The New Stories of UK Jazz
“Jazz is a form of resistance,” says Gary Crosby, founder of Tomorrow’s Warriors, the London-based organisation committed to increasing diversity within jazz.
“People are political and jazz can be used to make political statements.” In a time of Brexit, increasingly harsh immigration laws and the Windrush scandal, resistance is of heightened importance in the UK. For the younger generation in Britain, this is manifesting in a deepened need for connection. “Jazz is for the community,” 26-year-old saxophonist Nubya Garcia tells us – and you can feel it. Across the city, young people are gathering in packed-out basements to listen to a new avant-garde movement in British music that’s not only expanding musical language, but also bridging generations.
Platforms like NTS and Boiler Room have helped to bring jazz into a wider context. London’s club scenes have long been providing crossover appeal, with labels like Eglo, Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section and 22a (run by jazz flutist Tenderlonious) promoting dancefloor tracks featuring elements of jazz. And in recent years, London house producer Henry Wu has stepped into the spotlight with his jazz project Kamaal Williams. The musicians of the resurgence are young and from diverse backgrounds – mostly the African and Caribbean diaspora – and their style tends to slurp up various genres. “The big ingredient is Afrobeat,” continues Crosby, who is also a prolific bassist and a former member of 1980s group Jazz Warriors. “There is a strong African contingent and they’ve found a way to integrate it into their music.” Crosby is part of the older generation of musicians offering an alternative route into jazz with regular music workshops and live events, making the genre accessible to London’s youth.
Establishments like Ronnie Scotts and the Jazz Cafe are expanding their programmes, the Tate has just announced new monthly jazz sessions and large-scale festivals like Field Day and Dimensions are packing their line-ups with fresh jazz talent. At the forefront of this diaspora-driven scene is 34-year-old Shabaka Hutchings, whose music is notable for its fervent politics. His latest album Your Queen is a Reptile with quartet Sons of Kemet questions the British monarchy – a system that defines societal status by birthright – by dedicating each of the record’s nine tracks to visionary black women, such as political activists Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman. Of his two other major collaborations, Shabaka and the Ancestors centres on South African music, while the Comet Is Coming is a dance-driven blend of afrofuturism and electronica.
Also reshuffling the decks is Nubya Garcia, whose solo EP When We Are combines jazz, neo-soul and gospel with electronic motifs learnt from her mentor Floating Points. Catford-born jazz drummer Moses Boyd is another central member of the scene. The 26-year-old’s sound is drawn from a fusion of jazz, grime, funk and Latin: “My music explores anything from outer space and the galaxy to my heritage,” he explains. Each of these artists provoke, inspire and excite change. Here, we discover how they are expanding jazz’s cultural language along the way.
“I first got into jazz when I moved to England at 16 years old. I became obsessed with the public library – its catalogue was immense. I would borrow between four and six CDs every week for about three years and spent time intensely listening to all these new sounds. I grew up in Barbados, so until I moved, my access to music was limited to calypso, soca, reggae and hip-hop.
My music is intuitive. If I feel a project is nurturing me, I try to make it a part of my life. This is the case with Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and The Comet is Coming. I am trying to push black consciousness into the public sphere. Jazz musicians are people and people are governed by politics. If the function of artists in society is seen to reflect on and interpret the present – by studying the past and contemplating the future – then politics will always be reflected in my work. My third album Your Queen Is a Reptile with Sons of Kemet, for example, tries to use my position of visibility towards offsetting, in whatever small way I can, the patriarchal trends that relegate the lives of these important women to the peripheries of our imagination.
For me, there is a connection between an artist’s vision and the needs of a community. The artist is like an interpretative vessel for society who reflects the audience back to themselves. If we, the musicians, within this new hype bubble, can stay focused on exactly what we want to articulate, and to who this message is directed, then there can be a real shift in the mainstream musical landscape. This is important because at the root of our music is a message that speaks of a connection between people: a respect of the past, the wisdom of elders and the need to resist the numbness that pervades so much of society in times of hardship. This numbness is countered with more feeling, more intensity, and more soul.”
“Jazz is for the community. Historically, it is a celebration or a comment on something that’s happening. It’s there connecting you to something, whether it’s to your ancestors or simply a feeling.
I was first introduced to jazz at Camden Music Trust as part of a Saturday morning music group when I was 12. Later on, I went to sessions at the Roundhouse and I had a jazz group where I met Theon [Cross] and Moses [Boyd]. After that, I met Tomorrow’s Warriors and that’s how I met the people I play with now. We are really lucky that the women I am associated with have a lot of support from our tutors and mentors and the guys we play with. It is very diverse and we’re friends – it’s normal. But it still has a long way to go and I think guys [should be] a part of that conversation, they have not been involved enough.
Nowadays, there’s more diversity in the age of jazz musicians. Younger generations are being represented in the audience and on stage, so I think more people feel connected to it, and the collaborations between genres have really helped this particular type of jazz to come out. It has highlighted the fact that loads of people have said that they don’t like jazz but maybe it’s because they don’t know what jazz is, beyond swing or traditional music.
I have so many visions that words are not good enough to express – I’d rather let the music do the talking. I just want to collaborate as much as possible while remaining with the musicians I’m working with now. I want to write music that means something. There’s a lot of turmoil all around but there’s also a lot of joy, too. People want to come to live gigs to feel something, otherwise, they’d just listen to it in their rooms. People are aching for connection – I want to continue creating something that makes people feel.”
“It’s hard to pin the resurgence of jazz down to one factor. The way we consume music is very different these days – playlist-driven jazz has changed the way people see jazz and who hears it. Cosigns from people like Kendrick Lamar and David Bowie have given a great spotlight to artists like Kamasi Washington and Donny McCaslin, and opened the public to more leftfield sounds.
My music explores anything from space and the galaxy to my heritage. I am inspired by so many people like Duke Ellington, Bob Marley, Björk, MF Doom, Tupac, Squarepusher, Kate Bush and Andre 3000 – I love it all. As I’ve grown, I’ve learned and absorbed more influences into my writing and production. Recently, I’ve gotten really into modular synths, ambient sounds and punk music.
I’m glad to be a part of the creativity happening at the moment – I think the demographic of listeners, as well as the spaces it inhabits, has changed for the better. Everything is more in sync and you can go to clubs or raves, or larger festivals like Field Day, and listen to jazz. It wasn’t like that when I came up. That representation is shifting everyone’s perspective and is constantly developing the genre musically and aesthetically.
Jazz is no longer seen as elitist and specialist music for concert halls and jazz clubs. An event like Steam Down in Deptford will show you how the music has returned to the people – we put on our own gigs and record and play with each other, pooling our resources and time to be more self-sufficient. Ultimately, we thought to change the status quo and do it ourselves.”
Photography: Jackson Bowley