There's No Such Thing as a British Jazz Scene

Bruce Lindsay By

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March and April 2010 were eventful months for JazzLife UK—my photo-documentary project on the jazz scene in Britain. Spring finally emerged from winter's grasp, snowdrops replaced snow drifts and jazz life got busier. Debates about jazz and the media took center-stage, at least for some of us, politicians limbered up for a General Election (I know the result, but I'll leave you in suspense until JazzLife UK #3), I was roundly chastised for my optimism and blatant lack of musical awareness and I was forced into a major paradigm shift in my thinking. I heard some great music, saw some terrific performances, took a lot of photographs and met yet more wonderful jazz people.

In Performance

Musically, it was a diverse and fascinating couple of months, with JazzLife UK visiting a variety of gigs in some unusual venues. Four trio gigs came along in quick succession and demonstrated all by themselves just how diverse jazz can be. Firstly, the Norfolk-based Chris Cooper Trio—Cooper on keyboard, Dave Pullen on double-bass and Neil Kane on drums—played a set of standards in the Norwich Arts Centre bar. Soon after, the Jim Mullen Trio performed at the Milestones Jazz Club in Lowestoft, a coastal town in the county of Suffolk. The club, in the cellar bar of the Hotel Hatfield, has the distinction of being the most easterly jazz club in Britain. Mullen has the distinction of being one of Britain's best, and best-loved, jazz guitarists and picks the strings with his thumb in a style reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. The Mullen trio favors a guitar, organ, drums line-up—Mike Gorman casts off his right shoe to play the organ, I never got the chance to ask why.

Back at Norwich Arts Centre, the main hall played host in quick succession to The Invisible and the Steve Howe Trio, two bands that fit less obviously into jazz but have clear jazz influences. The Invisible—Mercury Prize nominees in 2009—have a guitar, bass and drum combination that derives from rock but their influences are wide-ranging and jazz is obviously one of them. Guitarist Dave Okumu (pictured above, right) has played in Jade Fox and with Matthew Herbert, bassist Tom Herbert was also in Jade Fox and remains a member of Polar Bear, and drummer Leo Taylor has played with Matthew Herbert. On stage the band is dominated by the voice and physical presence of Okumu, but Herbert and Taylor create some gorgeous, mesmerizing, grooves to underpin Okumu's vocals.

The Steve Howe Trio is strictly instrumental. This is another guitar, drums, organ ensemble but its set list draws from a much wider base than Mullen's. Howe writes his own tunes, reworks songs from the Yes back catalog, and draws on compositions from his own jazz influences including Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. Howe's best known as the guitarist with rock giants like Yes and Asia, but his style is rooted in jazz. Drummer Dylan Howe (Steve's son) and organist Ross Stanley have experience across a range of genres—Dylan Howe's most recent project is a duet recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with pianist Will Butterworth on Stravinsky: The Rite Of Spring Part 1 (Motorik Recordings, 2010).

It wasn't all trios for JazzLife UK, of course. March ended with a most enjoyable quartet gig led by altoist Peter King (pictured above, right)—a veteran, Charlie Parker-inspired British jazzer who played the opening night of Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in 1959, aged 18. It was a pleasure to hear King's bop-influenced playing. For me, bebop always conjures up images of big-city cellar bars, but King was playing in the rural Norfolk setting of the Lyng Country Club, a place where fishing and indoor bowls competitions are the main focus of business. This was one of the regular weekly meetings of the Dereham Jazz Society, another great example of a small club run by enthusiasts which brings top players to out-of-the-way places—the Society even has its own compilation CD with tracks by some of the UK's best musicians.

April saw three excellent gigs in three very different Norwich venues. First up was a solo performance from American guitarist Richard "Duck" Baker, now based in the UK. Baker has played in many genres across his long career, from folk and blues to free improvised music with musicians such as John Zorn and Henry Kaiser. On this tour, Baker was performing in a series of independent cinemas and, while Norwich's Cinema City provided me with by far the most comfortable seat of any venue, it did seem rather incongruous to be watching Baker play guitar in a movie theatre. Baker's show, The Roots and Branches of American Music, combined his stories and anecdotes about the music with his dexterous and intricate demonstrations of each style. Jazz featured heavily, with Baker playing Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and "'Round Midnight," and encoring with Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train."

Baker's cinema-based performance seemed even more incongruous when I returned to the Norwich Arts Centre to see Cipher performing a live soundtrack to the great German psycho-mystery silent movie The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Cipher—Theo Travis on saxophones, flutes and looping; Dave Sturt on bass and programming—creates beautiful, haunting, soundscapes with a big element of improvisation and the music was so effective that at times the band and the movie seemed to meld into one single entity.

On a more straightforward note, the wonderful vocalist Claire Martin played Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre. But perhaps it's not so straightforward, for while Martin certainly covers the standards she also has an excellent ear for songs from beyond jazz and readily puts her own personal stamp on the work of writers such as Nick Drake, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and the underrated David Cantor. Martin's enthusiasm for the music comes over on stage, and while she's well aware of the practical problems for jazz in Britain she is also optimistic. "I think we could do with a few more venues, definitely. I think it's a struggle and everybody supplements their income by teaching or arranging," she says, "But there's young people coming out of universities with degrees in jazz now—it's a fantastic thing."

So, live jazz is certainly being delivered by talented musicians—but who are they delivering to? Audiences are crucial for any live art and the nature of the "jazz audience" is a regular concern. Stereotypically, it has an older-than-average age profile, is mostly male, with a higher-than-average level of income and of education. In reality many members of the jazz audience do fit this stereotype, but many do not. The audience is as varied as the many styles of jazz and the musicians that play it. Audiences at the gigs JazzLife UK attended during March and April ranged in number from a few dozen at a couple of club nights to around 300 for the Steve Howe Trio. They ranged in age from teenagers to octogenarians. They were predominantly male, but The Invisible attracted a relatively high proportion of women. I recognized lecturers, business owners, nurses, students, musicians, writers, jobless people, retired people, artists and shop workers among the crowds. Many were very knowledgeable about jazz; some knew little about it and probably would not even have considered themselves to be at a jazz gig.

Many at the concert by Steve Howe (pictured left) were there because of his progressive rock work. Much of the Cipher audience was film buffs rather than jazz lovers. Theo Travis acknowledges this, although he's aware that this is changing: "It is primarily a film audience, but recently we're getting a lot of Gong fans [Travis has been a member of the band for some years] and we both play in so many different groups that there is cross-pollination." Duck Baker attracted lovers of folk and blues as much as he did jazz fans— Baker is not surprised by this, as he's positive about the ability of the audience to take on board different types of music: "Most people just like good music and if you put it before them they respond to the music itself." Cipher's Dave Sturt also turns the discussion around, to question whether there is a "jazz audience." "Do audiences these days just listen to jazz? I think most people would listen to all sorts of different things."

While waiting to go in to the Baker concert I heard two audience members discussing whether or not this was going to be a film or a live musician—so even that distinction was not central to this particular couple's perception. What united all of these audience members—or at least most of them—was that they liked what they heard, whatever its label.

Out In The Big Wide World

Beyond the world of musical performance JazzLife UK experienced a few other events with high impact potential. In broadcasting the BBC played hero and villain. Firstly, it announced that as a cost-cutting measure it was considering shutting down two of its digital radio stations: the Asian Network and BBC 6 Music. The music world focused its attention on 6 Music, a station which offers some of the most innovative programming on radio. Jazz isn't a strong feature on the station, but Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone often highlights new and classic jazz performers—few other radio shows would play an entire Cecil Taylor album, for example, as Maconie has done. A concerted campaign to reprieve the station was well under way by the end of April.

Jazz Services, an organization devoted to the promotion of and practical support for jazz in the UK, also drew attention to the BBC's lack of involvement with jazz and began its own protest—Jazz Off Air. Once again, the jazz community got behind the campaign.

It wasn't just the BBC that came in for criticism. An anonymous correspondent put me straight on a couple of errors I had made in some recent articles. So, fingers crossed, I hope nothing in this article will embarrass anyone by over-stating their talents—and hopefully nothing in it embarrasses me by revealing my own lack of musical discernment.

But it's not all bad news—at least, not for the BBC. In April BBC4—the BBC TV channel devoted in the main to arts and culture—broadcast a series of programs on the Great American Songbook, including a live concert featuring vocalists including Claire Martin (pictured left), Gwyneth Herbert and Jose James. BBC Radio 2, the most popular radio station in Britain, began a series of weekly early evening shows hosted by Jamie Cullum. Cullum is probably the best-known and most commercially successful of Britain's young jazz performers. He's been much-maligned by some members of the British jazz community—popularity and success are not always celebrated here—but he's a talented performer and is both knowledgeable and passionate about jazz. His program has already given wide exposure to other young British jazz musicians while not forgetting the great performers of yesteryear.

There Is No British Jazz Scene

Time for the Major Paradigm Shift I referred to earlier. When I began planning JazzLife UK, from my rural idyll in East Anglia, I glibly referred to "The British Jazz Scene." Perhaps I remembered too much of The Monkees, or The Beatles in Help, but I had visions of every jazz musician in Britain living together in a splendid Jazz House, sharing reeds and strings and teaching each other about all the hip new sounds. Had I given the idea sufficient thought it would have been obvious that this wasn't the case and as JazzLife UK builds its interview collection the concept's inherent fallibility is clear. There is no British Jazz Scene—there are lots of British jazz scenes.

The idea of multiple jazz scenes is a healthy one—it suggests a wide-ranging set of musical variations with the attendant attractions for innovative musicians and audiences willing and eager to explore this variety. There are inherent problems as well, of course. While many musicians have told me that they see British jazz as being in a healthy state this is not a constant across all styles. One first-call player, who asked not to be named, said that jazz may be healthy overall but the mainstream scene is struggling, with fewer and fewer places for melodic, swinging, music. Most professional players need to be able to play across a range of styles in order to make a decent living and few can devote themselves to a single band or ensemble.

In the main, adaptability is something British players have in abundance, but only a small number play across the entire spectrum of styles. Most play across part of the spectrum and their contacts and playing partners tend to come from similar parts. As a result, musicians are perhaps less aware of what's happening in the wider scene than many fans are. What impact this has on the health of the British jazz community as a whole I'm not sure, but it has given me food for thought.

The idea of multiple scenes doesn't automatically mean that there are multiple opportunities for jazz players. Claire Martin, whose own view is that there is an overarching British scene albeit with some pockets of the country better served than others, recognizes that survival as a jazz player isn't easy and cites pianist Tom Cawley as one player whose success has come from an ability to operate outside jazz—in his case, as keyboard player with Peter Gabriel. However, the influx of new music from Europe and North America as well as within the UK is something that she has great enthusiasm for.

As a presenter—Martin has presented BBC Radio 3's Jazz Lineup for 10 years—she is happy to say that she doesn't recognize every musician whose music is played on the show. "Presenting the show, I read these names out and think, oh, perhaps I've [only] heard of one of these people...But I think that's great, it's more exciting." The presenting role is an educational one for Martin, helping her to develop her awareness of the music: "I'm not out every night watching other people, but I'm so lucky, I get sent lots of CDs...I listen to them in the car and get this knowledge of what's out there...It also means that the marketing and PR people are doing their job and getting this music on to the radio—and that's good."

Duck Baker sees himself in a specific part of the jazz community: "It would probably be the free improvised scene, because I'm friends with Evan Parker and Steve Beresford from when I lived in London in the '70s." However, Baker sees links that can draw together styles as disparate as ragtime, folk and free jazz: "In a way it seems strange to me when people say 'Oh, you play all this different stuff...' a gig is a gig!"

Cipher: Dave Sturt, Theo Travis

Cipher's Dave Sturt doesn't see himself as part of the jazz community at all: "I don't really play in a particular jazz set up these days: I'm more involved in different kinds of stuff. I'm not really focused on the jazz scene...but I think there's a lot of interesting people around. Jason Yarde, who I saw the other day and who I was at University with, he seems to have his fingers in lots of pies...his duo with the pianist [Andrew McCormack] is lovely. So there's lots of good stuff, but I'm not involved—I'm just a spectator, which I like."

So my new paradigm on multiple jazz scenes is by no means a universal view, but I have garnered some support. Next time—with more venues, more musicians, an Awards Event and a General Election to report on—I may well have shifted my paradigm again.

The last word this time round goes to drummer Matt Skelton from the Jim Mullen Trio. Speaking about Milestones Jazz Club organizer Stephen Mynott, Skelton said "It's people like him who deserve much of the credit for keeping the scene going, the club organizers and supporters." So much of the British music scene, whether it's jazz, folk, or even hardcore metal, relies on enthusiasts like Mynott or the Dereham Jazz Society and flourishes because of them. They're just part of what makes the scene so great.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Bruce Lindsay

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