UK Jazz Has Never Been Better, More Diverse and More Open-Minded Than Now

Kokoroko

In 2011 UNESCO, on the advice of their Goodwill Ambassador, the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, designated 30th April International Jazz Day (IJD) to highlight ‘jazz’s role in uniting people in all corners of the globe.’ Quite right too. And speaking from this particular corner of the globe (London), this day prompts me to declare: as far as jazz goes, we have never had it so good.

More exciting, more diverse, and more open-minded than ever before

Before I enrage any jazz historians among my readers (you can be quite a punchy lot), let me be clear I’m not saying there has not been great jazz made in the UK before. There has. Lots. My claim is not only that the jazz being made in this country right now is as good (if not better) as any made previously. But also that the jazz scene (the music makers, listeners and the dancers) is more exciting and diverse in terms of race, age and gender, more engaged in politics and social life, and more open-minded than ever before.

Of course, jazz is black music, one of the crowning achievements-in-adversity of Afro-diasporic culture. But it has been prone to misrepresentation, appropriation and capture over its 100+ years of life. The fact that an American bandleader who was both a white man and had the surname ‘Whiteman’ could be marketed as the ‘King of Jazz’ in the 1930s demonstrates precisely how vulnerable jazz has been to recuperation and incorporation misattribution. Polite society always has eyed jazz with a vulture’s eye, keen to sample its subversive rhythms and harmonic innovations but less keen to confer the material benefits or the credit on the black innovators and the communities which produced them when the lights go up.

Jazz Musician playing Saxophone

Something has been brewing in UK jazz

It’s no wonder that, at times to a young audience, jazz could appear too difficult and obscure, too high highfalutin, too damn white: something for old farts in hush puppies or high-end executive car ads.

Not anymore.

For the past decade, at least, something has been brewing in UK jazz which came of age around 2018 with a veritable geyser of new jazz artists, bands, music, ideas and attitudes. The media called it “an explosion”, “a renaissance”, and “a local jazz movement, with an international buzz” (Esquire, 2021).

This hyperbole was prompted by the emergence of a cadre of young jazz instrumentalists who burst on the scene apparently from nowhere: saxophonist Shabaka Hutchins with his three (yes, three) bands, Shabaka and the Ancestors, The Comet is Coming, and Sons of Kemet; tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia; drummer Moses Boyd; trumpeter/producer Emma-Jean Thackray; trumpeter Yazz Ahmed; tuba phenomenon Theon Cross; and a dizzying array of new bands including the brassy party band Ezra Collective, Afrobeat-jazz ensemble Kokoroko, composer Cassie Kinoshi’s Seed Ensemble; the jazz’ n’ beats of Yusef Kamal and Kaidi Tatham; and the guitar-and-vocals led soul-jazz of Oscar Jerome. 

The importance of the grassroots clubs and venues

Of course, they haven’t come from nowhere. They came from a dense web of interconnected institutions, both formal and grassroots. Yes, jazz schools and conservatories played their part. Many of these players went to the Guildhall, Leeds Conservatoire or Trinity Laban to study music. But arguably more important than that were community organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors, the jazz education non-profit offering free tuition mentorship to aspiring jazz musicians in London for 30 years. Almost every one of the musicians listed above, and thousands more, have passed through the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme.

Cassie Kinoshi and Sheila Maurice-Grey performing
[Photo caption: Cassie Kinoshi (baritone) and Sheila Maurice-Grey of `Kokoroko performing with Ezra Collective at Church of Sound Clapton, 2018. Photo courtesy Mochles Simawi
Just as important as the music schools and even community programmes like Tomorrow’s Warriors, have been the networks of indie venues and club nights. These offer a space for jazz musicians to play, jam and experiment alongside other musicians and other young creatives such as DJs, poets, beatmakers and rappers. Key London venues and promotion outfits include Touching Bass, Total Refreshment Centre, Steez, SteamDown and Jazz re:freshed, and there are equivalents in UK cities like Birmingham, Hull, Manchester, Derby and Glasgow. 

A transformed jazz scene

Never (and this includes the days of acid jazz) have the worlds of jazz been so closely intertwined with the grassroots club and improv scene, where musical cross-pollination is routine. Here’s how journalist Joe Muggs describes it: “we’ve got music that borders on (or overlaps with) ambient, hip hop, cosmic modular synth jams, soulful house, Steve Reich-style minimalism, post-rock, dub and a whole lot more.”

Musical fusion is nothing new. But what is really new here is that after more than a century of domination by male musicians and a situation where the majority of the performers, promoters and gatekeepers of the jazz world were white, this new jazz demonstrates genuine gender and race diversity, something which is reflected in the audiences at the gigs which are the lifeblood of the scene. A core aim of Tomorrow’s Warriors – founded by Jazz Warriors bassist Gary Crosby OBE and his photographer partner Janine Irons MBE – was to bring young black female instrumentalists into jazz. And it’s paid off in spades: the blossoming careers of Nubya Garcia, Cassie Kinoshi, Shirley Tetteh, Sheila Maurice-Grey and many others are testament to this.

Come to the SOAS Festival of Ideas

This year, I am the Director of the SOAS Festival of Ideas, running through November. The theme is ‘thinking through music’ and, since I’m in charge, you better believe there will be plenty of jazz. This will include a masterclass with the innovative British pianist and composer Nikki Yeoh. Plus an in-depth discussion with pianist and critical theorist Fumi Okji about her brilliant book ‘Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited’ (if you’ve ever been bugged by the glum German philosopher’s misreading of jazz, and I know I have, this one’s for you). The festival kicks off on Saturday 29th October with a big fat jazz session. 

We’ve partnered with SteamDown to create an event which will bring their cadre of young jazz talent together with SOAS music students and teachers. SteadDown has been running a successful weekly jam in Deptford for years and has been at the heart of the jazz renaissance. Musicians will come together to play a range of instruments from Africa, Asia and the Middle East that we teach at SOAS, from the West African Kora to the Indian Tabla and Chinese Guzcheng. Jazz doesn’t get much more international than that. So, put it in your diary because you will not want to miss it. We also plan to livestream it for those who can’t make it to London!

So whichever corner of the globe you’re in, I wish you a very Happy International Jazz Day. If you can, come and celebrate this mesmerising, brainy, earthy, funky, sexy and spiritual music with us in November. In the meantime, wrap your ears around this Spotify playlist which showcases music from the new jazz scene, alongside some of the best from earlier phases of jazz in the UK. I dare you not to be inspired.

Caspar Melville is a Senior Lecturer in Global Creative and Cultural Industries in the School of Arts, SOAS. He was formerly a music journalist and co-founder of the short-lived but pretty hip Jazz magazine On The One. His book It’s a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid Jazz and Jungle Remapped The City (MUP) was published in 2020. The full programme for the SOAS Festival of Ideas, including how to book tickets, will be available in May.

Photo credit: Kokoroko press photo by photographer Nina Manandhar.

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