“Anyone lucky enough to receive the Performing Rights Society’s regular magazine will no doubt have been intrigued to see an article headed ‘What’s going on in British Jazz?’, and even more intrigued by the following introductory quote from saxophonist Pete Wareham:
‘Jazz? I don’t know much about it. I haven’t been following it for ages…… I’ve been listening to a lot of Diplo and Mykki Blanco’.”
The moving finger, as Mr Fitzgerald reminded us, writes and then moves on, and its cancellation policies are even less accommodating than those of a budget airline. But let’s cast our minds back to September 2013: a month scarred by the unhappy manifestations of violence in Kenya and among the long-suffering people of Syria, which we need not dwell upon here, and by other more easily digestible events; an ancient company called ‘Microsoft’ purchased another equally obsolete entity called ‘Nokia’, Gareth Bale transferred to Real Madrid for a record fee of 85.3 million GBP, Breaking Bad swept the Emmys and Angela Merkel swept the polls to election triumph, while Ed Miliband struggled with his bacon sarnie and Mr Cameron wondered if a referendum might be the very thing to deliver him the result he wanted on Scottish independence. Set against this dramatic backdrop of world events, the Sussex Jazz Magazine was launched, and while the fortunes of all those mentioned above have dipped and swayed, SJM continues to thrive.
In a bold editorial decision, the first edition was dedicated to local bass players; and the lead quoted above was the first tentative overture of this column. It might be interesting to catch up with Mr Wareham, who has been gratifyingly busy in the intervening time with the latest incarnation of his Melt Yourself Down project, aided by local sticksman supreme Tristan Banks, and see if his enthusiasm for Diplo continues unabated. For an artist to proclaim a love of EDM from within the jazz pigeonhole was quite unusual back in 2013, when any mention of jazz in the UK still tended to draw the catchphrase from that Fast Show sketch from the general public, despite the efforts of Roller Trio, Portico Quartet and such hyperborean animals as GoGo Penguin and Polar Bear to dissolve the boundaries between the tradition and the welter of contemporary sounds newly accessible via the wonders of streaming. It’s instructive to look back on the last five years worth of issues and see how they chart the development of the music that, for want of another viable title, we still call jazz; and satisfying to see how many of the reports have been positive.
SJM was set up to serve the local jazz community, both players and listeners, and its growth has mirrored the growth of the scene. Early editions of this column touched on the popularity of jam sessions and the healthy grassroots scene of casual pub gigs; both have continued to thrive. Later issues explored the tricky questions of financial remuneration and the economic viability of the jazz musician’s life, the debate around free-entry gigs, and the responsibility of both players and audiences to support the scene – these issues continue to evade simple resolution. However, let us pause to list some of the achievements recorded in SJM since its first issue. Love Supreme has confounded the cynics and naysayers to survive, and grow in size and stature, and the Bandstand stage continues to provide an accessible platform and a bridge into the local community. This resolutely commercial mothership touching down outside the city has been mirrored by the emergence and rapid success of a pair of home-grown events catering to different wings of the disparate muse – the South Coast Jazz Festival celebrates the evolving tradition with a clear eye on the richness of the UK’s own musical legacy, while the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival does what it says on the label by bringing home the joyful noise of the music’s outer fringes. Three major jazz festivals establishing themselves around the city in the last five years is indication enough of a healthy scene; this year sees the establishment of the Splash Point Jazz Festival in Eastbourne and the continuation of the Rye Jazz & Blues Festival as well, while both Jazz Re:freshed and Jazz In The Round are expanding their London-based operations to bring exciting new jazz to Sussex. Our 2013 issue lamented the closure of Jazz Services; now exciting developments are afoot for a new publicly funded umbrella organisation for jazz in the South. Back in 2013, The Verdict had only just opened, and the candid will admit that its future was not universally seen to be secure; yet here it still is, as summer 2018 draws to a close, still open for business and putting on more bands than ever. It’s been a pleasure to have been involved with the New Generation Jazz programme and, thanks to the support of the Arts Council, to have brought so many wonderful young players to The Verdict to experience the unparalleled warmth and enthusiasm of the crowds, the inexhaustible ebullience of indefatigable host Andy Lavender, and the exciting vagaries of the house PA system.
A transparent plug for New Generation (New season just announced! Get your tickets for Fraser Smith and the Alibis now, folks!) leads us from the local to the national scene, and the unavoidable rise and rise of a new generation of young musicians emerging from South London over the last five years. Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Ashley Henry and Ezra Collective were all relatively unknown when they made their New Generation debuts back in 2015 – since then their profile, and that of the scene of players emerging from Tomorrow’s Warriors collective, entering the London conservatoires and exiting again to pick up vibes via club nights Steez and Total Refreshment Centre, has risen to the level where the national press, always hungry for a new ‘movement’ to promote, have seized upon it. National broadsheet articles have led into borderline-hyperbolic features in Rolling Stone (‘Jazz’s New British Invasion’) and the New York Times (‘Shabaka Hutchings Brings London Jazz Into the Spotlight’). While Kamasi Washington has led the way, crossing over into mainstream festival audiences both in the US and here at such hipster-friendly UK events as Field Day, it’s inspiring to see UK jazz lauded as the cutting edge, rather than following in the lead of the US. Such media attention brings in its wake the inevitable questions; the UK is brimming with talent, and as the bright light shines into on one set of players it will unfortunately cast a shadow over other, equally deserving hopefuls. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniably heady rush of excitement at the sight of UK jazz artists at the centre of a media storm; a young generation for whom referencing club music and the jazz tradition together is no longer an anomaly, and who are prepared to embrace notions of mainstream success that have the potential to reach beyond the sometimes impenetrable-seeming boundaries between jazz (whatever that is) and popular music (aren’t they meant to be the same thing?).
This summer, Jazz Re:freshed, the multi-faceted promotional crew at the heart of the new movement, reached out from their London base to stage their first all-day event at Brighton Dome with an array of stars of the new wave, with a stunning 1,500 tickets sold and free admission for the under 15s. The crowd were an eclectic mix of youngsters checking out their peers and older fans, some of whom would surely have remembered the last Brit-jazz boom (also fuelled in no small part by Tomorrow’s Warriors) that brought to our attention Courtney Pine, Ronny Jordan, Steve Williamson, Orphy Robinson, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, Jason Yarde and so many other great players. All media hypes conform to the same cycle of boom and backlash, but true talent and commitment can ride the wave and translate into career longevity. Last month’s column brought unwelcome news of the closure of Total Refreshment Centre, and a licensing threat to the Mau Mau Bar, both crucial incubators of the scene, and a reminder of how fragile a musical renaissance can be, and how difficult the commercial climate remains. Past columns have explored the dire state of the recorded music industry for jazz and the continuing precariousness of the existence of the jazz clubs and the musicians who play in them. So let us close this five-year review, brimming as it is with optimism for both the local, the national and the international development of the music we all love, however we choose to define it, with a warning that if we don’t use it, we’re sure to lose it. Get out to a gig tonight – or if not tonight, then tomorrow. There’s sure to be something on in town – jazz is booming.
Many thanks to all those who have had the patience to read this column over the last five years, and the kindness to tell me that they have enjoyed it. Your encouragement, support and advice is very welcome.