‘Things, for a while, were not looking good': For UK jazz scene, a bold return to vibrancy

Not so long ago, the UK jazz scene looked like it was in trouble. Audience numbers were dwindling and it became harder for musicians to get gigs, especially for those new on the scene. The UK was in danger of losing great potential. There were a few thriving venues but the very club-like nature put new comers off.

Gone were the days when many cafes and bars offered a range of music to their clientele. People drifted away, seeking musical thrills in large venues where you could be anonymous. They wanted to see “big names,” hear instantly recognizable tunes and music which formed the backdrop to other activities.

However, recently there is a buzz, an upsurge of hope, activity and something is definitely stirring. It seems that, just before free music disappeared into the history annals, it was rescued and not only that, it was given a new lease of life. Most musicians talk of a resurgence of the desire for live music and not just jazz. From Liverpool to Manchester, London to Belfast, more people are going to live gigs in spite of us being in an age where music can be downloaded at the click of a button.

For managers and smaller venues, however, this poses a dilemma. Whilst most are keenly aware of the enthusiasm with which the opportunity to hear something new is met by members of their audiences, and the potential rewards if the momentum keeps going, how do they initially support new musicians and perhaps genres which attract smaller audiences and yet still make a profit? Do they offer more door money gigs? And for musicians and leaders are new projects, especially with bigger bands, viable?

Some considered the options and bailed out but some made what proved the canny decision to hang on in there and support jazz, blues, folk and improvised music; diversify to attract new audiences and introduce new musicians. Some inevitably failed but others hit the seam, made changes and tapped into the rich and vibrant reserve of talent which forged new pathways in live music, creating a lively, diverse and dynamic music scene which runs alongside, not against the more commercial one.

To understand something about the re-emergence of smaller music venues in the UK you need to realize something about the British persona: Brits love the quirky, the slightly sidelined, left of center kickback to perceived control and commercialism. The more you tell a British audience what to listen to, how to listen and where to buy their music, the more they will seek out different means to do so and maintain their individuality rather than conform to mass directorates. This has been proved numerous times in the past such as, for example when UK musicians blew apart the bans on American performers and recording rights as far back as the 1950s — often by devious means.

This attitude helped create in the UK one of the most interesting and diverse scenes in the world with room for everyone: old, new, improvisers, traditional and background black jacket jazz. It also means the smaller venues have found a market. Audiences have changed recently. Young people are venturing into jazz clubs in large numbers where they mix easily with the more experienced jazz audience. Many listeners comment on the sense of revival in the small club arena and the diversity of the music on offer. Cafes, small venues and bars are turning their commercial minds to bringing in a wider clientele and the scene is now more diverse than ever with jazz, blues and other genres benefitting.

At a jazz gig, now you find people of all ages coming to see musicians of all ages. It is the music which unites and jazz is attracting an ever more diverse audience. Thankfully, the fact that venues have chosen to follow a more eclectic route means audiences get to see acts which otherwise would never get a chance. Musicians have also changed their stance a little. Two years back, several bemoaned the fact that venues no longer supported such a range of improvised, free music but now, more talk of the connection with their audience, sensing what people were tuned in to and are tweaking their offerings to suit — acknowledging that not only the audience needs to change sometimes. This makes for a two-way communication which makes audiences feel part and parcel of events.

Musicians and promoters alike are commenting in a positive manner. Last year, when I looked at the UK scene, comments included: “shrinking, failing, slow, vanishing” but these have been replaced with, “advent, hopeful, driving, lively, dynamic” — from the same peoples’ lips. The language, like the scene, has changed and for the better.

London remains the central hub, the place where the stone hits the water but the ripples created by the thriving scene spread across the UK. I spoke to several musicians to get their take on things.

Reuben Fowler is a trumpet player, playing both with his own big band as leader and with other musicians. He plays across the UK and says: “The last gig I did with my own ensemble was in Hall 2 at Kings Place (London). It was with my contemporary big band, playing pretty much all original material and we were very lucky that night as we played to a packed house of all ages — including some older members who came out to check out a big band and some students on the Royal Academy of Music Junior Jazz course. The gig we did before this was in the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall. Over the last 12 months I’ve played at the Vortex, 606, Ronnie Scott’s, Kings Place, the Pheasantry, the Pizza Express, the Forge and the Spice of Life to name but a few: so many nice venues in and around London; and whether I’ve played my own material, somebody else’s or just some old tunes we all like it’s usually fun, well received and to an attentive audience. There are plenty of venues getting live music out there and it’s a really supportive atmosphere; plenty of listeners who come down to enjoy the music and have a nice time.”

Reuben agrees the mood is encouraging. He says: “I think the scene is constantly changing, and a few people have come up to me and said that they feel there is definitely a wave of new musicians excited about jazz that have arrived and breathed new life into the atmosphere. I think there has always been a tradition of new people beginning to do the circuit, which raises the bar of musicianship and attracts new audiences. I know that the arrival of Kenny Wheeler, Guy Barker and Gerard Presencer each did different things for the UK jazz scene and in their own way brought jazz music to a wider audience. The thing about jazz is it’s such a broad art form and, as a rule, people who don’t like some of the early stuff might find that they really like more modern, fusion-based acts. I know for instance Troyka (with Kit Downes, Chris Montague and Josh Blackmore) have done a great thing for jazz as they have played places that traditionally were not strictly jazz venues.”

Reuben also plays away from London. “I did a lovely gig in Bristol at the Bebop Club with some old friends. The audience was mainly middle-aged I’d guess with a few younger and older members. Revisiting my hometown jazz club in Wakefield, I feel lucky thinking I was exposed to music in this environment as, although it is a mixed audience, it’s full of people of all ages who are all really into music. I think if the scene is changing and becoming younger, it can only be a good thing and I think it’s great there’s loads of young people around at the moment like Kit Downes, Laura Jurd and Jonathan Silk who all have something new to say on their instruments.”

Dave Lewis is an American saxophonist, resident in the UK. He has toured and recorded throughout the States, Europe and Japan, and made numerous TV, radio and video appearances. He currently leads his band seven piece ‘1UP’ but has also played with John Martyn, Bryan Ferry, Lamont Dozier, Eric Clapton, the Blockheads, Joan Armatrading and many more. He plays many venues in London including Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express Dean St, the 606 Club, Hideway and other places so if anyone knows the scene it would be Dave.

He comments: “One of the major challenges facing jazz venues today is to broaden the demographic. Many established clubs had active members of a certain vintage which had not necessarily been added to by a more youthful crowd. Things, for a while, were not looking good.” However, there is change afoot and Dave goes onto say: “There seems to be hope however, as the educational system in the UK for jazz is now infinitely healthier than it has ever been and there is now a genuine upsurge of activity and interest from new players and new audiences alike. Long may this continue.”

Small venues offer free players an arena to get a start. At Ryan’s Bar in London, FlimFlam is a regular event where players like saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, wordsmith and free drummer Terry Day and violinist Benedict Taylor can play to full houses but also will not get kicked out if there are only three or four in the audience. The manager has a convivial eye for musicians trying for different sounds and introducing people to new music. It is not entirely altruistic, because he knows jazz lovers, and that he will always sell a few drinks even on a quiet night. Small venues are vital in promoting the scene. Alan Wilkinson says: “It is important not to forget the small door money gigs like FlimFlam where we’ve all been able to encourage and develop the music for many years.”

Small venues will always be important for showcasing new talent but bigger venues are also diversifying and offering different musical talent. A welcome consequence has been they have got younger people into gigs. The scene has taken on a vibrancy which only youth can bring and which was in danger of being lost.

Success can sometimes prove to be a double-edged sword. Places which offered opportunities for new players initially are now difficult to get gigs in. Even so, Alan, whilst acknowledging this, says: “I think the growth of places promoting much more free music, as well as trendy venues that are popping up, is very healthy and I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in this country when it’s possible to see so many great musicians on a regular basis. Suddenly, London has arrived on the touring scene like never before. Peter Brotzmann, for instance, used to play here maybe once every two or three years; now he seems to be here every other week. Free music needs places where there is no pressure to fill the place. The restart of Klinker in Stoke Newington is very welcome, as that has always drawn a very varied audience drawn in by the eclectic mix of its players.”

Peter Brotzmann himself said to me that in Europe it was once possible to set off on the road and play for two weeks at small venues dotted across the countries but now it is difficult but the UK and especially London is still attractive.

London now has a choice of venues offering jazz of all genres and includes the Luna Lounge, in Leytonstone, the Forge, Camden, Hideaway, in Streatham, Pizza Express Jazz Club on Dean Street and the 606 Club, SW10. Kings Place, York Way, N1, is where you can catch free form, amongst a range of art offerings.

Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson says: “London is the place to play. It has always been one of the most amazing places for free and creative music and it always will be. Key players like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, John Stevens, Steve Beresford, Paul Rutherford, Roger Turner and John Butcher all helped build up a totally ass-kicking scene over the years. London became one of the most creative scenes in the history of jazz and improvised music. The problem is that venues in London always had very limited funding. London has always been a hot spot for the music, partly because there has always been a very interesting infusion of musicians coming from other parts of the world like Jamaica in the ’60s — Joe Harriott and South Africa later on with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana — and the jazz scene was always strong, so the mix has developed into one which is quite unique.”

Tenor saxophonist Mussinghi Brian Edwards was a member of the Jazz Warriors in the mid-1980s and a member of Jazz Jamaica during the ’90s. He has played with the Alan Weekes quartet every Sunday at The Haggerston Pub for the past 18 years. He says: “This is the longest running jam in London and it attracts many young up-coming musicians and an audience who don’t normally listen to jazz as well as visiting musicians looking for a blow after their show is over. The jazz scene in the UK is very healthy and getting stronger all the time, especially since Ronnie Scott’s started having nightly late jams, giving young and sometimes not so young musicians a chance to play on the stage of this legendary club.” Musshingi himself plays there on occasion and says he still gets nervous.

He continues: “There are many places to play in London and new places are popping up all the time since they relaxed the licensing laws, but it’s still hard to get a good fee from many places and sometimes we might just play ‘just to play’, that’s how the Haggerston gig started. The level and understanding of the music has risen greatly in the last 15 years, each new generation brings more highly talented individuals from Soweto Kinch to Reuben James and Michael Mwenso. There seems to be a lot more respect and love amongst the musicians. Nobody cares where you’re from or what you look like, it’s all about the music, just trying to keep it swinging, interesting and fun. Are new musicians getting platforms? Yes, there are always one or two who can’t be denied.”

It is not just London, however, which has seen an upsurge in support for live music. Venues are more willing to take risks, making more music easier for audiences to access. As well as London, there are venues across the UK such as Jazz at the Albert in Bedminster, Bristol, and Manchester’s Band on the Wall, which offer opportunities to musicians who otherwise may be lost to audiences. Dave Lewis recently played with his band in Southend at Jazz Mix.

Venues like Snape Maltings in Suffolk, traditionally a home for classical music, are more open to jazz and other genres now. In their Snape Proms festival, players like Andy Sheppard and Staff Bindi Bililli — a Congolese jazz ensemble — are included alongside more orchestra and brass ensembles. Small venues like The Fleece, at Stoke By Nayland, Suffolk, puts on gigs including players like jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, as well as more traditional bands. Gilad says he enjoys playing small clubs. Miss Peapods in Cornwall and Ipswich Jazz Club in Suffolk showcase new talent alongside major players. Hubbs like Manchester and Leeds are now important in their own right.

Blues player Peter Haughton is based in Leeds, northern England. He has been a semi-professional club singer in the northern club circuit and fronted bands as well as teaching. After a career in music he now concentrates on Northern Mississippi blues. In his experience the audiences in Leeds and the surrounding area are characterized by being of mixed age ranges and made up of people wanting something other than pop/rock standards; people who prefer jazz, reggae, funk, blues, soul, performed by acts who may also be playing their own material.

He comments: “Leeds has many venues willing to support music in all its diversity including the Hi Fi Club, The Wardrobe which often platforms musicians well as hosting national acts, Sela Bar and Smokestack as well as the New Roscoe, the Irish Centre, and the Grove Inn. There is a vibrant music scene in Leeds, providing enthusiasm for retro-style genre music from people where age isn’t a consideration and the audience mix is young and old. At this more cosmopolitan level you are less likely as a player to encounter negative issues as you are playing to a much more liberal-oriented audience, whose priority is good, originally presented, music.”

Peter agrees that the future feels bright at the moment for our diverse music scene, largely due to the quality of our younger generation. “I think the kids are all right. It is, ultimately, your own mindset which describes the current music scene for you. For all its shortcomings, and the current advent of venues catering for audiences looking for something a little special or different, the future I think is good.”

However, what of the future? What about funding which Mats touched on earlier? Many musicians I spoke to comment on the difficulties in sourcing funds both for musicians and venues who might otherwise support more live music. I spoke to double bass player John Edwards recently, who was playing a door money gig in London and was then off to Europe. He says: “Europe is still the place to play money-wise because of the better funding there.”

Reuben Fowler comments on this: “One of the limitations of smaller venues is the cost of large groups of musicians. If I stop looking at the scene from the perspective of a trumpet player and more as a band-leader, composer and arranger who leads their own large ensemble, it’s pretty hard as there isn’t really the budget. I’m very proud to say that the people who play in my band are some of the finest in the UK. At times, when you’re playing with a full big band of amazing musicians you feel a little guilty asking them to do a pub gig on a lunchtime or something for door money. You may feel embarrassed that at the end of the night you can only offer them £20 each or something: I know most of the time they don’t mind, because we’re all on the same road but sometimes you feel that taking into the account the size and reputation of the venue, the size of the turnout and the quality of the ensemble, that maybe it’s a little unfair that you aren’t paying everyone more and the venue isn’t supporting that project a little better. Maybe that’s just me, but so many people are discouraged to write music on a larger scale because they know that unless you get funding to tour, promote, and gig that ensemble then no venue is going to offer you a good deal because it’s such a risk.”

Yaron Stavi is a double bass and electric bass player who has lived in the UK since 2002 and is based in London. He says: “I play jazz, rock, world, classical and any other kind of music I can contribute to. I am interested in playing any good music and with any good musicians.” Yaron has played with Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Sir Neville Mariner and many more. He now plays mainly jazz, rock and world music and is a member of the Orient House Ensemble led by Gilad Atzmon. He has also played with Nigel Kennedy in various bands.

He says: “I’ve played around the UK a lot in the last 12 years and as far as I can say there is quite a big jazz scene around the UK and especially in London. I feel that the jazz scene in the UK is alive but one thing might put a question on its future more than any other and that is the audience’s age. I have toured and played pretty much everywhere in western and central Europe and a lot in Eastern Europe, Asia, America and South America. The UK jazz audience is the oldest I have met. It is a wonderful audience who kept the jazz scene alive for many years but I am not sure what will happen to the scene in the future. The class of musicians is growing all the time. There are more and more great musicians and talented artists but I think that what needs to grow is the younger audience who are interested in hearing these wonderful musicians. The UK jazz scene is living, grooving and swinging. I hope and wish for it to live for many more years. For that it must reach more young people. They will be the ones who will keep it alive.”

That old ugly bird “funding” raises its head again when I ask Yaron about more opportunities for musicians. He says: “There are definitely differences between the funding methods in the UK and Europe. I am not an expert in the subject but as a touring musician who plays very often around Europe and obviously in the UK I can see the differences. I see more funding for jazz but also for music and arts in general in Europe than in the UK. The funding is both public and private. I see many more sponsors and supporters of jazz in Europe than in the UK. I see that support in many festivals and venues around Europe. I know that venues and festivals around the UK struggle and sometimes even have to stop because of lack of funds. I don’t know if this is going to change in the near future. There are, obviously, also a lot of good people and institutions who are doing great things such as Jazz Services and so on but I guess there is still more to do before the UK jazz scene will live up to its potential.”

Renato D’aiello is a tenor and soprano saxophone player/composer. He plays in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Finland, Norway, Malta, Japan and, for the past three years, he plays every Monday night day upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s. He also has residencies in other places in London and knows the scene well.

He says: “the jazz scene in London is very lively. The UK scene is very healthy and lively, people are definitely enjoying jazz more and more and the standard of players is becoming higher every year. There are a lot of places where young and less young musicians can play starting from pubs, restaurants, Jazz venues, colleges, village halls and festivals. There are also a lot of foreign musicians in London which a very positive thing. In terms of funding there is a big difference between UK and France or Italy (where there is no funding whatsoever). Musicians in France appear more able to concentrate on their projects, because there is funding in the form of an ongoing monthly award for artists called “Intermittance” which is non-existent in the UK and Italy. In the UK, we also have some great organizations like Jazz Services which helps support touring bands and there are also other funding scheme supported by the National Lottery but this funding is difficult to access.”

Many venues showcase new talent which is a blessing in many ways; even the larger venues do this with Ronnie Scott’s holding late night sessions most nights to promote lesser-known jazz players who are up and coming on the scene. These sessions follow on from early evening shows so many audience members choose to stay — either for a small fee or for free, depending on the night. Other venues offer similar sessions where bands can play for free in the hope of attracting a new audience and getting paid work. However, this can sometimes be a poisoned chalice. Peter Haughton issues a cautionary note: “Musicians are asked to play for free, with the promise of recognition and exposure (which may lead to paid work). But it has to be borne in mind that the promoter is already getting paid.”

The venue is, of course, also selling drinks and food which is one of the reasons they offer these showcasing gigs to keep customers there for longer. The UK scene is thriving again — and it is a relief but it is partly, as I said before, due to the nature of the British people. Saxophonist Evan Parker commented to me recently: “It is an amazingly strong and diverse scene that seems to thrive on adversity. The cultural authorities have been ignoring it for the past twenty years, and hoping it would die of starvation; but they have not reckoned with the determination of people to follow their hearts. We play in a very connected way – maybe too connected but the audience seem to appreciate it.”

John Edwards comments: “Music has always been the antithesis of political power — jazz maybe more so and free jazz even more. The establishment maybe want to keep people drugged up with the banal, working, doing the same thing. Maybe free music upsets that.” He also feels live music definitely has a future. “We are all hard wired to gather together. I mean, people still go to the cinema in spite of having 70-inch screens at home. It is the group thing. We thrive in groups and nothing can recreate live gigs. … Certainly in our culture the thing of some people being on stage playing and some listening is all part of the event. It is about all of us, how we get along.”

Singer Barb Jungr re-iterates this when she says: “I think people really want to hear live music. Everyone knows that when you are in a room with something you get something very different than from listening to alone at home. Though, of course, that’s also fabulous!”

In the UK, finding from arts councils was key in encouraging early musicians and is still vital in keeping the art alive. Many musicians however, find funding is from an increasingly limited pot whilst in Europe there seems to be more funding available. The problem which remains and which many musicians mention is an almost-complete lack of funding at a grassroots level.

Maybe it’s time for the music industry to step up. Some of our labels, promoters, booking agents, artists and bigger live venues are — comparatively speaking — staggeringly wealthy. They should be supporting the grassroots venues they benefit from; those venues that nurture bands who will, one day, go on to sell out Ronnie’s or even the O2. Without small live venues there is no live music industry. Every band starts there. But for them to survive, they need more than just a week-long spotlight.

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Thank you to all the musicians who came in on this with ideas and those whose valued comments helped enhance the piece, namely Reuben Fowler, Yaron Stavi, Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Mussinghi Brian Edwards, Renato D’aiello, Peter Haughton, Evan Parker, Dave Lewis, John Edwards and Barb Jungr.

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.