Jazz is known as the music of freedom so why do outdated stereotypes continue to strike bum notes? Jim Ottewill discovers there’s more to UK jazz than such hot air.
Pete Wareham, songwriter and saxophonist at the helm of multi-racial music makers Melt Yourself Down and Acoustic Ladyland, sounds genuinely affronted when the ‘j-word’ drops into conversation.
‘Jazz? I don’t know much about it. I haven’t been following it for ages. What am I into at the moment? I’ve been listening to a lot of Diplo and Mykki Blanco,’ he says.
His name may have been synonymous with contemporary UK jazz over the last few years, but Pete Wareham has always been one to think differently when seeking inspiration. While a love of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin inspired his early Acoustic Ladyland records, sounds from Egypt and Ethiopia mixed with a passion for electronic beats fuel the primordial funk of his new outfit, Melt Yourself Down.
But despite his protestations, the aural fingerprints of jazz run through his latest musical incarnation. It’s just his six piece group sound determined to play their instruments hard enough to blow away any preconceptions surrounding the genre.
Leave your preconceptions behind
So why is jazz still a dirty word? The genre certainly has its stereotypes – jazz club host Louis Balfour from the BBC’s Fast Show and his immortal catch phrase ‘nice’ being perhaps the most famous. Naysayers may also argue that to the casual listener jazz seems old fashioned and elitist.
Arun Ghosh, British Asian clarinetist, composer and participant in the Take Five project developed by jazz producers Serious, says that until a few years ago, the genre was in danger of becoming a ‘period piece’.
‘It started moving towards becoming a classical kind of music which is very much at odds with how people first saw jazz. It’s a music representative of freedom and rebellion.’
However, a new generation of artists are doing their best to overhaul these perceptions. Arun is one of these musicians urging audiences to look past any out-dated preconceptions and lend their ears to the glut of energetic and forward thinking music being made. He looks to dub, reggae and more traditional Indian artists for inspiration.
‘All manner of musicians and bands are creating their own sounds within the wider jazz genre, whether they’re using electronics, acoustic forms, re-working standards or improvising. You’ve got a huge explosion of new musicians playing all this different, exciting stuff,’ he explains.
Don’t forget jazz history
Mancunian trumpeter Matt Halsall agrees that for jazz to remain relevant, it needs to evolve. But, just as importantly, not lose sight of what gave it its appeal in the first place. He looks to British experimental labels such as Ninja Tune and Warp as well as traditional jazz artists like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for his musical stimulation. It’s a sound most apparent on his fourth album Fletcher Moss Park, where his music blends the sounds of The Cinematic Orchestra and Alice Coltrane to beautiful effect.
‘For our generation to really get on board with jazz, it has to be influenced by the music we’ve grown up on and not just regurgitate the sounds of the past,’ he enthuses.
‘At the same time, we don’t want to lose the sense of the history. The best new jazz musicians are taking elements from all kinds of music and turning them into something both modern and fresh.’
Saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch is an artist doing much to mix the past with the future and push jazz forward into new sonic territories. His latest record, The Legend Of Mike Smith, is an ambitious double album which tells the story of an MC possessed by each of the seven deadly sins.
‘Fusing jazz and hip-hop was a natural way of making music for me. These are the sounds which really switched me on to creativity as a teenager. I copied all the John Coltrane records from the library onto cassette. The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest used to sample jazz records – their hip-hop music has resonances of jazz in it,’ he says.
Like Matt, he says that artists need to not only balance their musical influences, but also remain true to themselves. ‘We’re at a point where musicians should play the music as they see fit and not worry about embellishing their own sound with something hip and trendy,’ he believes. ‘People respond to integrity and passion in music rather than the style or box it ticks.’
Albums are still relevant
Kit Downes is a jazz pianist who stayed true to his craft and found the media glare swinging in his direction back in 2010. His Kit Downes Trio was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize that year for the Golden album. He found it a challenge to act as a spokesperson for a genre which encompasses so many different sounds.
‘Jazz incorporates much more in terms of styles than any other genre represented in the Mercury Music Prize. But that is its strength. You can’t put your finger on it. The music is fluid and never stays still,’ he explains.
Having an album nominated for such an accolade must have been a pivotal point in his career and Kit is keen to point out that while album sales are nothing compared with pop acts, these records still have an important role to play in the jazz scene.
He says they act as both calling cards for live music and a way for musicians to develop their songwriting skills. His new record Light from Old Stars shows how far he’s come as a writer and musician. The album is a concept record inspired by a chance meeting with NASA astro-biologist Daniella Scalice.
‘By virtue of releasing an album, you can sell out your gigs. So it gives you a good way to start touring and you can earn money by playing live shows. They do have an economic importance. But they also help you improve your musical craft.’
UK live jazz network
While jazz albums are a way for these musicians to showcase their sound, the UK’s gig circuit is where they can make this music come alive. And more opportunities for this are appearing. This year sees the launch of the Love Supreme Festival in Sussex, an event billed as the first three-day greenfield jazz festival in the last 20 years. Meanwhile Sage Gateshead recently ran its Jazz Festival across three venues for the ninth year. Ros Rigby, the venue’s Performance Programme Director, says the event was the most popular to date.
‘We had an amazing array of European artists from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany as well as from the UK. Despite challenges for venues in the current economic climate there are still a large number of great jazz performers coming through. We work closely with venues both here and in Europe to nurture and develop this new talent.’
While the festivals steal the headlines, there’s a large network of smaller venues doing their bit across the country to bring established and emerging jazz artists to British audiences. The likes of the 100-capacity Vortex in London’s East End, Colston Hall in Bristol and Band on the Wall in Manchester are just some of the venues acting as the glue which binds the nationwide scene together.
Todd Willis, Music Programmer at Bristol’s Colston Hall, says: ‘There are a number of promoters and venues around the UK that are talking to each other with the intention of working more closely together and finding ways to further strengthen the live scene and develop audiences.
‘There seems to be jazz festivals popping up everywhere and doing well. The next step is to get those festival audiences supporting artists in the clubs.’
Emerging DIY attitudes
Clarissa Carlyon, Manager at The Vortex, says that while there are always gigs taking place, the size of audiences can be hard to predict. However, she’s uncovered a DIY attitude among new musicians when it comes to selling their music and their gigs. ‘The younger generation are much more aware of the demands on them to build their own fan base and promote their music,’ she explains.
Clarissa also says that there is a lack of funding opportunities for musicians, particularly when compared to Europe. This makes it tougher for performers and promoters to survive in this current economic climate.
‘Many European countries have great funding and public support for the arts. It means musicians can spend a longer amount of time developing and rehearsing their materials for one gig. Over here musicians develop their music material through gigging it.’
Take Five is an initiative run by Serious, PRS for Music Foundation and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation that helps develop UK jazz artists. Arun, who is part of the project alongside Gateshead-born guitarist Chris Sharkey, says this artist development scheme is aimed at teaching musicians more about the industry.
‘There are two musicians from the five participating countries — the UK, Poland, France, Holland and Norway. We’ve formed a band together and will be going around playing festivals in the different countries. So it’s a great scheme which develops my playing while making me feel part of Europe. Whenever we play there, it’s amazing. Take Five is helping me tap into that scene and making me feel as if I belong there.’
“When it’s at its best, jazz flies in the face of all things consumerist and capitalist.”
Jazz is alive and kicking
With so much happening, it certainly seems like an exciting time for jazz musicians, although Kit Downes believes that the genre has been in good health for some time.
‘In the last 50 years, I can’t think of one period when it hasn’t been doing well. It’s defined by not being mainstream. As a genre, it sits outside of it and that’s its strength,’ he explains.
While the UK’s live scene appears to be thriving, more avenues to the music are slowly opening up for audiences. Jamie Cullum’s Radio 2 show, Jazz FM and Resonance are all helping widen the transmission of the sound from performer to audience. The likes of Matt Halsall, Arun, and Kit Downes as well as Go Go Penguin and Led Bib are just some of the artists making brave and defiant new sounds. It’s this bold sense of adventure in the work of these artists which Kit believes ultimately defines the genre.
‘This is the spirit of the music which it was made in when it was first born. When it’s at its best, it flies in the face of all things consumerist and capitalist. I think of jazz as having great integrity. That’s why both musicians and audiences continue to be drawn to it.’