Will big bands ever come back? The question appeared on a Duke Ellington record cover, featuring his orchestra on a series of classic songs from the “big band era”, recorded in the ’60s. Ironically, even at the time that the album was released, the question was answered by bands like the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis orchestra, that modernized the big band concept. Fast Forward a few decades later, to our times, when a resurgence of jazz orchestras seems to be occurring. We’re not talking about nostalgic ventures; modern big bands explore a wide range of musical possibilities, creating fresh and exciting music. Australia can boast for a number of fascinating large ensembles, not least among them Sydney’s Divergence Jazz Orchestra, which is currently in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible, in order to record its second album. Saxophonist Jenna Cave is the band’s main composer, arranger and co-leader (with trombonist Paul Weber); here she shares her experience at the helm of a jazz orchestra.
Why did you decide to fund your album through pozible?
We funded our first album through crowd funding (pozible) and it worked well. It’s pretty difficult to obtain any kind of arts funding these days. For both albums we have tried to get grants but been unsuccessful, and crowd funding is a really great way to get things happening yourself when you just feel the need to fulfill an artistic goal but there is a large cost involved. We simply can’t cover all the costs an album entails with the income from the band, especially as we have 19 members to split gig fees amongst and need a big studio space.
How is the campaign going so far?
The response has been really positive. I think that now that crowd funding has become much more common, it’s a little harder to get the same kind of attention as when we ran the first one in 2012, as it was still a novelty then, but we are still very pleased with how it’s going. We’ve had 46 people pledge so far and seen a lot of generosity from friends, musical colleagues and music listeners; a number of musicians in different cities and countries who I’ve never even met before have pledged, and that is touching.
What are the advantages of crowdfunding?
I think the main advantage is that you can take control of a project and how it is funded when your artistic practice requires additional funding. In earlier days, I would apply for government grants and not get them and so planned artistic projects would not happen. I’m all for arts funding but personally find it stifling to rely on the whims of government organizations and the politics of grant application writing to achieve my artistic dreams. If you get to a dead end on one path, you try another way. The other thing is the interaction with our supporters; they really become part of the project as an integral part of its production, and that’s really lovely. It’s also nice when you’ve finished the album to have a core group of fans who are just as excited about listening to it as you are. Moreover, it can act as an album pre-purchase, which works well as people are getting a physical product back while helping a cause at the same time.
As a bandleader, how often do you have to worry about financial issues? How does this affect your artistic priorities?
I’m not sure I worry about them, but they certainly limit what we can do with the band. We have enough material right now to record three new albums and would love to tour Australia or even NSW, but you have to work within your financial means. If I ever feel discouraged by that, I remind myself of what we do have as a band; we’ve got a large group of amazing musicians who enjoy coming together, rehearsing in their spare time, and performing this music for a tiny pay check because they love it, and that is a really special thing. It’s a privilege to be able to do this and put on the small shows we do to share our music with the world. It’s really important to stay focused on the artistic fulfillment rather than other aspects that indicate success, or else you’ll never be satisfied. Recording albums of course does help with our ‘commercial’ success with a few CD sales and opening up more performance opportunities. But that’s not why we do it. We record because of the artistic fulfillment, the need we feel to get this music captured and share it with people.
There seems to be a resurgence of jazz orchestras, especially in Australia. Why do you think that is?
I think the newer school of jazz orchestra composing from people like Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer may have inspired more people to compose for big band, which in turn inspires musicians to play in contemporary big bands etc. And then the more big bands there are, the more other people think “We could form a big band too.” I love it! What an awesome thing.
What are the qualities that make a big band appealing to you, compared to a smaller band?
The range of expression of a jazz orchestra feels infinite to me, the compositional and orchestration possibilities are yet to bore me after 12 years of doing this.
You insist on playing Australian music. Why?
Because why not. There’s great music to be played. If we don’t care about our cultural identity who will?
What is your idea of “Australian Jazz?” Is there a specific sound/ style that is unique to Australia, a distinctive trait of the scene?
I don’t think there is a particular sound, and in a way, if there was, that would be stifling. It’s a big collection of all sorts of people, influences and stories, never one thing.
If you could pick any artist to join the orchestra, who would that be?
It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t say no to Herbie Hancock.
Which song best describes your current state of mind?
‘Now, my sun can shine again’. It’s one of my tunes. I’m feeling at peace, optimistic and excited to be alive, which is some of what the piece expresses.