Jazz in the UK now

Sammy Stein By

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The jazz scene in the UK is buzzing at the moment. Clubs whose managers not so long ago were faced with the difficult decision whether to continue offering new sounds to a dwindling audience or turn themselves into a wine bar—offering small slices of live music to appease their consciences perhaps—are finding it was worth hanging in there. It seems free music has been saved—not by record companies wanting to pour in their millions but by the very nature of British audiences. British music listeners have eclectic tastes. Of course, there are clubs full to the rafters every night offering popular music, big names and dance numbers but at the same time a loyal cohort remains who seek something different. They want their senses stretched and have a desire to hear sounds which challenge and kick back in the face of growing commercialism. This cohort was becoming older and less enthusiastic, but recently there has been an influx of younger listeners and new bands, and the industry is reaping the benefits.

London remains the centre of the revival but not the only hub. Across the UK, more people are going to live gigs and this has helped create one of the most interesting and diverse scenes in the world with room for everyone. It also means the smaller venues have found a market. Audiences have changed and young people are venturing into jazz clubs where they mix easily with the more experienced jazz audience. Musicians talk of a revival in the small club arena and the diversity of the music on offer. As cafes, small venues and bars turn their commercial minds to a wider clientele the scene is more diverse than ever with jazz, blues and other genres benefiting. It is the music which unites audiences and jazz is attracting a more diverse audience. Thankfully, the fact that venues have chosen to follow a more eclectic route means audiences get to see acts whose potential otherwise may never have reached audiences. The ripples created by the thriving scene in London are spreading across the UK. I spoke to several musicians to get their take on things:

Trumpet player Reuben Fowler leads his own big band and plays with other musicians. He comments, "The last gig I did with my own ensemble was in Hall 2 at Kings Place, London. It was with my contemporary big band playing pretty much all original material and we were very lucky that night as we played to a packed house of all ages—including some older members who came out to check out a big band and some students on the Royal Academy of Music Junior Jazz course. The gig we did before this was in the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall. Over the last 12 months I've played at the Vortex, 606, Ronnie Scott's, Kings Place, The Pheasantry, The Pizza Express, the Forge and The Spice of Life to name but a few: so many nice venues in and around London. Whether I've played my own material, somebody else's or just some old tunes we all like it's usually fun, well received and to an attentive audience. There are plenty of venues getting live music out there and it's a really supportive atmosphere."

Fowler agrees the mood is encouraging. He says, "I think the scene is constantly changing, and a few people have come up to me and said that they feel there is definitely a wave of new musicians excited about jazz that have breathed new life into the atmosphere. I think there has always been a tradition of new people beginning to do the circuit, which raises the bar of musicianship and attracts new audiences. I know that the arrival of trumpet players Kenny Wheeler, Guy Barker and Gerard Presencer each did different things for the UK jazz scene and in their own way brought jazz music to a wider audience. The thing about jazz is it's such a broad art form. As a rule, people who don't like some of the early stuff might find that they really like more modern, fusion-based acts. I know for instance Troyka with pianist Kit Downes, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Joshua Blackmore have done a great thing for jazz as they have played places that traditionally were not strictly jazz venues."

Fowler is also aware of the growing enthusiasm away from the capital. "I did a lovely gig in Bristol at the Bebop Club with some old friends." He says, " The audience was mainly middle-aged I'd guess with a few younger and older members. Revisiting my hometown jazz club in Wakefield, I feel lucky thinking I was exposed to music in this environment. Although it is a mixed audience, it's full of people of all ages who are all really into music. I think if the scene is changing and becoming younger, it can only be a good thing.I think it's great there's loads of young people around at the moment like trumpet player Laura Jurd and drummer Jonathan Silk who all have something new to say on their instruments."

Drummer and percussionist Pedro Segundo is house drummer in Ronnie Scott´s since 2010 with the James Pearson Trio. He has played and toured with trombone player Dennis Rollins's Velocity Trio. He comments, " The music scene in general is obviously energetic and versatile. In jazz there's many old standing venues that provide quality jazz such as Ronnie Scott´s, 606, Pizza Express, Vortex to name a few and there's other pop-up places all around London that present great up and coming jazz musicians. London at this very moment is very much enjoying jazz. The late shows in Ronnie Scott´s are often packed and the audience is young. Obviously due to the economical situation there are countless cuts in the Arts Fund. It is imperative that there is a financial support for new projects that are waiting to branch out."

Saxophonist Dave Lewis is an American but now lives in the UK. He leads his seven piece band '1UP' and has also toured and recorded throughout the States, Europe and Japan, and made numerous TV, radio and video appearances. Dave has played with John Martyn, Bryan Ferry, Eric Clapton,Joan Armatrading and more. He plays many venues in London including Ronnie Scott's, Pizza Express Dean St, the 606 Club, Hideway and other places so knows the UK scene well. He comments, "One of the major challenges facing jazz venues today is to broaden the demographic. Many established clubs had active members of a certain vintage which had not necessarily been added to by a more youthful crowd. Things, for a while, were not looking good. There seems to be hope however, as the educational system in the UK for jazz is now infinitely healthier than it has ever been and there is now a genuine upsurge of activity and interest from new players and new audiences alike. Long may this continue. "

Nothing can be taken away from the importance of small venues like Ryans Bar in Stoke Newington where free players can often get a showcase in their FlimFlam events. Musicians can play to a full house but also the landlord will not kick them out if there are only three or four in the audience. Bigger venues are diversifying and offering different musical talent a space to play. One consequence has been they have got younger people into gigs. The scene has taken on an energy which only youth can bring. Sometimes, success can mean it becomes more difficult for musicians just breaking into the scene to get a gig but the growth of places promoting much more free music, as well as trendy venues that are popping up, is very healthy. London is proving a magnet for players. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, for example, used to play London once in a while but now he seems to be there almost monthly. Brotzmann himself has said that in Europe it was once possible to set off on the road and play for two weeks at small venues dotted across the countries but now it is harder and you have to travel long distances between gigs in Europe but the UK and especially London is still attractive. Small venues have opened or re-opened across the capital. Examples include The Luna Lounge, in Leytonstone, The Forge, Camden, Hideaway, Streatham , Pizza Express Jazz Club, on Dean Street and the 606 Club, SW10. Kings Place, York Way, N1, is where you can catch freeform, amongst a range of art offerings. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson says, "London has always been one of the most amazing places for free and creative music and always will be. Key players like guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Lol Coxhill, musician Steve Beresford, drummer Roger Turner and saxophonist John Butcher all helped build up a totally ass-kicking scene over the years. London became one of the most creative scenes in the history of jazz and improvised music. The problem is that venues in London always had limited funding."

Tenor saxophonist Mussinghi Brian Edwards was a member of the Jazz Warriors in the mid 80's and of Jazz Jamaica during the 90's. He has played with guitarist Alan Weekes quartet every Sunday at The Haggerston Pub for the past 18 years. He says, " The jazz scene in the UK is very healthy and getting stronger all the time, especially since Ronnie Scott's started having nightly late jams, giving young and sometimes not so young musicians a chance to play on the stage of this legendary club. There are many places to play in London. New places are popping up all the time since they relaxed the licensing laws but it's still hard to get a good fee from many places and sometimes we might just play 'just to play.' The level and understanding of the music has risen greatly in the last 15 years, each new generation brings more highly talented individuals from saxophonist Soweto Kinch to pianist Reuben James and jazz vocalist Michael Mwenso. There seems to be a lot more respect and love amongst the musicians. Nobody cares where you're from or what you look like, it's all about the music. We are just trying to keep it swinging, interesting and fun. Are new musicians getting platforms? Yes, there are always one or two who can't be denied."

Away from London venues across the UK such as Jazz at the Albert in Bedminster, Bristol, and Manchester's Band on the Wall offer opportunities to musicians. Snape Maltings in Suffolk, traditionally a home for classical music, is more open to jazz and other genres now. Players like Andy Sheppard and the Congolese jazz ensemble Staff Bindi Bililli are included alongside orchestra and brass ensembles. Miss Peapods in Cornwall and Ipswich Jazz Club in Suffolk showcase new talent alongside major players. Hubbs like Manchester and Leeds are now important in their own right. Peter Haughton is a singer and blues player based in Leeds. He has been a semi-professional club singer in the northern club circuit and fronted bands as well as teaching. He now concentrates on Northern Mississippi blues. He comments, " Leeds has many venues willing to support music in all its diversity including the Hi Fi Club, The Wardrobe, Sela Bar and Smokestack as well as The New Roscoe, the Irish Centre, and The Grove Inn. There is a vibrant music scene in Leeds, providing enthusiasm for retro-style genre music from people where age isn't a consideration and the audience mix is young and old. At this more cosmopolitan level you are less likely as a player to encounter negative issues as you are playing to a liberal-oriented audience, whose priority is good, originally presented, music. I think the kids are all right. It is, ultimately, your own mindset which describes the current music scene for you. For all its shortcomings, the current advent of venues catering for audiences looking for something a little special or different, the future I think is good."

However, what of the future? What about funding which Gustaffson and others mentioned? I spoke to double bassist John Edwards recently, who commented that Europe was still the best place to play for money. Fowler comments, "one of the limitations of smaller venues is the cost of large groups of musicians. If I stop looking at the scene from the perspective of a trumpet player and more as a band- leader, it's pretty hard as there isn't really the budget. I'm very proud to say that the people who play in my band are some of the finest in the UK. At times, when you're playing with a full big band of amazing musicians you feel a little guilty asking them to do a pub gig for door money. You may feel embarrassed that at the end of the night you can only offer them £20 each or something: I know most of the time they don't mind. We're all on the same road but sometimes you feel that taking into the account the size and reputation of the venue, the size and the quality of the ensemble, maybe it's a little unfair that you aren't paying everyone more and the venue isn't supporting that project a little better. Maybe that's just me, but so many people are discouraged to write music on a larger scale because they know that unless you get funding to tour, promote, and gig that ensemble then no venue is going to offer you a good deal because it's such a risk."

Double and electric bassist Yaron Stavi has lived in the UK since 2002 and is based in London. He has played with pianist Pierre Boulez, conductor and violinist Sir Neville Mariner,violinist Nigel Kennedy and more. He is a member of the Orient House Ensemble led by saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. He says, "I've played around the UK a lot in the last 12 years and as far as I can say there is quite a big jazz scene around the UK and especially in London. I feel the jazz scene in the UK is alive but one thing might put a question on its future more than any other is the audience's age. I have toured and played pretty much everywhere in western and central Europe and a lot in Eastern Europe, Asia, America and South America. The UK jazz audience is the oldest I have met. It is a wonderful audience who kept the jazz scene alive for many years but I am not sure what will happen to the scene in the future. The class of musicians is growing all the time. There are more and more great musicians and talented artists but I think that what needs to grow is the younger audience. The UK jazz scene is living, grooving and swinging. I hope and wish for it to live for many more years. For that it must reach more young people. They will be the ones who will keep it alive."

On funding Stavi says, "There are definitely differences between the funding methods in the UK and Europe. I am not an expert on the subject but as a touring musician who plays very often around Europe and obviously in the UK I see more funding for jazz but also for music and arts in general in Europe than in the UK. The funding is both public and private. I see many more sponsors and supporters of jazz in Europe than in the UK. I see that support in many festivals and venues around Europe. I know that venues and festivals around the UK struggle and sometimes even have to stop because of lack of funds. I don't know if this is going to change in the near future. There are, obviously, also a lot of good people and institutions who are doing great things such as Jazz Services and so on but I guess there is still more to do before the UK jazz scene will live up to its potential."

Saxophonist and composer Renato D'aiello plays in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Finland, Norway, Malta and Japan. For the past three years he plays every Monday night upstairs at Ronnie Scott's. He says , "the jazz scene in London is very lively. The UK scene is very healthy and people are definitely enjoying jazz more and more and the standard of players is becoming higher every year. There are a lot of places where young and less young musicians can play starting from pubs, restaurants, Jazz venues, colleges, village halls and festivals. There are also a lot of foreign musicians in London which a very positive thing. In terms of funding there is a big difference between UK and France or Italy (where there is no funding whatsoever). Musicians in France appear more able to concentrate on their projects, because there is funding in the form of an ongoing monthly award for artists called "Intermittance" which is non-existent in the UK and Italy. In the UK we also have some great organizations like Jazz Services which helps support touring bands and there are also other funding schemes supported by the National Lottery but this funding is difficult to access ."

The jazz scene in the UK has come back to life and with a vengeance. Much is down to the nature of the audiences. Saxophonist Evan Parker commented recently, "It is an amazingly strong and diverse scene that seems to thrive on adversity. The cultural authorities have been ignoring it for the past twenty years, and hoping it would die of starvation; but they have not reckoned with the determination of people to follow their hearts. We play in a very connected way—maybe too connected but the audience seem to appreciate it."

Edwards comments, "Music has always been the antithesis of political power— jazz maybe more so and free jazz even more. The establishment maybe want to keep people drugged up with the banal, working, doing the same thing. Maybe free music upsets that." He also feels live music definitely has a future. " We are all hard wired to gather together. It is the group thing. We thrive in groups and nothing can recreate live gigs....... Certainly in our culture the thing of some people being on stage playing and some listening is all part of the event. It is about all of us, how we get along."

Singer Barb Jungr says, " I think people really want to hear live music. Everyone knows that when you are in a room with something you get something very different than from listening to alone at home."

SaxophonistDavey Payne mentions Babel Records which is a record label founded in 1994 which releases jazz albums from UK artists and has been important for the revival of interest in jazz in the UK. Some of the releases have found chart success for bands such as Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland and the label has been supportive of many artists. The label works closely with The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston.

In the UK, funding is still vital in keeping the art alive but we just do not seem to have the funds available elsewhere whilst in Europe there seems to be more funding available from federal and private sources. Perhaps some of the media companies could step in and help, take a stance, make finding available or perhaps our government need to put more funds into the arts so the potential we undoubtedly have here stays in the UK. There seems to be a lack of funding specifically at grassroots levels and an attitude of letting small venues try to compete with mass market venues offering same old same old in musical terms. If there is nothing down to stop the funding pools drying up, musical potential in the UK is in danger of drifting overseas and we should not let that happen.

With thanks to: The musicians who gave their thoughts and time. Namely Reuben Fowler, Yaron Stavi, Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Mussinghi Brian Edwards, Renato D'aiello, Peter Haughton, Evan Parker, Dave Lewis, John Edwards, Barb Jungr and Pedro Segundo.

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