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 Bridgetowera virtuoso violinist born in 1779 in Poland to a mother who was an ex-slavewho 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 highso 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."