© STUART NICHOLSON (2009)
There’s currently a buzz about British jazz. It’s on a roll. New bands and fresh faces that demand attention seem to be popping up every month. No sooner do you get a handle on one group of musicians, than there’s another, then another to check-out.
Bands adopting rock-style names like Dog Soup, Led Bib, Fraud, Gemini, Blink and Outhouse are playing in London clubs and pubs where the mere mention of the word “jazz” would normally have had their young clientele jumping out of the window. But instead they are queuing up to get in, attracted by their post-punk attitude and exiting energy.
Highly successful musician’s collectives such as F-ire and Loop and the scene around Tomorrow’s Warriors and their inspirational father figure Gary Crosby are all part of a diverse scene that is giving jazz a profile in the United Kingdom it has not enjoyed since the popularity of Courtney Pine, the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes in the 1980s. Such is the upswing of interest, a jazz-shy media have been forced to sit up and take notice as bands such as Polar Bear, Portico Quartet and the Basquiat Strings and musicians such as Zoe Rahman and Soweto Kinch have popped up as nominees in the UK’s premier pop showcase, the annual Mercury Prize.
Older generations of British jazz musicians are also enjoying increasing curiosity in their work from younger generations of fans. “The UK scene is as exciting as I can remember it,” says 50 year-old trumpeter Guy Barker, famous for the dazzling trumpet solo in the hit movie The Talented Mr. Ripley. “There are some wonderful new young musicians coming through.”
Call into Dalston’s Vortex jazz club, one of the key venues in the vibrant London scene, and you’ll find it full to bursting most nights of the week. “There’s been a distinct broadening of the audience into more diverse and younger fans as well as a plethora of young musicians,” says Oliver Weindling, venue director and proprietor of Babel Records, the highly successful UK independent jazz label. “They don’t seem intimidated by the risk taking nature of the music and this has not been the case for the past 15 years or so.”
If there was just one rough-and-ready guide to the state of the nation’s jazz health, then most people would probably agree it might be measured by the success of the London Jazz Festival, the UK’s premier jazz event produced in association with BBC Radio 3. In the aftermath of the 2007 festival, festival organiser John Cumming was able to report that almost every one of their ticketed concerts in places such as the Barbican and the Southbank Centre sell-out. The festival’s association with the BBC meant that in 2007/8 an incredible 2 million people heard music from key concerts, broadcast on BBC radio and television and through the BBC’s website, in addition to the 150,000 or so fans attending the live events.
As far as snapshots go, the London Jazz Festival would seem to present a buoyant picture of the UK jazz scene, something that was underlined by the first ever British Jazz Expo at the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) meeting held in Toronto in early 2008. Organised by Jazz Services, this event saw a strong contingent of UK jazz musicians including Norma Winstone, Martin Taylor, Tommy Smith's Youth Jazz Orchestra and Empirical, take the event by storm, stunning a predominantly American and Canadian audience of delegates and fans, “The British showcase at IAJE made a great impression on the largely North American audience,” said Dr Catherine Tackley of the Open University and a panel moderator at the event. “The strength of British jazz education was clearly demonstrated by the performances of young musicians studying at UK institutions. The showcase highlighted the depth and quality of the current scene.”
But the upswing of interest in jazz is not just a London phenomena. Across the country burgeoning new jazz scenes are developing in cities with a jazz conservatory such as Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham. “The Cardiff scene is very healthy, a lot of it is people who have been through the Welsh College of Music and Drama, incredible players who will make their mark, I’m sure,” says pianist Dave Stapleton, an important young pianist emerging from the South Wales scene.
It all seems a far cry from when, not too long ago, one reviewer in a leading American jazz magazine claimed John Chilton’s reference work The Who’s Who of British Jazz was about as useful as a digest of Swiss naval victories. While it might have got a few cheap laughs, it was symptomatic of the kind of profile jazz beyond Manhattan Island enjoyed within the USA.
Now all that’s beginning to change. For example, in late September 2007 the Center for Jazz Studies at New York's Columbia University organised a conference about “Jazz in the Global Age” involving key New York jazz journalists and representatives from 16 countries, an event that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.
At the North Sea Jazz Festival (one of the biggest festivals in the world) held annually in Rotterdam, European jazz was a major strand for the first time ever in 2007, its programme notes pointing out, “The sleeping giant of European jazz is awakening.” As if to underline this, the young British band Empirical won the European Broadcasting Union’s European Jazz Competition held on the second night of the 2007 festival, an exciting new event designed to identify exciting, up and coming European jazz talent.
For many observers, it came as no surprise a British band should have won. British jazz musicians have, next to the American jazz greats, exerted a significant influence on jazz in Europe. Part of the reason is Britain’s long engagement with jazz, which has its roots in a European fascination with American culture that began to take hold in the latter half of the 19th century.
- FIRST STIRRINGS & THE ODJB IN BRITAIN
- DANCE BANDS: AMBROSE, LEW STONE, NAT GONELLA
- THE ‘TRAD’ BOOM: GEORGE WEBB, HUMPHREY LYTTELTON, KEN COLYER
- BRITISH BEBOP: JOHN DANKWORTH AND RONNIE SCOTT
- MODERNISM CONTINUED: TUBBY HAYES AND JOE HARRIOTT
- BRITAIN FINDS ITS VOICE: MICHAEL GARRICK, STAN TRACEY, MIKE WESTBROOK, JOHN McLAUGHLIN
- BIG BANDS REINVENTED: MIKE GIBBS AND NEIL ARDLEY
- UK JAZZ MUSICIANS IN USA: FROM GEORGE SHEARING TO GUY BARKER
- BRITISH FREE SCENE: EVAN PARKER AND DEREK BAILEY
- FUSION: ALEXIS KORNER, SOFT MACHINE, BILL BRUFORD
- ‘THE NEW JAZZ’: JAZZ WARRIORS AND LOOSE TUBES
- CHART SUCCESS IN THE 1990s: Us3 AND GERARD PRESENCER
- COLLECTIVES: F-IRE AND LOOP
- THE CURRENT SCENE
- UK JAZZ PIANO
- UK JAZZ GUITAR
- JAZZ SINGERS
- UK JAZZ: NATIONAL AND REGIONAL SCENES
- FINAL WORDS
The Short History of British Jazz was written by Professor Stuart Nicholson for the 'Brit Jazz Breaks Out' brochure that accompanied the Brit Jazz Showcase at the IAJE in Toronto in 2008. A small amount of editing took place in 2009 and in 2011 to present it for the website - this included the chapter divisions above to allow easy navigation.