Julian Joseph: Joining Jazz and Baseball
Does Joseph worry that the relatively low public profile of jazz in the UK may lead to fewer young people coming to the music? "When I was growing up I was into Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Weather Reportand they were really popular. I think to myself, what is inspiring these youngsters? Who's inspiring them to get into jazz? I think in a sense, because a lot of that is missing, they look back further. And the quality of these young players is really highso maybe it hasn't harmed them that there aren't so many superstars in jazz right now."
Joseph's thoughts on what inspires young jazz players today raise the obvious question of who inspired the young Julian Joseph? "I come from a musical family: our father used to practice with his band in our cellar. When I was five or six, my mother bought a piano and announced that my brothers and I were all going to learn how to play it. That's how we started to get into music. I was always attracted to the jazz sound: my older brother John and I would search radio stations to find any music that was interesting. We'd put our cassette recorder mike up to the speaker then record it."
Later on, a friend expanded Joseph's musical horizons further: "My friend Errol Shaker, an actor, started to introduce me to players like Ramsey Lewis and Jimmy McGriff. My brother John really got into Herbie Hancock because he heard 'I Thought It Was You,' so we got that then we got all of Herbie's records and then all the records he was on. So we checked out Miles Davis, then Charlie Parker and so on. So Herbie Hancock and Errol Shaker were really my entry points into jazz."
Joseph was lucky enough to get some jazz education at Spencer Park School in Wandsworth, London, during his teenage years: "My drum teacher was Trevor Tomkins, and the bass teacher was Phil Batesboth professionals on the jazz scene. From there I began to put together little ensembles with the teachers and later with other students." This is by no means a typical state school musical education, as Joseph acknowledges: "The peripatetic teachers were amazing, because they were all jazz musicians. Also, while I was at the school the Head of Music was a very gifted pianist who played stride piano, and his deputy was a jazz-rock pianist and organist and trumpet player called Chris Johnstone, who's now a friend of mine. He used to make me play piano in front of the class... I was very lucky, because if you showed any initiative and passion for music there were people to take notice, gifted teachers."
Joseph is now an important figure in British musical education himself. So how did that early exposure to inspirational teachers influence his approach? "Well, I try to stimulate others in the same way" he continues. "My education wasn't regimented; it came out of my own interest. So if I see a good student I try to help them in a way that really suits them. I believe in education, because if it doesn't produce a great player then it can produce a great promoter, or a great audience member, or someone who appreciates music. Not everyone goes way deep into what music means, maybe they just like the sound of it. And I really appreciate people who appreciate jazz."
Joseph's interest in education brings the conversation round to Shadowball. It seems ironic that the first major jazz performance work about baseball comes from a British composer rather than an American onebut does Joseph see it that way? "I don't know really. America is such a vast and fabulous place that I'm sure there have been different ways of touching on these subjects. But one thing missing from the jazz universe is the dramatic side. If you think about the amount of works written for the stage with jazz music and jazz skillshow many can you think of? Name me three pieces."
Put on the spot, I venture Porgy and Bess then flounder and give up. "That's one" agrees Joseph, before kindly agreeing that it's hard to identify more. "There's Treemonisha by Scott Joplin, but really that's very much in his own style rather than jazz. Wynton Marsalis did Blood On The Field but purely as an oratorio, so it was performed in concert form. Classical music's version of musical theatre is opera, so I became really interested in the idea of jazz opera. I did Bridgetower first, then I did Shadowball."
Joseph's enthusiasm came over clearly, even across a rather poor phone line, as he continued to explain Shadowball's genesis. "Shadowball is such a wonderfully rich story, connecting the negro leagues of baseball with jazz music. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, all owned and financed teams. So it was a no-brainer for me to do something on the subject. The idea to involve schools came from the Hackney Music Development Trust."