Interview with Kim Macari

From Kurt Rosenwinkel talking about his early days phoning Spanish jazz clubs to pianist Alan Benzie running through how he booked a 16-date European tour, some of the most-read Jazzfuel interviews and guest articles have involved musicians who’ve done the industry ‘thing’ too.

Today’s guest falls firmly into that category: originally from Fife, Scotland and now based in London, Kim Macari is a trumpeter and composer who also maintains a busy schedule as a programmer at the Vortex Jazz Club in London, chair of the Jazz Promotion Network and regularly appears as a speaker/panellist on topics including diversity within the arts, gender politics, talent development and national identity.

I’ve read various things she’s posted on both social media and her blog, and had the feeling she’d provide some great insight for jazz musicians of all styles and stages. As I think you’ll agree when you get to the end: she does (and more).

Before you jump into the full interview, I’d just like to flag up 3 things that particularly resonated with me:

  • Why a ‘NO‘ from a promoter shouldn’t be interpreted as a ‘no we don’t like your music’ when there are a lot of more likely explanations.
  • Think of arts funding bodies as investors; they’re just like any other backer but the return they want to see isn’t financial.
  • Show promoters you want to work with them – not that you expect them to work for you. It makes a big difference.

What’s the biggest thing you learnt about getting & promoting gigs booking The Vortex that you didn’t know when you were just working on the musician side?

It was hugely beneficial to go ‘through the looking glass’ and become a programmer, particularly at a club that I’d played at myself and felt was a natural home for the kind of music I like to play.

One of my favourite writers is David Foster Wallace and in a commencement speech he gave called This Is Water he talks about the danger of ‘default settings’ – of going through life relying solely on your default settings for how you feel about, process and react to situations. Take the example of a musician pitching a band to a programmer to get a gig.

That musician really believes in the project, is excited about the music and wants it to be heard. Hopefully, they’ve also identified that this specific venue they’re contacting books this kind of music and thinks it will find very nicely in the programme. When they hear back from the programmer though, it’s a no. The default setting here is to to read that ‘no’ as ‘we don’t like your music, we don’t appreciate the time you’ve taken and we’re not interested in hearing from you.’ And that’s pretty sore, as a musician, to feel that kind of rejection.

What I’ve learned is that that reading of the situation, that ‘default setting’, is very very rarely correct. It’s far more likely to be ‘we’ve already got similar bands booked around the time so we need to be mindful of the balance’ OR ‘it’s an interesting project but it doesn’t feel quite right for the venue’ OR ‘we’ve got so many requests for gigs and you haven’t made as compelling a case about why a gig NOW would be best for you and for us.’ Or any number of other variants. And why don’t we explain that? It’s simply about time management; if we gave in-depth and tailored feedback to everyone who asked for a gig, we wouldn’t have any time to actually programme anything at all.

So I think being able to see both sides of the music ecology has really helped increase my compassion for people and also to be more adept at dealing with rejections as an artist.

How do you discover new music?

In terms of discovering new music from a programmer’s point of view – I keep a close eye on other venues and programmers to see what they’re booking and what they’re excited about. There are a group of programmers scattered across the world who’s work I love and whose recommendations I’d always take on board. And I use social media to keep track of artists and their work.

I work with another great programmer, Daniel Garel, and between us we’re constantly building on a list of artists we’d like to book, new things we’ve seen or heard. We have a clear strategy for programming – how we’d like a week/month/season/year to look, how we ensure balance, all of those kinds of things.

We try to keep the programming more pro-active (us reaching out to offer gigs to artists) than reactive (us saying yes to gig requests that come in via the website or email) because I think a programme is a strong statement of intent by curators and programmers and it should have integrity.

How do you connect with your audience (online) as a musician?

Primarily through social media and my website.

The people I’m drawn to are those who are open and reflective, those who are able to be articulate about their work and the world around them, people who participate in activism and people who exude passion about things; that’s why I like long-form podcasts and interviews, memoirs and essay collections etc. So I think that informs what I try to do myself and I’d hope if people took a browse through my instagram or facebook or my own website they’d a gain at least a bit of an insight into who I am and the work I do – there are a lot of books, a mixture of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ stuff, there’s often snapshots of works in progress whether that’s audio or video or photographic, there is a lot of content which is politically/ideologically driven…I suppose I treat it a bit like an archive/journal.

How would you explain The Vortex Jazz Club to someone who’s never been?

Well practically speaking it’s a small venue, approx 100 capacity.

The live room is upstairs with a windowed wall that overlooks a square and it’s located in a really vibrant and diverse part of London (Dalston) which means we’re a stones throw away from a lot of seriously good Turkish, Ethiopian and Caribbean food.

We’re open 7 days a week and host just over 400 gigs per year (every day of the week with two gigs on Sundays). We programme jazz and improvised music we sit sort of halfway between Ronnie Scotts and Cafe Oto on the programming spectrum.

The club’s been running for over 30 years and it’s known as a place that champions original music with a particular fondness for music that’s on the freer, more improv-y end of the spectrum – take Evan Parker’s monthly residency as a case in point.

If you were to look at a regular week of listings, you’d probably find – an emerging London-based ensemble, a jazz orchestra/large ensemble, an international group like Ben Wendel’s Seasons Band or Tineke Postma, a much-loved UK jazz stalwart like Chris Batchelor or Norma Winstone and a new project being tried out or premiered.

Generally speaking, what are some of the key ‘wins’ that funding organisations are looking for when awarding money?

  • The funder should be able to read your application and deliver the project themselves. If they can’t, it means you haven’t included enough of the right information.
  • Don’t assume any knowledge; the funders may not be familiar with your art-form or specialism, so be clear. (To test this, get someone who isn’t in the arts to read your application and see what questions they have – is there an acronym that isn’t explained, for example?)
  • Think of arts funding bodies as investors; they’re just like any other backer but the return they want to see isn’t financial. So view the relationship in that way; how do I convince this investor that their money will be used well and how can I show that I’ve thought carefully about potential risks and how to mitigate against them, what can I offer in return – is it being able to use your project to signpost to the work they support? Or perhaps your project could generate useful data that a funder can use to inform their future funding strategy.

You’ve been a panellist on topics around diversity/gender in music. What initiatives are making progress with that right now?

There’s definitely been progress in addressing diversity and gender in the arts in the last few years. It’s become a normalised topic of conversation and it seems that people do feel a sense of responsibility to make changes.

It can sometimes feel like nothing is changing and that you’re hitting your head against a brick wall if you’re involved in any kind of activism; it’s easy to get frustrated when it feels like you’re having the same conversation over and over again with no visible result. But then, that brick wall cracks or starts to crumble; sometimes the crack is on the other side so you can’t even see it but it’s there.

We’re in this extraordinary moment of chaos right now – on the one hand you’ve got people like Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the White House trying to restrict access to abortions in the US and a worrying trend of presidential candidates with sexual harassment/violence allegations against them.

But on the other hand, we’ve got more examples of women in positions of power who are incredible change-makers and dedicated activists – people like Jacinda Ardern and Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, Nicola Sturgeon, two female Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor) AND a record number of women in the US Senate (it’s only 23% but it’s moving in the right direction.)

And if we look to the arts, we’ve got initiatives like Keychange which festivals and venues have really taken on-board and run with (this year’s Glastonbury, sadly cancelled, had over 50% women in the programme for the first time ever), there’s the US collective We Have Voice and a number of great academics working on important research – Inclusion in the Recording Studio (Dr Stacy L Smith/USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative) and Gender Politics in the Music Industry (Catherine Strong & Sarah Raine) as two examples.

And outside of music, one of many brilliant figures we’ve got in the UK is Maria Balshaw, the first ever female Director of Tate galleries, who’s overseen a real change in the gender balance of artists shown in those four art galleries both in the permanent collections and given exhibitions.

You’re a member of various jazz organisations (Jazz Promotion Network, Europe Jazz Network…) – what role do these sorts of collaborations play in getting individual bands out there, internationally?

Organisations like these help bands in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly. Probably the simplest way is through advocacy.

Networks like this bring together people working in similar ways and with similar programming approaches and facilitates conversations between them – something I see a lot is someone getting in touch to say they’ve booked a band and spreading the word that they’re touring at a certain time in order to encourage other members to book.

We know which nights our colleagues promote gigs and know roughly their lead time in booking so we can quite easily pull together a little run of performances that work logistically and stylistically. But far more broadly than that, these organisations are vital conduits for information sharing – national organisations can share their ways of working to support a scene, festivals and venues can discuss initiatives and programming approaches they’ve had success (or little success) with.

You’re bringing together a group of people with extraordinary levels of knowledge and skill within their field and as a group, there’s huge potential for problem solving, creating new work, lobbying…all kinds of work that goes toward strengthening the jazz and improvised music scene.

When booking gigs, what are you looking for (aside from great music)?

I’d say we look for artists that are active in promoting their work and that work with a venue to help make their gig a success.

You can tell quite easily from their digital presence and in fact it’s often clear from their email message, those who want to work with you and those that expect you to work for them.

Timing is another important factor; why does it make sense to book you now? It could be about some new work you want to premiere, part of a tour…Maybe you’re working with an artist who’s visiting from afar and only available for a short time or perhaps you’re about to release something new. Not only do these things help venues to promote and market your gig, they also allow programmers to prioritise gig offers; we easily get 10 times as many requests for gigs as we have slots available so we need to make some decisions about who goes where.

One thing which is probably the most infuriating thing we deal with is finding out someone we’ve booked has another gig down the road the day before. It shows a lack of understanding or a lack of regard for building and developing a career and it also tells me that it’s more about quantity than quality for an artist. Barring clauses aren’t about making things difficult for artists, it’s a way we can mitigate against risk and as a programmer for a small venue, I can tell you that it can have a disastrous financial impact when bands work like this.

You – like many musicians these days – are involved with several different musical projects. What are the challenges of this in terms of building your profile as an artist – and what are the benefits?

Someone asked me once, ‘if someone was to walk in on a gig you were doing – any gig – would you be happy that it represents who you are as an artist?’ That’s one of the most useful things anyone’s ever said to me and I use it all the time. When I was first asked that question, the answer was no so I made some big changes, namely reducing the amount of performing I was doing and thinking carefully about what I wanted to do and who with. Now, I’d say that the answer is ‘yes’.

I guess the benefit is that I don’t have to put pressure on one project being an outlet for all of my artistic ideas. A clear example is that I predominantly work with graphic scores and I’m incredibly interested in visual art. Those kinds of compositions wouldn’t necessarily fit my quartet, Family Band, but would absolutely work in a collaboration with a visual artist, so that’s the route I go down.

It also means if I meet someone who I really connect with and want to work with, I can build a project around them instead of thinking ‘oh, it’s a shame they can’t join this band…’. I’ve always had this kind of duality, not just in the disciplines or types of art I work in but also in terms of working on and off-stage, so it’s the only experience I have of building a profile.

I enjoy the work I do, I’m proud of the way I do and I want people to experience it but I suppose the profile building is a by-product rather than the primary objective. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ambitious – I’m just better suited to the long game!

You’ve published quite a bit of written content online, on various topics. Do you think it’s important/valuable for musicians to think outside of simply sharing music when producing content?

I mean, it’s something we should think about at least. If we’re creative in one field, why not use that creative approach for everything. I love reading and I love writing so I enjoy it but that’s just me. I certainly don’t think people should force themselves to do something that feels disingenuous or phoney because they think it’ll better their careers.

I love hearing people talk passionately – it’s a big reason I got so into visual art I think, because there’s more of a culture of describing process and inspiration and thoughts and ideas. I’d say don’t change who you are to fit different situations, just find a way to make those situations work for you – there’s another brilliant piece of advice I was given. Second only to ‘don’t write anything in an email you wouldn’t be comfortable justifying if it was published on the front page of the newspapers’!

Massive thanks to Kim not only for doing this interview, but for taking the time to give such in-depth and useful answers. Feel free to share your thoughts and takeaways in the comments section below and follow her on social media for more.

More about Kim Macari (in her own words)

“As a performer, I work mostly in the world of free improvisation. I enjoy the space this context allows artists to express themselves, to explore and build and make music that reflects what they think, hear and feel in the moment.

As a composer, I work mainly with non-standard notation, otherwise known as graphic scores. I’m particularly interested in ekphrasis, the process of using one art form as the basis for another. Pieces of literature and visual art are often at the core of my work.

I believe strongly in an artists’ responsibility to use their voice to shout about what’s important and my work often has political, moral and ethical motivation.

When I’m not working, I read, look at visual art, cook and play video games”

“Kim is one of the young players who will promote jazz and push it to its limit. Her energy is boundless” – Duncan Lamont

Connect with Kim Macari

You can follow Kim on Twitter – @k_macari
or on Facebook – Kim’s Facebook
or on Intagram – @chickenthepig
Listen to her various projects here
and check out the Vortex programming here

1 thought on “Interview with Kim Macari”

  1. Very interesting, and good points to keep in mind. I was especially struck by her mentioning David Foster Wallace as I just read his commencement speech, This is Water, which I liked so much that I wrote a tune about it. Funny coincidence!


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.