Giant Steps: Diverse Journeys in British Jazz

Chris May BY

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Giant Steps: Diverse Journeys in British Jazz
David Burke
240 Pages
ISBN: 9781908755483
Desert Hearts

David Burke's survey of British jazz musicians of colour does not begin promisingly. The first sentence of his Foreword reads: "Jazz is, of course, African-American in provenance, just as the greatest exponents of the form have been, and continue to be, African-American." No informed jazz fan would argue with "Jazz is, of course, African-American in provenance." It is good to see the fact expressed without qualification, for jazz is indisputably African-American in origin, and what is more, every one of its key evolutionary stages has been triggered by African-American musicians. It is the rest of the sentence with which one takes issue. Leaving aside the need for "most of" to be inserted before "the greatest exponents," what really rankles is the assertion that these greatest exponents "continue to be" African-American. In 2021, there are at least half-a-dozen musicians of colour in Britain—to be precise, in London—who can objectively be regarded as among the greatest exponents of jazz, and who are recognised as such not just in Britain, but increasingly in America, too (the number rises to at least a dozen if one includes non-black musicians).

After the Foreword, however, things improve dramatically. Giant Steps consists of twenty-five interviews with musicians of colour accompanied by thumbnail biographies. Burke is an empathic interviewer and he succeeds in drawing out informative personal and professional responses from his subjects. Perhaps the most prominent strand running through the interviews is the role identity politics is playing in shaping the new British jazz, much as it did African-American jazz in the 1960s and 1970s. The interviews also illuminate the experience of growing up as a person of colour in modern Britain and the attendant prejudices and disadvantages that have to be confronted, the depth of which are unknown to most non-black Britons.

Burke's twenty-five interviewees are: Courtney Pine, Gary Crosby, Gail Thompson, Julian Joseph, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss, Dennis Rollins, Claude Deppa, Denys Baptiste, Mark Mondesir, Tony Kofi, Soweto Kinch, Arun Ghosh, Rod Youngs, Zoe Rahman, Peter Edwards, Zara McFarlane, Camilla George, Mark Kavuma, Theon Cross, Shabaka Hutchings, Ashley Henry, Shirley Tetteh, Yazz Ahmed and KT Reeder.

Among those conspicuous by their absence are Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Steve Williamson, Binker Golding, Cassie Kinoshi, Jason Yarde, Neil Charles and Nikki Yeoh.

The definitive story of British jazz, and the crucial role of musicians of colour within it, has still to be written, but Giant Steps is a useful contribution.

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