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Soweto Kinch: A Singular Jazz Odyssey

David Burke By

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You have to have absorbed all of the sounds, the tone, the stories, the solos of your forebears, and put them together and scramble them in a way that’s unique and personal to you. —Soweto Kinch
Soweto Kinch was a curious teenager when an encounter with Wynton Marsalis impelled him on his own jazz odyssey. An odyssey characterised by the creation of dynamic new soundscapes in the spirit of the music's great innovators, on landmark albums such as A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block, The Legend of Mike Smith and Nonogram.

"There is a point at which you can hear the music and not really be switched onto it," he tells me in the café of the post-modern high tech Birmingham Library, the flagship project for the redevelopment of the UK's second city.

"I had two encounters that made me want to get every single jazz cassette I could get my hands on. When I was thirteen, going to see Wynton Marsalis at Birmingham Symphony Hall, and getting to meet him after the gig, which was transformative. Myself and a young drummer, we snuck backstage—well, we didn't have to sneak, that was the great thing. We just sort of peered over the window and some of the cats invited us back and we hacked with them. That was really special."

Marsalis had only recently become the first artist to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records, and was, according to Kinch, "a guy of some repute." He carried his legend lightly though on that formative meeting.

"He didn't have any of that grandiosity at all. He just addressed me like an uncle. I think that was one of the great ways in terms of trying to discover what my pathway into jazz was. The question he asked was, 'What do your parents listen to? Do they listen to calypso? Tell me some calypso names I should listen to.' So it was almost parity on a human level. That was quite ennobling and inspiring at the same time. Then we had the opportunity to scat a little bit for him and play a bit of piano. I shudder to think what we sounded like. But it was the endorsement of, 'I know what you're trying to do—keep going, kid.' He passed on a baton there, and he has done to countless musicians."

The second encounter that shaped Kinch's sonic future was with the late American jazz tap dancer, Will Gaines, who spent the last fifty years of his life in Britain before his death in 2017.

"He basically lived in my dad's house for two months, and left a bunch of assorted jazz cassettes. He allowed me to rife through them and discover stuff to my heart's content. That was when I got the jazz bug."

Kinch started out tinkering around on piano and organ, before settling on the saxophone after seeing South African multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku. It wasn't long until he discovered John Coltrane.

"Most jazz musicians, if you scratch beneath the surface, we're weary of making a saint out of one musician, but it's impossible to deny Coltrane's influence. This is my point—every time you go back to the recorded material, to his philosophy behind the music, to his journey through it as a man and as a musician, you can't ignore one of the greatest contributions to the world, let alone jazz.

"But I'm always cautious of deifying people who aren't with us. What they left is a body of really honest work, and maybe you could see 'Alabama' in the context of race politics.

"And also, I don't want to belittle the great contribution his peers have made who are still with us—Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter—and those who came before and the shoulders he stood on. I'm always cautious of idolising or taking out of context musicians, given that they always arise out of a social context and historical tradition. Coltrane was a very notable example of that."

The reference to race politics is pointed. Kinch, whether he cares to admit it or not, has become a figurehead in the awakening of a black British consciousness. His annual Flyover Show in Birmingham—which takes place beneath an actual motorway flyover—celebrates black culture and how it has redefined the whole idea of Britishness.

"I lived in a tower block next to the area and I was aware of 50 Cent posters in the 'hood. This is what they market at us—get rich or die trying. It seems quite a low bar given the rich history in my block. There were jazz musicians, poets, doctors, artists—a vibrant community, in other words. I felt, why am I going to Singapore and touring in America, when people in my backyard don't know what I do? So that was partly a motivation.

"I realised we're not celebrating Steel Pulse as a legacy, or Andy Hamilton, the great things that we have as a community. And then it was about generations—making the space inhabitable, but just recognising that you don't have a position of strength unless you recognise the context and the tradition that you've arisen out of.

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