Netflix for Jazz? Quincy Jones’s Qwest TV Takes Concerts and Films Digital
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLODEC. 6, 2017
Quincy Jones’s latest venture is Qwest TV, a service offering high-definition streams of jazz concerts and documentaries. Robyn Twomey/Redux
For much of jazz’s history, devotees discovered music over the radio airwaves and in library stacks, rooting out old LPs or videos to borrow and sample. Today, a lot of that exploration happens online — particularly on YouTube. Most major albums have found their way onto that streaming platform, as have concert bootlegs, studio sessions and old documentaries that were once impossible to track down.
Now a new video platform is seeking to raise the bar, offering a curated library of high-quality video content from across the jazz world. Quincy Jones, the jazz musician and impresario, is helping to start Qwest TV, an online library of concert videos and feature documentaries, most of them unavailable on YouTube or any other streaming site.
“You remember 10 percent of what you hear and 30 percent of what you see,” Mr. Jones said in an interview, noting that he viewed Qwest as a way to maintain jazz’s staying power in the digital age. “When you see it, it hits you twice as hard.”
When it goes live on Dec. 15, Qwest will feature 50 videos, most from 30 to 90 minutes long, including a documentary on Al Jarreau, the virtuoso vocalist who died last year; and concert films featuring the pianist Jason Moran and his trio, the jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the Malian vocalist Oumou Sangaré. Subscribers will also have access to “The Sound of New York,” a 10-part series originally serialized in Italy, that features half-hour portraits of musicians like Damion Reid, Mark Turner and Bilal.
Qwest will operate like a highly specialized version of Netflix: Members pay a small fee each month for access to the full video library. It also resembles more boutique streaming platforms like Mubi, the art-film streaming service, or Boiler Room, an organization that archives its own underground-music concerts on its website.
The idea for Qwest took hold in 2014, when Reza Ackbaraly, 39, a French TV producer, approached Mr. Jones at Jazz à Vienne, a French festival for which Mr. Ackbaraly works as a programmer.
“I was the biggest fan that he could ever look for,” Mr. Jones said. “He came to us and said, ‘Let’s start our own channel.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah. Let’s go.’”
Mr. Ackbaraly has taken the lead in designing and implementing Qwest, with help from just one other full-time staff member. But Mr. Jones’s imprint is all over it. The service features a section of videos titled “Quincy’s Picks,” and he has helped guide the editorial vision. An irrepressibly contemporary thinker at 84, Mr. Jones has worked with Mr. Ackbaraly to ensure the video offerings accurately represent the breadth and vitality of jazz’s current moment — with content coming from the music’s contemporary mainstream and its avant-garde — as well as the annals of history.
The idea seems to be catching on. A Kickstarter campaign earlier this year raised around $160,000, nearly twice the target amount. Subscriptions are available for a little under $9 per month for standard access, or close to $12 per month for high-definition streaming. Yearly subscriptions come at a slight discount. Users can access Qwest on mobile devices and computers, or watch the videos on a TV set by using syncing software.
“It’s a niche market, for sure, but the beautiful thing about this music is that it’s international,” Mr. Ackbaraly said. “When you’re thinking of people like Chucho Valdés or Herbie Hancock or Kamasi Washington, they don’t fill a stadium with 30,000 people, but they will fill something from 500 people to 7,000 people in every major city, all over the world.”
Mr. Jones is also passionate about forging partnerships with universities and school systems across America. “We suffer a lot from not having a minister of culture,” Mr. Jones said of the United States, adding that he hoped making Qwest’s films widely available to students could help in “bringing the youth up-to-date” on the history and present-day life of jazz.
Most of Qwest’s content comes from European television, where public funding for these kinds of programs is often greater and interest in jazz is more commonplace than in the United States, though most of the content focuses on jazz musicians based in America. Mr. Ackbaraly acquired international distribution licenses for the films and videos, making Qwest the exclusive United States distributor. The service does not yet have any of the widely acclaimed, American-made jazz documentaries that have hit theaters in recent years — movies like “I Called Him Morgan” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — many of which have entered into exclusive deals with Netflix.
After the service goes live on Dec. 15, a new video will be posted each day for the rest of the month, with more added on a monthly basis starting in January. Each clip will be accompanied by an editorial description, written by a journalist or historian. And each month a different guest curator will help select a sampling of new videos.
“I know that I won’t convert the world to jazz,” Mr. Ackbaraly said. “I’m more like a gastronomic restaurant. If I have 20 tables filled every night, I’m fine. If I serve high quality programs in HD, with good curation, and have a good, close relationship to my audience, I’ll be fine.”