not have known before. Also, I firmly believe if jazz had a realistic bit of the marketing budget and media attention that is spent on other types of music you would see full clubs and concerts halls everywhere because this music is alive and evolving all the time. This music is driven by people who are deeply passionate about it, and who are prepared to sacrifice just about everything to play – and that is why the musicians are often taken advantage of. That was the main reason why Ronnie Scott and Pete King started their club all those years ago.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Are musicians properly paid in GMF activities?

STEPHEN KEOGH: Yes. Everyone gets paid. On a course or event if somebody wants to do something extra, or contribute more they can do that if they want. Most musicians are generous spirited and love music and when they are treated well and with the respect they deserve, that everyone deserves, they want to give more.

Looking at the current climate again for a moment, I think one of the big problems now is that people don’t seem to realize that musicians have bills to pay and they need to eat just like everyone else. Some clubs expect musicians to come once a year and be paid 100 euros? – it would be OK if it was once a week or maybe even once every two weeks, but often it is once a year if you are a band leader. It’s just not viable. If the balance doesn’t change soon, you’re going to have a lot less people who actually want try to do this for a living. The situation now, with nobody wanting to pay for music, nobody wanting to buy CDs, everybody wanting everything for free…there isn’t going to be a future if it continues this way.

Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

SERGIO CABANILLAS: It seems to be a common issue in all arts. You’re just offered ‘exposure’.

STEPHEN KEOGH: This is a very good point, and it was another big reason for the creation Global Music Foundation. A lot of us are sick of this. Its time we took charge of our own lives again and say ‘OK, we’re not going to play there for free, we’d rather to do our own thing’ and, at least, create our own scene and our own livelihood.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: It sounds like getting back your dignity.

STEPHEN KEOGH: I think so, I think it’s what all the musicians and the artists need to do. We don’t need these people who we think we need, we can do all the stuff for ourselves.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: What’s the profile of the students in GMF seminars?

STEPHEN KEOGH: They come from all over the world and the age range is 18 until death. Everything from advanced students who aspire to have a career in music, or people who may have wanted to be musicians but who chose a different career path and now want to come back to music. Professionals, and teachers who want to experience something fresh. It’s very diverse.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Your list of artists is quite impressive, how does a musician or an artist become a GMF staff member?

STEPHEN KEOGH: By invitation mainly, but also things happen in an organic and sometimes even magical way.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: What’s the GMF activities schedule for 2013?

STEPHEN KEOGH: First we have GMF London Jazz Workshop and Music Festival, March 18 –April 1 at Kings Place which is a stunning new arts venue in London, then the International Jazz Workshop Europe, Saarwellingen, Germany August 9 – 14 and after that, the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, Ireland, October 25 – 28. We are launching a partnership with Jazz Standard in New York with their Jazz Discovery Programme in April this year, which we are excited about and will surely lead to good things in the future. These are our main events, but there are smaller festivals and courses that we run in Tuscany, Italy during the summer. We have a fertile relationship with Pizza Express Jazz Club in London where we program gigs all year around. The best thing to do is keep an eye on our website.

Libor Šmoldas, Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Libor Šmoldas, Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

SERGIO CABANILLAS: How did you first meet the Spanish musicians of the GMF staff Fernando Marco, Albert Sanz and Perico Sambeat?

STEPHEN KEOGH: I was booked on a gig with Perico when I first moved to Barcelona in 1990. I loved his playing from the first note.  Over the years we have worked together sporadically, and at one point we had a quartet for a while with Brad Mehldau which played at Ronnie Scott’s several times and toured in Ireland and UK. Perico is one of my all time favourite musicians and a good friend as well. I met Fernando Marco and Toni Porcar when they had the Café Del Mar jazz club. Its people like them that are so very important to the survival of this music. They have given so much. I love them and what they do, and continue to do even in in such difficult times. They were also both involved in some of the first seminars that I was involved in. Albert Sanz is a wonderfully creative and swinging pianist. He plays beautiful solos but he also plays for the group, which is important to me. I used to call him to play for many visiting artists at the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s. He went off to the USA and we reconnected just a few months ago. We are doing quite a few things together during 2013.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: GMF is also open to other branches of arts. What activities GMF offers around visual arts or poetry?

STEPHEN KEOGH: Yes we have done quite a few projects with poetry, painting and even martial arts. We’re getting into ‘philosophy’ now, which is different for everyone I suppose, but for myself and a lot of the artists that I know, there’s really no difference between all the arts at a certain point. The person, in a way, disappears when it’s really happening. There is immediate response to what is going on, no time for a “person” to be controlling all of that.  From my contact with a lot of people in other art forms, they report the same experience. They may be working in a different medium, but the same thing is happening. Regarding Poetry we did a project with a great poet called Pere Rovira and also Meritxell Nus. We just listened to their poems – it was with Frank Harrison, a great pianist – and we played what we felt, what we got from the poem, not necessarily from the words, but from the feeling from the poem. We did several concerts and we made a record of that. GMF also started several poetry prizes in several countries. We did it in Croatia, in Italy, in Germany and twice in China, in Old Shanghai and New Shanghai. That was an amazing experience, the awards ceremonies in China. We had been used to do it in small towns where there might be around 10 finalists in a region with maybe 20 schools. When we went to Shanghai we were suddenly dealing with 80,000 kids in schools reduced to 60 finalists, that’s the smallest they could make it. The awards ceremony in Pudong, the south part of Shanghai, when they read their poems, was like something from the Olympic games, the way they had coordinated the whole thing… it was just an amazing thing to see. We did the other prize with the University Of Foreign Languages in Shanghai, and that actually culminated in one of the greatest experiences of poetry at which I’ve ever been present. The vice principal of the school read a poem from the T’ang Dynasty – and I’d never heard a poem recited like that before. I didn’t understand a word of it, it was all in Chinese, but it was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever witnessed. That shows that music is not necessarily about the notes and poetry isn’t necessarily about the language, it’s communicating something else, much bigger.

Deborah Brown, Stephen Keogh · Peñiscola, 2012/07/27
Deborah Brown, Stephen Keogh · Peñiscola, 2012/07/27

SERGIO CABANILLAS: So they are poetry contests?

STEPHEN KEOGH: They were really just an incentive for young people to write poetry. At the moment we are not doing that any more. There have been some awards for musicians Cork Jazz Festival. We did something called ‘Jazz Futures’, but that wasn’t really a competition so much as a chance for young players to have a stage, so you invent a competition as an excuse to give some young players a chance to be heard.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Are there painting seminars among the GMF activities?

STEPHEN KEOGH: No, normally we would just run an exhibition at our festivals when we can. But actually in King’s Place at the end of March we’re doing something we call ‘A Brush With Jazz’. There will be musicians playing, there will be a couple of artists and there may even be be a model or a dancer moving or expressing whatever they feel, and the audience will be able to come and go and see how everything is developing.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: You moved to Barcelona in 1990 and got to know a bit the Spanish jazz scene. Why do you think there are no organizations similar to GMF in Spain? Do you think it would be a feasible project in Spain?

STEPHEN KEOGH: We did it in Benicassim and in Vila-Real. I was in negotiation to do it in Barcelona 2 years ago and then the “financial” crisis struck. It’s feasible anywhere. We have done it in China, Croatia and many other places. Where you have a mayor or a promoter who wants to cooperate and sees how it can benefit on many different levels it is entirely possible and feasible. It brings art, cultural exchange and friendship, tourism, commerce, and more. For what it brings back it is not at all expensive to stage.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Do you plan to offer seminars in Spain the future?

STEPHEN KEOGH: At the moment we don’t, but that is not because we don’t want to. If the opportunity arose I would start working on it tomorrow.

Bobby Watson, Bruce Barth, Duncan Hopkins, Stephen Keogh · Peñiscola, 2012/07/27
Bobby Watson, Bruce Barth, Duncan Hopkins, Stephen Keogh · Peñiscola, 2012/07/27

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Changing subjects, you play with jazzmen worldwide. How is the global crisis affecting jazz musicians in Europe and USA?

STEPHEN KEOGH: It doesn’t affect the music in anyway at all, it has nothing to do with the music, it affects whether we can actually eat or not (laughs). Jazz musicians are used to the best and the worst circumstances, it’s always going up and down, is a transient thing. I think it’s harder for musicians and artists of all kinds just to get by at the moment. I should say some countries realize the value of arts, as being something that’s very necessary to a healthy society. Other countries don’t realize that, and suffer as a result of it and have social problems that they don’t need to really be experiencing. If you have a healthy cultural life you have a much healthier society, healthier business… everything is healthier, in fact. The arts are not a luxury, and they shouldn’t be regarded a luxury item. They’re actually necessary to the health of the society.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: When I’ve travelled to London, the image I brought back to Spain in my mind is that culture is considered a social need in the UK and people demand cultural activities regularly, while in Spain the first budget you cut when there’s less money available is culture.

STEPHEN KEOGH: Well, this is a terrible shame, but that happens in Britain too, and it happens in Ireland as well and it happens in a lot of places, but I think if the politicians actually realized how valuable it was and… it’s like the glue of society. If you take it away, things would really fall to pieces. Much worse than if you take money away, because you can take money away and everything else, but people can still share moments together with music and with art…

SERGIO CABANILLAS: …and share feelings too. It’s dehumanizing society.

STEPHEN KEOGH: Yes. It’s a very dangerous policy to pursue to cut the arts, to cut culture.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: So are they cutting culture in the UK?

STEPHEN KEOGH: Oh, they are, there’s no doubt. Where we organize the seminar in Germany, it’s a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, but they have, not an assessor of culture, they have a culture manager who is paid a salary. It’s her job to take care of culture in this tiny little town, and that’s the norm in Germany. Nobody can argue with the fact that Germany seems to be a very healthy country certainly at the moment. The amount of music and art that’s come out of this country is staggering over the years. They give music and the arts a place of importance and they don’t depend on unpaid elected people on councils to take care of culture. They pay somebody to do it and you can see the results.

Albert Sanz, Flo Moore, Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01
Albert Sanz, Flo Moore, Stephen Keogh · Vila-Real, 2013/03/01

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Is that manager a public worker, so they don’t have to hire a company to take care of programming?

STEPHEN KEOGH: Yes, it’s part of the state. Part of the community taxes are paying that person’s salary so he or she has a responsibility to produce things that the people of that town are interested in, but also this person is in charge to go to the banks and say ‘I’m the cultural manager, you need to sponsor what’s going on in this town’, one thing fits into the other. Local businesses contribute not necessarily a lot but most contribute something. So it is a community effort. Everyone takes an interest, and comes to see what is going on. Where we stage the seminar and festival in Germany now the people from the neighboring regions started to arrive and now people come from France, Luxembourg and further away just to see the concerts. So it creates tourism and brings people together, and I think that because the primary goal is not about making as much profit as possible, but rather to share an experience, a communication, with others, you can feel this in the atmosphere at the event.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: What do you think of the level of support from Spanish institutions for music and specifically jazz compared to other European countries?

STEPHEN KEOGH: Is there any at the moment? I don’t really have the information. I know they’re raising the V.A.T. of culture from 8% to 21% percent. It’s like they’re loading a large cannon with poison and firing at us.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: To finish, as a musician, tell us about your recent works and future plans recording and/or touring.

STEPHEN KEOGH: Well, I’m working on the festival in King’s Place at the moment, so there’s a huge amount of work there, that’s keeping me very busy. I’m involved in another project which is a slightly different thing that focuses on the music from the cinema from Hollywood, from Cuban high society, Italy, France and Spain –Almodovar- with two great singers, one from Argentina and one from Britain. That’s one project we’ve just recorded and we’ll be releasing an album in April and it’s called ‘Música Paradiso’. This is more of a theater thing than a straight jazz record but there are a lot of great songs, and I love great songs. That’s why I got into this music, because it’s great songs and because it’s swing in there, they’re the two things. I’m also going to New York in April, just about to start a partnership with the Jazz Standard, with a view to doing one of these festivals in New York in 2014, and I’m very excited about that, it’s a long time since I’ve been to New York. It looks like we’re going to be working with a lot of great musicians. Then I have the festival in the summer in Saarwellingen, Germany, and the Cork Jazz Festival. We’ll be doing that with Rene Marie, with Albert Sanz, with a young bass player from London and also with Perico [Sambeat]. That’s enough to keep me busy (laughs).

More information at Global Music Foundation and GMF London Jazz Workshop And Music Festival.

© Text and photographs: Sergio Cabanillas, 2013.

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