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WOKE JAZZ: The Fast-Forward Evolution of British Jazz

Chris May By

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This is rebel music which has not forgotten how to have a good time.
After a lifetime in the shadow of its American parent, British jazz is finally coming of age. A community of young, London-based musicians is forging a style which, while anchored in the American tradition, reflects the modern Caribbean and African cultural heritages of the majority of its vanguard players. The music also addresses the race, class and gender inequalities which are features of life in Britain.

The new London scene is by no means racially exclusive, but it is black musicians who are leading the way. Jazz was created by black musicians and black musicians have always been present in British jazz. Historically, however, they have experienced far less visibility than is the case in 2019. For the first time, too, many of the most prominent players and bandleaders are women. There is much to celebrate. It is all change for British jazz, all change for the better.

This overview of the scene traces its recent history and includes interviews with some of its leading musicians.

  • FIRST SET: What it is
  • INTERVAL: Larry Stabbins bows out
  • SECOND SET: Tomorrow's Warriors and other enablers
  • PERSONNEL: Binker Golding, Sarah Tandy, Theon Cross, Camilla George, Cassie Kinoshi, Ahnansé, Zara McFarlane, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Shirley Tetteh, Axel Kaner- Lidstrom & Eriksson Kaner, Nubya Garcia, Ife Ogunjobi, Kaidi Akinnibi
  • ENCORE: Recommended listening

First Set: What It Is

The developments which are reconstituting British jazz began to make themselves felt around 2013. That year, reed player Shabaka Hutchings' Sons of Kemet released its catalytic debut album, Burn (Naim), and singer Zara McFarlane released If You Knew Her (Brownswood), which included two soon-to-be scene auteurs, saxophonist Binker Golding (pictured above) and drummer Moses Boyd. Also around 2013, a cadre of musicians began emerging from London's music colleges and community projects with heritages similar to those of Hutchings, McFarlane, Golding and Boyd.

None of this came out of nowhere. The post-2013 radicals owe a debt to previous generations of trailblazers, most recently including Denys Baptiste, Jason Yarde, Steve Williamson, Courtney Pine and Soweto Kinch, all of whom are continuing to help take the music forward.

Right now, the new scene exists in a parallel universe to the established jazz world, but it is shaking the walls and bricks have started to fall. The new music has an energy and sense of community that could free British jazz from the wasteland of, on the one hand, museum-piece repertory music for audiences looking to relive the past and, on the other, up-itself ivory-tower posturing masquerading as avant-garde. The new jazz mixes cerebralism with soul and is successfully bringing jazz back to the people. Like the first stirrings of jazz in New Orleans a century ago, this is rebel music which has not forgotten how to have a good time.

In London in 2019 you can hear passionately engaged, technically accomplished young musicians hybridising jazz with dancehall, dub, kumina, Afrobeat, highlife, mbaqanga, grime, garage, broken beat, electronica, techno, deep house and drum 'n' bass. It is an approach neatly encapsulated by Zara McFarlane's spring 2019 single, "East Of The River Nile" (Brownswood), a reimagining of the title track of Jamaican dub wizard Augustus Pablo's 1977 album. The single was produced by McFarlane in collaboration with Moses Boyd and was mixed with the help of Brit-reggae pioneer and lovers rock originator Dennis Bovell.

Nothing like this has happened in Britain before. The closest comparison is with the jazz-dance movement of the 1980s. But that was on a far smaller scale.

Interval: Larry Stabbins Bows Out

The backstory to all this is encapsulated in a seemingly unrelated 2013 event. That autumn, saxophonist Larry "Stonephace" Stabbins announced his self-imposed retirement. Stabbins—by 2013 a high achiever in jazz dance, post-John Coltrane spiritual jazz, free jazz and electronicist experimentalism—began playing in his father's big band in the 1960s. His breakthrough came two decades later, when he was a leading face on the jazz-dance scene as co-leader of the politically engaged band Working Week.

In the years immediately before his retirement, Stabbins collaborated with Portishead's Adrian Utley on the electronica-infused album Stonephace (Tru Thoughts, 2009) and was a member of Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra. Stabbins' final album, Transcendental (Noetic, 2012), made with Spatial AKA colleagues including the British / Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman, was released in 2012. It kicked off with a rousing recalibration of "Africa," the Coltrane tune which had ignited Stabbins' enthusiasm for jazz when he first heard it at the age of 13.

By 2013, Stabbins had become profoundly disenchanted with the British jazz world—by the conservatism (musical and otherwise) of its establishment, by the jazz police's put-downs of commercially successful bands such as Working Week, and by the dead-hand grip of funding bureaucracies such as Arts Council England, an obsessively prescriptive, tick-box organisation (one of ACE's few indisputably valuable initiatives has been supporting the Tomorrow's Warriors project, of which more later).

A press statement Stabbins issued announcing his retirement describes a British jazz ecology in dismal contrast to the one coalescing today. The gentrification, bleaching, intellectual isolationism and subservience to quasi-governmental funders which dismayed him are now being reversed by the new wave of musicians—who are also building careers using the online platforms which Stabbins, and other musicians of his generation, believed were destroying earning opportunities.

Some extracts from Stabbins' statement...

"The music scene has changed drastically over the last 50 years and the cultural role of jazz is entirely different," wrote Stabbins. "It attracted me when I began playing because it was rebellious, alternative, had a veneer of danger to it (drugs and debauchery) and it identified with the underdog (black people in racist societies) and had a generally anti-rightwing, anti-authoritarian political agenda. It also felt groundbreaking and exploratory. None of that seems to me to apply any more either to jazz or its spin-offs, such as improvised music. (I think I prefer Flying Lotus for the groundbreaking exploratory stuff).

"To some extent it's also a question of economics. I'm very lucky to have been working at a time before music was devalued by internet access.... The lack of any proper touring circuit for jazz in the UK [also] means the work involved in setting up gigs is enormous and one-off gigs just don't make financial sense. I've always found funding bodies (such as the Arts Council) arcane and intimidating (and I think I'm of at least average intelligence) and I dislike their utilitarian requirements... I've never had any money directly from the funding bodies. The funding they offer never seems to be worth the effort of applying unless you enjoy, and are particularly good at, dealing with bureaucracy and authority. I probably originally became a musician to avoid both.

"I also have a strange relationship with the British music scene because of the variety of music that I've played over the years. It makes me difficult to pigeonhole.... You know exactly what you're getting if you book Peter Brötzmann or Evan Parker or even John Surman for instance. As a consequence I have the feeling that the 'avant-garde' / improvised music end of the scene regard me as too populist and therefore mercenary and think I sold out, while the more general jazz scene think I'm... too populist because of Working Week."

Now living quietly in the rural west of England, Stabbins is much missed. Meanwhile, much of what he deplored in British jazz in 2013 is being challenged by woke jazz. Stabbins would undoubtedly welcome the presence of higher profile black and women musicians and the new scene's engagement with political issues.

Second Set: Tomorrow's Warriors & Other Enablers

The story of the new London scene would be incomplete without recognising the enormous achievements of two community projects, Tomorrow's Warriors, founded in 1991 by bassist Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, and Kinetika Bloco, founded in 2000 by the late multi-instrumentalist Mat Fox. Crosby and Irons are, and Fox was, inspirational figures whose love of jazz and enthusiasm for nurturing new generations of musicians has been hugely influential.

Most of the musicians making a name for themselves today studied at one of London's music conservatoires—but most of them also passed through Tomorrow's Warriors and / or Kinetika Bloco, where, crucially, they learnt about the wider context of the music, in particular its position in African American and black British history and culture.

Even musicians who did not pass through Tomorrow's Warriors or Kinetika Bloco have felt the projects' impact. "Four or five years ago at Ronnie Scott's I met Camilla George [saxophonist and Tomorrow's Warriors alumnus]," says pianist Sarah Tandy. "Following that I met all the Tomorrow's Warriors guys in the space of about two weeks. I met everybody. And my playing life changed massively. And then I met Gary Crosby and I thought, I wish I had found you guys when I was 15. I was like, where have you been all my life?"

For guitarist Shirley Tetteh, Tomorrow's Warriors was conservatoire and finishing school combined. "I didn't go to a conservatoire," says Tetteh. "Colleges just seemed a bit dead. When I got into jazz, I heard about the Tomorrow's Warriors sessions at the Spice of Life [pub] in Soho. I went down a couple of times and eventually met Gary Crosby. It was a massive opportunity. There was a lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of information, and all done with a family feel—and with an emphasis on the history of the music, not shying away from the fact that slavery played a massive part in it."

The new music resonates strongly with young Londoners, and one of the reasons is that it references histories other than just the white, male European one, and addresses modern social issues. Saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, leader of the SEED Ensemble, wrote about this when the band's debut album was released in spring 2019.

"SEED Ensemble is my way of celebrating the vibrant and distinctive diversity that has significantly influenced what British culture has become over the centuries," wrote Kinoshi. "I also hope that aspects of the music succeed in planting a 'seed' of awareness within the current climate of our society. It's important to me that I shine a light on political subject matter which is often disregarded by the masses and highlight what it means to exist as a young Black British citizen today."

Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco actively encourage a spirit of unity among the musicians they tutor, and this is in part responsible for the collegiate atmosphere which is such an attractive feature of the new London scene.

[On 10 July, 2019, Gary Crosby was awarded The Queen's Medal for Music, making him the first jazz musician and the first person of colour to receive the honour. What Tomorrow's Warriors needs next is a bigger grant from the box tickers at Arts Council England].

The idea of co-operation rather than competition goes back to the African American spiritual-jazz milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chicago-born tenor saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, a leading light of first-generation spiritual jazz, talked about the genesis of co-operativism in an interview with this writer last year.
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