One question for Jackie Bornstein, jazz singer and social activist


Q: Jackie Bornstein, why did you decide to do a double-bill concert, featuring your project, Jazz and Social Justice and Julien Wilson‘s Autonomous Resilience Collective, to celebrate International Jazz Day and raise funds for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre?

A: I like to organize a gig for International Jazz Day each year, as an opportunity to bring a bunch of musos together to celebrate the themes of Jazz Day and raise some funds for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. I try to get at least four ensembles, showcasing the different forms of jazz performed in Melbourne. Julien was one of the first people I asked and I specifically wanted ARC. I had attended their debut and was smitten. His music was so moving and the themes really match well to Jazz Day. I wasn’t sure what I would perform, as I was waiting to hear back from an array of other groups I had invited to attend. It turned out that most of them were unable to coordinate all their group members for the date. I’ve had a bunch of people ask when I was next doing “Jazz and Social Justice” so I thought: “why not just do a double bill with ARC?”

Both “jazz” and “social justice” have been passions of mine since childhood. I went on to study and work in both areas. I completed my conflict resolution masters degree in the UK and Indonesia on the role of music and the arts on building peace. I then worked with Human Rights Watch in London before returning to Melbourne for the birth of my son. It was always a dream of mine to combine my academic and professional conflict resolution background with music performance. I’d taken a break from music for quite a few years. By 2015 I was ready to step back in and at that time there was a huge rise in refugees globally. It felt like the right time to use my musical performance to both show the power of music the effect social change and to draw attention to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. I was lucky enough to have a friend and colleague, Dr Siew Fang Law, who was very excited by the idea and set up a soiree at her house to launch the project. The format I chose was to first share quite a bit of background information related to the song, the artist and how they have contributed to taking a stand for social justice and to then perform the piece with the band. It really was a beautiful house concert that sparked further collaborations and friendships. Since then we’ve been lucky enough to have some of the jazz clubs take us on including Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club, Bird’s Basement and Uptown Jazz Cafe through the Melbourne Improvisers Collective.

My association with the ASRC started back in 2003. I was working at The International Conflict Resolution Centre at the University of Melbourne and was also coordinating a group called Researchers for Asylum Seekers (a group of students and academics using their research skills to support the plight of those seeking asylum in Australia’s territory). I was drawn to support asylum seekers and refugees because I was appalled by the Howard government’s Tampa fiasco and the introduction of the Pacific Solution in 2001. I come from a refugee background and did not see the plight of this wave of refugees as any different to that of my own relatives. I could not just remain a bystander. I convened a national Asylum Seeker Conference at the University of Melbourne to help create links between asylum seekers, academics, practitioners and politicians. I programmed two equally weighted streams; academic/professional lectures and cultural performances/exhibitions (e.g. Sudanese refugee dance group, asylum seekers seekers expressing their stories through a sculpture exhibition). The ASRC helped me source participants for both streams and a large portion of the registrations fees was donated to the ASRC. I maintained contact with the ASRC on and off since then. I remained informed of their work and have always been impressed by their efforts, so I am more than happy to contribute by raising awareness and funds via these concerts.

The broader aim of the Jazz and Social Justice project is to demonstrate the power of jazz as a force for justice, freedom and creativity. Jazz artists have used their music and profile to spotlight injustices since the Civil Rights era. The program I have put together shares the stories and music of jazz artists from the 1930s to the modern day, who have taken a stand for social justice issues including racial, religious and marriage equality and environmentalism.

For some of the Jazz Day concerts I’ve coordinated, the music itself is themed to relate directly to the central theme of International Jazz Day; the power of jazz as a force for promoting freedom, peace and justice. So for this year’s Jazz Day celebration, the content to be performed by both bands is directly related to that. Other years, the bands involved performed music that is not directly related to that central theme, rather their participation itself shows support for the promotion of unity and respect for human rights.

Regardless of the pieces played or bands involved at any of the Jazz Day concerts, the music serves the same purpose. That is to bring people together, to provide a sense of unity and solidarity, to offer respite and unlock imagination, to encourage expressive and listening capacities and encourage connections.

As I mentioned earlier, I developed this project in response to the global rise in people needing protection from war and human rights abuses. So this project is also performed to highlight our common humanity and in opposition to Australias abusive offshore detention regime. Australia’s asylum seeker policies are cruel, degrading and inhuman; dehumanizing both to the people seeking our protection and to those who support current policies; in breach of international law; a ridiculous waste of money; a ridiculous and tragic waste of lives.

Jackie Bornstein and Julien Wilson’s International Jazz Day benefit concert for the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre is on Sunday 29 April at the Jazz Lab.

UPDATE: Jackie Bornstein hosts an International Peace Day benefit concert for the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, along with Julien Wilson’s ARC and Oscar Neyland’s Wirecutters on Sunday 22 September at the Jazz Lab.