Jazz Boom in the UK!


The spread from DownBeat’s October 2021 issue, clockwise: Yazz Ahmed, Steam Down, Nubya Garcia, Emma-Jean Thackray, Moses Boyd and Alexis Blondel.

(Photo: Clockwise: Seb JJ Peters, courtesy Decca Recordings, Adama Jalloh, Joe Magowan, Mr. Labembika, Barry MacDonald)

Midway through the 2010s, the excitement became palpable. A new sound was developing and it wasn’t just the jazz heads who were paying attention. Musicians used to gigging in small clubs were being played on BBC Radio and SXSW joined in, hosting its first showcase dedicated to British jazz artists.

There’s no way to successfully quantify what makes a music scene take off, and the recent U.K. jazz movement is no exception; it wouldn’t be quite so magical if you could. However, it’s possible to observe — with a wide-lens view — some of the factors that made the soil so rich for growing something new.

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, thousands of men, women and children left their homes in the Caribbean, in the process helping to shape today’s Britain. They were encouraged by the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted citizenship to members of the British Empire. Many of today’s U.K. jazz musicians are descendants of this Windrush generation, which brought with them the sounds of reggae and dub from Jamaica, calypso and the early beginnings of soca from Trindad and Tobago.

Within U.K. cities, there is no bounty of space, but a plethora of people willing to bend over backwards to provide something, whether a space to record, rehearse or simply jam. Some of those individuals and organizations are documented in this article.

Streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube have enabled musicians to take audio adventures around the world. Meanwhile, with the U.K. boasting some of the world’s most prestigious music conservatories, musicians have taken to interpreting the jazz tradition through a context of London-centric genres, like grime, broken beat and dub — a cross-pollination of genres and cultures. “I can go down the road and hear Afrobeat, reggae or grime that’s truly authentic,” says drummer and producer Moses Boyd. “Because of that melting pot, U.K. jazz has benefited.” Equally aware of the scene’s eclecticism, trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray describes the U.K. sound as “pop music using jazz language.”

Unlike 10 years ago, it’s no longer surprising for British audiences to see the likes of Thackray on the BBC’s long-running Later ... with Jools Holland show, or to spot Shabaka Hutchings’ Comet Is Coming in the world-famous Glastonbury Festival lineup alongside huge pop stars. While the U.K.’s music media are now embracing a whole host of game-changing musicians, the groundwork has been laid over a number of years.

“The momentum for [the U.K. jazz scene] hasn’t happened by chance,” says Justin McKenzie, co-founder of label and live event Jazz re:freshed, which was founded in 2003. “We were battling against the attitudes of the established jazz scene in this country — we were doing it our way.”

Not to belittle the traditional vanguard, the U.K. has an admirably healthy relationship with its jazz elders. Master classes and mentorship are a significant part of the development of the current crop of young artists, with saxophonists Evan Parker, Gary Bartz and the late Tony Allen all having close working relationships with some of the U.K.’s brightest young players. Many rising musicians are already passing on their knowledge to the next generation of up and comers.

Collaboration is a key ingredient to the scene’s success, with organizations and venues providing valuable space for music making. If musicians such as Hutchings and Nubya Garcia are a breath of fresh air in the British music scene, then Tomorrow’s Warriors are surely the heartbeat. The organization was co-founded in 1991 by Janine Irons and bassist Gary Crosby OBE, the first jazz musician to be awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music. Aptly, it was Crosby’s outfit Jazz Warriors that was significant in an earlier British jazz revival.

It’s not just London that deserves the limelight for pushing forward the U.K.’s sound; Bristol stirs up electronica, funk and exploratory music with a DIY attitude. The catalog of artists on Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records reads as a Who’s Who of Manchester’s enviable scene — with GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet and honorary Mancunian Allysha Joy, to name a few.

DJ and producer Rebecca Vasment’s debut album, With Love, From Glasgow (Rebecca & Nathan), features a host of rising Scottish artists, while the likes of Belfast’s Robocobra Quartet shows us that jazz musicians of Northern Ireland also dare not play it safe.

While each artist that makes up the community is unique in their own way, there’s a seemingly shared belief system; a respect for what and who came before, with a desire to be free from the shackles of expectation.

It’s been five years since a few notable U.K. jazz releases marked some creative forks in the road: Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus (Brownswood Recordings) demonstrated an intersection between jazz and “London music,” encompassing elements of dub, grime and broken beat. Channel The Spirits (The Leaf Label) from Comet Is Coming further forwarded an experimentation with electronics, club culture and pop music, whilst the eponymous EP from Nérija — including members Rosie Turton and Sheila Maurice-Grey — delivered a sound that respected tradition while sounding remarkably fresh with gentle groove. Looking back to 2016 and onward, it’s challenging to place another five-year period in the history of British jazz that has reached so far across the globe. But that doesn’t mean that momentum is slowing down. The U.K. sound continues to evolve and reach larger audiences.

Bring yourself up to speed with the lowdown on some of the artists, organizations, venues and cities within the U.K. that are making history today.

Led by multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Wayne “Ahnansé” Francis, STEAM DOWN is the name given to both a weekly live music jam and the perpetually evolving collective of artists who perform there. Even saxophonist Kamasi Washington has swung by to play.

Moses Boyd
“What sets London’s jazz scene apart,” says drummer and producer Moses Boyd, “is the beautiful remixing gumbo of the diaspora.”

Boyd’s music highlights the culturally diverse sounds that the U.K. has to offer. An alumni of Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Tomorrow’s Warriors, he’s carved a unique career as a musician and BBC host across TV and radio. Having collaborated with Zara McFarlane, Soweto Kinch and even Beyoncé, he’s a drummer who can’t be defined — each project varying wildly from the last. His most recent album, Dark Matter (Exodus Records), received recognition from the U.K.’s most prestigious awarding bodies, including the Hyundai Mercury Prize and the AIM Awards — one of the many signs that Boyd and his peers have brought jazz to the U.K.’s mainstream.

Nubya Garcia
Since emerging with the septet Nérija in 2016, saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia has barely stood still. Fast-forward to 2021, and Garcia has Source (Concord) under her belt, a strong debut album that fuses spiritual jazz, reggae, Latin rhythms and Afro-diasporic sounds. “It’s a collection of thoughts and feelings about identity, family history, connections, collectivism and grief,” she told DownBeat.

Much like Sons of Kemet, who’ve worked closely with London Fashion Week, Garcia isn’t only revered by jazz fans but the fashion world, too — proving that she and her peers aren’t just making an impact on music; they are also affecting broader culture.

Yazz Ahmed
Arabic and Western influences can be heard throughout Yazz Ahmed’s inspiring body of work. The trumpeter’s most recent album, Polyhymnia (Ropeadope), is a celebration of female courage, determination and creativity, presented through her ambitious and expertly executed compositions. Ahmed’s goal? To change perceptions about women in jazz and people of Muslim heritage.

Ezra Collective
The five-piece group is the U.K. jazz scene’s primary party-starter. On the side, charismatic drummer Femi Koleoso is a BBC broadcaster, while keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones also leads his own band with influences from dub and sound-system culture.

GoGo Penguin
Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin had humble beginnings when they released their debut album, Fanfares (Gondwana), in 2013. It was a showcase at SXSW four years later that would accelerate their visibility on the international plain. The left-field piano trio has released three critically acclaimed albums on Blue Note, and continues to toe the line between jazz and dance music, further punctuated by their remix album, GGP/RMX (Blue Note).

Afrobeat, West African rhythms, jazz and a healthy dose of grit are some of the ingredients in KOKOROKO’s sound. The octet expanded its audience when its 2017 hit “Abusey Junction” — part of Brownswood’s We Out Here compilation — went viral; it has more than 45 million hits on YouTube alone. Since then, the band, led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, has been unstoppable.

Shabaka Hutchings
The cover star of DownBeat’s May issue, Hutchings is something of a young forefather to the current U.K. crop of game-changing musicians. As part of several outfits — Shabaka and the Ancestors, psych-electric trio Comet Is Coming and, perhaps most notably, Sons Of Kemet — Hutchings continues to be a powerhouse of innovation and dizzying on-stage energy. Like many of the U.K.’s shining stars, Hutchings traverses music of the Caribbean diaspora, drawing from calypso, soca music and reggae. Sons of Kemet’s 2021 album Black To The Future (Impulse!) documents oppression in a turbulent-yet-melodic offering.

Emma-Jean Thackray
Fresh from the release of her debut album, Yellow (on her label Movementt, affiliated with Warp Records), the talents of Yorkshire-born Emma-Jean Thackray have never been easier to observe. As a multi-instrumentalist and in-demand producer, she draws influences from The Beach Boys and Talking Heads as much as she does from Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra. Despite her success, Thackray describes herself as “an outsider,” but perhaps it’s for that reason that her music sounds like no one else’s.

On her writing process, Thackray offers, “It’s about finding the balance between being inspired and having that instant connection with a little fragment [of music]. The common thread is starting with intuition.”

Yussef Dayes
Drummer Yussef Dayes performs with the charisma of a rock star. Dayes is behind two records that form major milestones in the development of the U.K. jazz sound: Galaxies Not Ghettos (12 Tone) with United Vibrations, and Black Focus (Brownswood), recorded with Kamaal Williams.

Women In Jazz
Nina Fine and Lou Paley create opportunities for female-identifying jazz musicians, providing mentorship and workshops. Check out their impressive YouTube channel for rising artists.

Tomorrow’s Warriors
Co-founded in 1991 by bassist Gary Crosby OBE and Janine Irons, Tomorrow’s Warriors has been a major catalyst for the explosion of U.K. jazz. The impact of its mentorship, innovative teaching methods and commitment to diversity cannot be underestimated. Alumni include Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia.

Abram Wilson Foundation
Founded by Jennie Cashman Wilson in memory of her late husband, the American trumpeter and vocalist Abram Wilson, the foundation provides music education to young people from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds.

Jazz re:freshed
From 2003 until the pandemic, Jazz re:freshed hosted a live event in West London every single week — without fail. They’ve been essential in providing rising artists with live performance experience. Founders Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses, with the support of business partner Yvette Griffith, have been broadcasting performances on their YouTube channel during the pandemic. Jazz re:freshed is recognized as an award-winning label, too, with its popular EP series called 5ives; pianist Ashley Henry, saxophonist Nubya Garcia and trombonist Rosie Turton all have one to their name.

“I’m hoping that we can take this spotlight [on the U.K. jazz scene] even further, to a higher profile than it is now,” says McKenzie.

Total Refreshment Centre/Church of Sound
In 2012, music promoter and DJ Alexis Blondel turned a Georgian warehouse into a hub for collaboration that would become Total Refreshment Centre. During its now-expired time as an under-the-radar venue, it hosted some of London’s most ambitious live shows. It continues to serve as a creative space with music studios.

“It’s been liberated,” says Blondel, reflecting on the sound of U.K. jazz. “More and more, we see jazz musicians becoming producers — Emma Jean-Thackray, Joe Armon-Jones. It’s changing the sound of records.” He reflected on how British audiences have changed the way they interact with jazz, too: “Instead of chatting over jazz with a glass of champagne, now we have people mosh-pitting with a Red Stripe [beer] in their hand — I’ve even seen stage dives.”

It would be short-sighted not to celebrate another of Blondel’s creations, Church of Sound. Co-founded with musician Spencer Martin, the live series — set in an East London church — has a unique songbook format, with artists performing a mix of their own work and that of another musicians. These in-the-round events go on until the early hours, elevated by street food and DJ sets. DB

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January 2024
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