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Denys Baptiste: Pathfinder For The New London Jazz

Chris May By

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I wanted to make an album that expressed ideas about being a black man living in England. The evolution of jazz has always been about including heritage and life experiences. Sometimes in the past in Britain we’ve just copied what the Americans do so well. But there’s a strong identity to the music that’s coming from here now. —Denys Baptiste
Bandleader, composer and educator Denys Baptiste is among the generation of musicians, many of them of Caribbean or African heritage, who pointed the way for the younger players who have emerged on the London jazz scene since around 2015. Baptiste's contemporaries include saxophonists Jason Yarde, Soweto Kinch, Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine, and trumpeter Byron Wallen, and they were the first wave of British players purposefully to include their cultural heritages in the jazz they played. Unlike earlier generations of British musicians, they were not content simply to emulate the sounds and styles coming out of America. British jazz owes them a massive debt.

Baptiste's generation in turn owes a debt to scene-godparents bassist Gary Crosby and his partner Janine Irons. Through development projects such as the Nu Troop and its successor Tomorrow's Warriors, Crosby and Irons nurtured Baptiste and his fellow travellers and then the generation of players who have followed them. Shabaka Hutchings, Camilla George, Binker Golding, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross, Cassie Kinoshi and most of the other emerging stars on the London scene are graduates of the Tomorrow's Warriors programme. Many of them repay the debt by teaching Tomorrow's Warriors classes themselves. Baptiste, who came up through Nu Troop, does so too.

In 2020, Baptiste is working on ideas for his sixth album. He debuted with Be Where You Are in 1999 and followed up with Alternating Currents (2001), Let Freedom Ring! (2003), Identity By Subtraction (2011)—all on Dune—and The Late Trane (Edition, 2017), an exploration of John Coltrane's late-period work and the sometimes hidden beauty within it. Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) was among the albums which changed Baptiste's life by showing him that jazz had the potential to be more than just an assemblage of notes.

The Late Trane was made with keyboard player Nikki Yeoh, bassists Gary Crosby and Neil Charles and drummer Rod Youngs. Steve Williamson plays on three tracks. The album was produced by Jason Yarde. It was a monster lineup and the players remain the basis of Baptiste's touring band, grounded in summer 2020 but raring to get going again.

In this interview, Baptiste talks about his route into jazz and what the music means to him, how it can document the past and confront the present, and how it can accelerate progress towards a brighter future.

All About Jazz: How did you discover jazz and why did you choose the saxophone as your instrument?

Denys Baptiste: The saxophone came first for me and then the jazz. Back in the late 1970s there were all these funk bands with horn sections which I'd see on TV and I fell in love with the shape of the saxophone, the way it looked. I was probably eight or nine years old. I used to cut pictures of saxophones out of magazines and dream about how one day I might actually have one. I was fourteen before that actually happened. An opening came up for a tenor player in my school orchestra. Every year you had to put your name down on a list and say what instrument you wanted to play. And every year I'd put down saxophone but they'd give me a clarinet. I hated it because it wasn't a saxophone. Then one year they said, yeah, there's an opening for a tenor saxophone. I remember putting it together with the help of my teacher and it just being the best day of my life.

I'd got into jazz by then. At home every Sunday we used to listen to Alex Pascall's show "Black Londoners" on BBC Radio London. He mainly played West Indian music, which is my family's background, but the theme song was Sonny Rollins' "Don't Stop The Carnival." I wasn't that interested in the rest of the show but I used to love listening to Sonny totally destroying that simple tune. That's where jazz began for me. I was probably the only kid at school who'd written "John Coltrane Rules OK" on his exercise books.

After getting into "Don't Stop The Carnival" I began rifling through my Dad's record collection. There was a lot of reggae and soca but I found he had an interest in jazz that he'd never told me about. There were two records that I absolutely totally wore out. One was Dave Brubeck's Live At Carnegie Hall. The other one was by Count Basie. One particular track on that really turned me on. It was "Evening," sung by Lou Rawls. There was a great tenor solo. I can't remember who played it, it was so long ago. But it remained with me. It sounded like magic, like alchemy, how somebody could be just making this stuff up. Paul Desmond had a similar effect on me. They did "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo à La Turk," which was one of the first tunes I actually transcribed. And then the solo came along and I had no idea what he was doing or how he was doing it. I just remember thinking how amazing it was and wanting to do it myself.

AAJ: Were there any other key records?

DB: Later there was Courtney Pine's Journey To The Urge Within. He was another massive influence. Just seeing someone who was like me, only a few years older, a really cool looking guy in a suit. And Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage. I completely wore out that cassette. And Sonny Rollins' Way Out West. Wow. The whole story behind it. He'd already done two gigs that night and then he went to the studio and did this incredible piece of work. I spent many, many, many, many months listening to that, trying to understand what he was doing. Then of course A Love Supreme, which changed my life. That album awakened in me the idea of music with a meaning beyond the notes.

AAJ: What was the next significant step in your development?

DB: I started going to a workshop that Tim Whitehead ran every Monday evening near me in West London. We'd do his tunes and I remember some Joe Zawinul stuff. I learnt so much from Tim. He really nurtured me at that point.

I was studying mechanical engineering at college at the time. I did that from when I was 16 until I was about 20 because I thought there was no way I could become a professional jazz musician. I carried on going to the workshops though because jazz was still really important to me. One day I went to a jam session at the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, West London. And the pianist, Brian Edwards, said, you can play OK so I'm going to give Gary Crosby your number. I already knew about Gary and I was in awe of him. He used to come and shop in the supermarket where I had a part-time job but I never had the nerve to speak to him. This was just before Tomorrow's Warriors but Gary had a development band called Nu Troop, a sort of prototype Warriors.

So one Saturday I got a phone call from Gary at my house, which totally blew my mind. He invited me to come along and sit in at the jam sessions they held on Saturday afternoons at the Jazz Café. This was about 1990, 1991. That was the scene for all the young players at time. And we'd sometimes get big-name musicians coming along who were playing at Ronnie Scott's. We had Steve Coleman one time, and Billy Higgins. All sorts of people. And eventually Gary asked me to join the band. Tony Kofi, Byron Wallen and Trevor Watkis were in it at the same time. It was a really magical time for me. I learnt so much. Then in 1992 I went to the Guildhall [School of Music & Drama], where one of my tutors was Jean Toussaint.

AAJ: Please talk a bit more about the importance of including a message in your music, about having that extra dimension beyond the notes. An early example of you doing that would be "Stop And Look Around" on Alternating Currents.

DB: I wrote that with [vocalist] Juliet Roberts. It was around the time Damilola Taylor was murdered. Things came together for me. All the ideas that I'd read in Frank Kofsky's book [Black Nationalism And The Revolution In Music] when I was in college, and listening to things like A Love Supreme and Sonny's Freedom Suite and the Mingus albums. That music had an added dimension for me, because it was written out of a feeling, out of an urgency, a need to express something that these musicians felt was wrong with the world. You can feel the energy in the room. They're not just playing clever tunes.

AAJ: Your next album, Let Freedom Ring!, took that forward.

DB: I wanted to do a project that told the history of the music and touched on those albums that were important to me from an emotional standpoint. I wanted find a music that made a comment on the world. Like, where am I within all this? I wanted to make an album that expressed some of those ideas about being a black man living in England in the 1990s and experiencing the things that I have experienced.

For me, music has to have function. Pop music can quite often be... just stuff. For me, jazz was born out of people needing to express themselves from whatever point they happened to be in their life. Perhaps they're experiencing racism and they need to express what they feel about it. That's the strength of Freedom Suite or Coltrane's "Alabama" or Jackie McLean's Let Freedom Ring—by the way, I didn't know that album when I called mine Let Freedom Ring!. This was music that was about something important, connecting with people and getting a reaction from people.

AAJ: It is an outstanding album. Why did we have to wait seven years for Identity By Subtraction?

DB: You see, I'm not massively prolific. I kind of wish I was a bit more so. But I'm more, when I've got something to say I say it and not before. I don't like to do an album just for the sake of doing an album. That's not great for people who want to listen to my music, but I prefer to do things that I feel are of good quality and mean something. Rather than just churn something out and sell some units.

AAJ: How did you arrive at the theme for Identity By Subtraction?

DB: It was during a period when I was trying to define who I was. The title is slightly cryptic. What I meant was discovering the core of who you are as a human being by peeling back the extraneous layers. Taking away all of the things that you project into the world in order to fit into society. Then you are left with, who am I and where am I going with my music and how do I present myself in the world? For me, it comes down to being someone of Caribbean descent, born and living in the UK but having empathy with the people and the musicians around the world who share my heritage. The album was about how you come to terms with that and how you deal with the world.

AAJ: A decade later, in 2020, the same concerns are shaping the new London jazz.

DB: The evolution of jazz has always been about including heritage and life experiences. Sometimes in the past in Britain we've just copied what the Americans do so well. But there's a strong identity to the music that's coming from here now. I teach a couple of classes for Tomorrow's Warriors—as Gary says, "each one must teach one"—and it gives me great pride and pleasure to see these young people who are as excited about the music as I was when I first started playing and who have similar motivations. They might have come from a country in Africa or the West Indies or India. There's a lot of influences that they now feel confident to express through the lens of what we call jazz. These musicians are not ashamed of saying, look, this is who I am, this is what I grew up listening to and this is how I want to express it.

Shabaka and all of these guys, they all are really saying, look, this is who I am. They're not trying to be American, they're not trying to copy, because they know that for the music to evolve it has to be connected to a sense of place and time, to your own heritage, your journey as a human being. It goes back to the idea of identity by subtraction. Who are you? What do you want to be? Don't be ashamed of the music you grew up with. You don't have to pretend to be Dexter Gordon or Bud Powell. Do your own thing. I think it's fantastic that the young musicians have the confidence to express things that are clearly deeply personal to them.

AAJ: It goes hand in hand with the increased visibility of women musicians.

DB: It does. For me, working with women musicians is not about trying to make a point though. I happen to think that Nikki is one of the most creative keyboards players I've ever worked with. I know that whatever we do, she's got my back and I've got her back. She always inspires me. Same with Juliet. She's just amazing. I don't know how she does what she does. This music is for everybody, not just the testosterone fuelled bands of the past. You've got great bandleaders like Laura Jurd and Camilla George, you've got Nerija, you've got all of these great bands that are coming through. It makes sense of what this music is about. It's about being inclusive, it's about everybody being able to express what they do.

AAJ: Do you have a theme for the follow-up to The Late Trane yet?

DB: I haven't actually got it in the can yet. I'm kind of playing with lots of ideas, trying to find the right one. Edition is on the case about it. I'm a year late at the moment. So I have an obligation to get it sorted. Dave [Stapleton, founder and director of Edition] is a fantastic advocate for the music. The great thing about Dave and Edition is that they're about the artists. I mean, they want to sell units, but they do everything to help us develop our careers. I love Dave. He did a great service to me inviting me on the label and I hope I've done him proud with the success of that record.

Photo of Denys Baptiste by Dave Stapleton.

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