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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."

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