Julian Joseph: Joining Jazz and Baseball

Bruce Lindsay By

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Julian Joseph is something of a jazz master of all trades. Pianist, composer, bandleader, arranger, broadcaster and educator, Joseph is constantly busy, always working on new ideas and projects, spreading the word about music, encouraging young performers and generally promoting jazz around the world. With Shadowball Joseph has turned his attention to the relationship between jazz and baseball, bringing the two together in a major jazz opera.

In 2007, Joseph composed Bridgetower, his first jazz opera. It told the story of George Bridgetower—a virtuoso violinist born in 1779 in Poland to a mother who was an ex-slave—who became the star of the British Prince Regent's Royal Pavilion Orchestra and studied with classical composer Jospeph Haydn, but died in obscurity in 1860. Shadowball focuses on another fascinating but largely unknown story, the tale of baseball's Negro Leagues. Joseph's ambitious plans for the work could lead to a major expansion of baseball and jazz in British schools through an inspired combination of musical and sporting education for young pupils.

In a professional career that started in the mid-'80s Joseph, who is also an accomplished classical pianist, has produced four albums as a leader and has performed with players including Wynton Marsalis, Billy Cobham, Gwilym Simcock and Joey Calderazzo. His educational work has helped to expand the place of jazz in schools music lessons and his broadcasts on BBC's Radio 3 are always erudite and fascinating.

Early in 2010, Joseph was interviewed by Stephen Duffy on BBC Radio Scotland's Jazz House program. Duffy asked Joseph what he thought about the British jazz scene and, in his very positive response, Joseph cited the city of Norwich as an example of the scene's strength.

As Norwich is my home town, I planned to open this interview by asking Joseph to expand on his praise for the city. Then, coincidentally, two days before the interview, the 2010 Mercury Music Prize nominations were announced, with Kit Downes Trio nominated for Golden (Basho Records, 2009). Pianist Downes is a young musician from Norwich who Joseph has championed, so was he pleased about Downes' selection? "That's tremendous," said Joseph with what sounded like surprise. So had he been aware of the nomination? "No, not until you told me. I guess I've been so busy with projects of my own... I don't pay too much attention to accolades and prizes. But I'm very pleased to hear that Kit has been recognized and nominated. He's probably one of the most talented musicians to have emerged in recent times."

A conversation between the composer and Downes was indirectly responsible for the Joseph's comment about the strength of the Norwich jazz scene: "I was talking to Kit about where he comes from and why he is so good. It's the same thing I asked Gwilym Simcock, the same thing I asked Courtney Pine. The same thing I asked Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis—the same thing I asked Herbie Hancock when I was a kid. What is it that draws them to the music and makes them develop? That's why I mentioned Norwich in the interview, because as well as Kit, Lewis Wright, the vibes player, and Freddie Gavita, the trumpeter, are also from Norwich. And it's about finding someone who can instill the right values into you and really encourage you. Tim Giles, the great drummer, comes from that area as well. Tim first sat in with my band when he was 10 years old."

Joseph also sees other things that make Norwich special: "Whenever I've played in Norwich I've never felt that the audience was just from one age group. There seems to be a real interest in jazz, in improvisation, and in encouraging the young to get into it. There seems to be some kind of enlightenment there, for some reason. I'm sure that it's just some good people who are interested in good music. Norwich Arts Centre also really encourages good young grass roots jazz players to come there. The people who are booking the talent are people you can trust, people who are inspiring."

"So if I have a comment about the British jazz scene, it's that it really warms my heart to know that a scene like Norwich exists. There are pockets throughout the country where there is this great sincerity. In Scotland, for example, there are people like [pianist and educator] Richard Michael and [saxophonist and educator] Tommy Smith. Places where jazz is not just seen as museum piece music that people don't have to take seriously."

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 Report—and 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 high—so 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 Bates—both 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 one—but 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 skills—how 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."

Interestingly, Joseph doesn't simply see Shadowball as a way of involving children in music but as offering an attractive and exciting way to bring together some key educational content. "The ideas of history, literacy, numeracy, sport and music all get covered. You need numeracy in terms of scoring the games, literacy is aided by using words and music together. Also, the history of civil rights as well as baseball. They're all in there. And it's not only for the kids—adults can also learn from this."

Cleveland Watkiss stars in Shadowball

The Hackney Music Development Trust, based in London, had the original idea for Shadowball, through its Creative Director, Tertia Sefton-Green, and its Director, New York native Adam Eisenberg. Eisenberg mentioned the Negro Leagues to Joseph and gave him some background, before asking him to write an opera. Joseph approached Mike Phillips to write the libretto. "I love the way he writes and he's also a great historian. Also, he writes without a chip on his shoulder, so that this history is for everybody...And I find that Mike really communicates with his narratives."

The team was completed by designer Neil Irish and director Jonathan Moore, both picked by Joseph. Moore had never previously worked with children: "Of course, when he was with the children he was fantastic."

The adult star of the show is vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, who also starred in Bridgetower. Watkiss plays baseball legend Satchel Paige. Again, Joseph hand-picked the singer, who he clearly admires: "He has that incredible charisma, that wonderful voice. He has the jazz sound and the power of an opera singer. My brother James [Joseph's manager] was integral in making sure that all these aspects came together."

Was Shadowball always intended as a jazz opera, rather than a Broadway-style show? "Well, I think there's a very fine line between the sound of Broadway and jazz. They've influenced each other, so a lot of the songs you hear in Shadowball could be in a West End or Broadway kind of show. But what's really important is the sound of the band and also, when Cleveland feels comfortable with the material he can improvise. There's also some room for improvisation by the band although the piece is really quite set because this helps the children to have some boundaries. But the boundaries can be opened up by those with jazz skills. I'm conceiving it as jazz."

So primarily it's jazz first, then opera? "Yes, absolutely. When you think of any opera, the first thing that comes into your head is the music...For me, jazz opera has the sound of jazz—it has that feeling of jazz, of improvisation, and when something builds in emotional intensity it can be heightened or lowered by the skill of the jazz musician, in the way that a jazz performance can be done."

While Watkiss is central to Shadowball, the musicians are also crucial. However, it's not a large ensemble: "It's just a quintet: piano, bass, drums, a saxophonist who covers alto, flute , clarinet and soprano sax, and a trumpet player with lots of mutes." All of the other performers are school children—over 100 children in each performance. "There are 120 all together. I worked with two primary schools in Hackney (East London)—Kingsmead Primary and Jubilee Primary—and the students came from Years 5 and 6 in each school." This makes them about 10 or 11 years old. "Yes, and we worked for about 18 months with numeracy, literacy, jazz workshops, teaching them about the history of the Negro Leagues and about the history of the great jazz musicians."

Joseph also involved the children in the composition of the opera: "I organized workshops where I took some of the libretto and got the children to write pieces with me, some of which I took away and adapted for use in the opera, some of which I didn't...most of which I didn't" Joseph says, laughing. "Basically, it created a great sense of ownership, and linked all the aspects together. I found our lead characters from the children, coached them in the 6 weeks leading up to the performances. In some cases the kids played multiple roles—players, crowd members, owners."

Shadowball has now been performed three times: "Yes, three times for the public, plus a dress rehearsal. They went really well...the kids were absolutely amazing and Cleveland was just magnificent. It communicated the story and it enabled any audience, adult or children, to know what was going on. Being just over an hour it was short enough and compact enough for children to be able to absorb and learn it."

The plan is now for Shadowball to be performed in schools across Britain, possibly as part of the National Curriculum. Joseph explains the detailed plan: "It should go out to 20 more schools in London. The pupils will also form a London League of baseball. Then it should go to around 200 more schools across England and lead to a national league. That's the big talk about it and I hope it comes off in that way. It's a wonderful way to teach children, bringing several things together in one piece of art."

Any plans for recording, or developing the work for further performance? "Yes, certainly. There is talk about developing it perhaps for the West End, because there is so much more of the story to get deeper into. There's talk of making a film version. And I'll take the material and perform it in a trio, quintet or big band format."

Meanwhile, Joseph is already moving on to his next set of projects, which have more of an emphasiz on performance: "I'm getting ready to write another opera—you've just got to keep doing it" Joseph says, laughing. This time, the opera delves into myth and legend: "It's based on Arthurian legend—my own version of Tristan and Isolde.... Most famously, the story has been told by Wagner: but it's actually from Cornwall, in the south-west of England. So I'm going to bring it home—with some jazz. Mike Phillips and I are just talking about it at the moment but I'll get into it within the next few months. I'm also working with my big band, hoping to get out and do a few more gigs. Also, there's some more stuff with the Trio and I'm half way through a Cuban album. I've recorded five tracks in Cuba, with some of the Buena Vista Social Club guys and I need to finish that off. I'm also working on a project with some great players from Senegal."

Joseph pauses, but not because the list has ended. There's more to tell: "I'm touring with my good friends Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley. I have a duo with Matthew, piano and cello. Viktoria has a group including Matthew, myself, Paul Clarvis on percussion and another great percussionist called Sam Walton—we play all sorts of music from Weather Report to gypsy folk to standards. We're working on an album called The Peasant Girl. Is that enough? And of course my work on Radio 3 continues. I really enjoy working with Radio 3 because they are so into music. We're just working on more interviews with great artists, talking about new recordings, trying to bring lots of talented British jazz musicians to the radio to get them heard."

Joseph is clearly a man who is happy in his work, and such is his talent and adaptability there is every indication that his opportunities will continue for many years yet. Who knows, in years to come Joseph may be remembered as The Man Who Brought Baseball To Britain: for now, jazz should be happy to have Joseph in its midst as a talented and tireless promoter of the music.

Selected Discography

Matthew Barley/Julian Joseph, Dance Of The Three Legged Elephants—Conversations And Improvisations (Signum Classics, 2009)

Billy Cobham, The Art Of Five (In and Out Records, 2004)

Viktoria Mullova, Through The Looking Glass (Philips, 2000)

Julian Joseph, Universal traveler (East West, 1996)

Julian Joseph, Live At The Wigmore Hall (East West, 1995)

Julian Joseph, Reality (East West, 1994)

Cleveland Watkiss, Blessing In Disguise (Polydor, 1991)

Julian Joseph, The Language Of Truth (East West, 1991)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Andreas Neumann

Page 2: Courtesy of James Joseph Music Management

Pages 3, 4: Clive Barda

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