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."


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