Paul Jolly, free jazz musician, club owner and producer: Something Else! Interview

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Paul Jolly is a producer, musician and advocate of free jazz music. He has run a jazz club, toured with some of the biggest names, and maintained a presence in the music scene for well over four decades. Paul impresses not only with his knowledge but also his support of new artists as well as established ones. I decided it was high time more people learned a bit about this interesting and devoted musician.

Paul grew up in Luton, which is around the center of the U.K. “I got into music through my school music teacher,” he tells me. “I started on flute and only classical music. When I was 15, the school employed a temporary English teacher – who just happened to be Mel Davis. He changed my life, introducing me to Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell, both pianists and composers. He also taught me about many other things. He was an inspirational force and influenced many others to see creativity as the basis for a true life. Through him I worked with the People Band and we continued to play together right to the end of his life.”

After meeting Mel Davis, Paul told me he finally had direction in his life. Davis was an original and gifted improviser and teacher who could make sense of a variety of musical journeys and had the knack of explaining improvisation, for example, around three or four chords, in a way which was engaging and powerful. Mel started the People Band at the Starting Gate Jazz Club, in North London where musicians joined him and others to play and come to understand improvised music. Mel remained a force in improvised music until his death in 2013.

Paul Jolly originally learned the flute but after meeting Mel he became interested in the saxophone. Dental problems meant he had to give up serious flute studies. However, he studied the saxophone and later the clarinet: Paul is a terrific bass clarinet player. Soon, he was playing with friends who had formed a rock band at school, and they played youth clubs and other venues. The People Band represented Paul’s first serious playing experience, and it is testament to the bonds forged then that core members of the band still play together more than 40 years later.

“My first real playing was with the People Band at Mel’s house in Wood Green then at the Wood Green Art Centre,” Paul says. “I am involved with the People Band right up to now. I also joined Sweet Slag, a progressive rock band, in the early ‘70s. We cut a first album (1971’s With Tracking Close Ups) on President Records, and this is now a cult album. I still get enquiries from around the world. We toured the U.K. and played alongside many bands like the Equals, Deep Purple and Tyrannosarus Rex. Later, I had a band Loverly with Mel Davis, Terry Day, Tim Powell and Maggie Nicols. (They released I.T.M. in 1986.) We also toured in Europe and some of my most amazing nights of shared creativity were with that band.”

Sweet Slag’s album had numbers on it with titles like “Twisted Trip Woman” and “World of Ice/” Members included Al Chambers, Mick Karski Karenski, John Catlin and Keith Arnold. They were described in Record Collector as “a very somber band who cook their brand of progressive rock with more spices than many. Almost all tracks are depressed, bitter and subtly menacing.” Though marketed as prog rock, tracks owed more to Zappa and Beefheart than to the anthemic prog of the time. The songs confronted historical dark events such as the Jewish massacres at Babi Yar in 1941 perpetrated by the Nazis.

There was a lot of free playing on the album, which Paul Jolly has continued to connect with throughout his music. Paul also had a long association with Maggie Nicols, including albums. He was involved in theater shows, including the People Show and the Intriplicate Mime Company and many other free jazz projects – including a long stint in France with an Anglo/French group called Big Chico. He has also appeared in Mike Figgis’ 1980 film Stormy Monday, as part of the Krakow Jazz Ensemble, and as part of the group Mummy.  

Now, Paul Jolly listens to a wide range of music. “I love listening to people like (saxophonist, clarinetist and composer) Michael Portal and obviously old albums especially late Coltrane and Miles,” he says. “However, when I really need some music to soothe the soul its always Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper.”

On the emotional side of performing, Paul says: “My first real understanding of audiences was with the People Band in Holland in 1970, playing at the Paradiso and the Cosmos. It was then I really understood what a powerful communication music is. You can’t engage in improvised music without total awareness of the other musicians. That’s also the only way to connect to the audience.”

Paul ran a jazz club for several years and I asked him how it began and what was behind it. “I was involved, as founder, of the 33 Arts Centre in Luton from 1976,” he says. Established with Linda Farrell, 33 was a charitable organization, aiming to support new talent. “From around 1980, I programmed the performance space at 33 for jazz,” Paul adds. “The 33 Art Centre was a venue that gave many younger, now very established musicians, an opportunity to work outside of London. Some great experiences included a couple of days spent with Mal Waldron, and helping a tour with Art Pepper. We had many great musicians playing there, and probably the highlight for me was having the wonderful Mal Waldron in the club.”

Now, Paul Jolly has a record label, 33 Jazz Records. “Whilst running the club, it was obvious that many musicians didn’t have albums to sell at gigs,” he says. “So, I took the madness of starting the label then. That’s why it’s called 33 Records. Our first albums were by artists like guitarist Rob Koral, drummer Clark Tracey and vocalist Tina May. We then went on to develop creative partnerships with people like saxophonist, flautist and composer Theo Travis, saxophonist and band leader Hans Koller, pianist and composer John Law and others. We’ve now released over 350 albums. In the early days, I was also aware of how many really fine female musicians were on the scene, and we tried to promote their work – artists like Andrea Vicari and Kate Williams. Currently, we are working a lot with Italian musicians like saxophone player Renato D’Aiello and pianist Marco Marconi, and recently released an album with Tina May and the legendary pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.”

33 Jazz records has been key in supporting the fledgling careers of musicians like Simon Lasky (2015’s Story Inside), Marco Marconi (2015’s Nordik) and Kitty la Roar and Nick Shankland have close associations with the label. Their latest album is distributed by the label (2016’s Valentine’s Eve). The label also released material by established players like Renato D’Aiello (2015’s Satori). “Special highlights include 14 albums from vocalist Tina May, including a project with Ray Bryant recorded in New York; Dick Heckstall-Smith’s Celtic Steppes project; one of the last albums featuring Steve Lacy (Hans Koller’s London Ear); the John Law Art of Sound series; international collaboration with the likes of Andrea Pozza and Deborah Brown and many others. Thirty years of album releases have seen my work move from projects on vinyl and CDs with worldwide sales – alongside proper finance – to the current difficult days of downloads and reduced distribution.”

I asked Paul Jolly whether being a producer and having run a jazz club influenced his choice of playing or projects to become involved with. “Now, I feel free to engage in the music I love – so as much improvising gigs as possible and working on projects that really interest me such as a couple of bands like Mantrata (a contemporary jazz/world music project), HO5 and the Monk-inspired band SNC. Being a producer has also exposed me to many fine musicians, and they have been inspirational for my own work.”

Interestingly enough, Paul says he has found the most appreciative audiences in Europe. I asked Paul if he felt people connected to jazz, and what about funding and attracting younger people? “I don’t think there’s enough funding for jazz musicians at present,” he says. “The downside is that bands don’t develop their full potential. The pressures of earning a living results in serious artists having to devote too much time to teaching and playing commercial gigs. I truly believe that music and creativity can change the world for the better. It’s important that we don’t ever let the politicians erode creativity in our schools and reduce the opportunities to engage the arts within the community.”

The People Band were recently featured on the BB3′ Jazz on 3. Earlier this year, the Krakow Jazz Ensemble reunited for two gigs, one in London and the other at the Bear Club in his hometown of Luton. Paul Jolly, of course, takes a keen interest in this local jazz club. “The Bear Club is probably the best indication I’ve seen for the fact that there is a new audience for jazz,” he says. “Many musicians who have played there liken it to clubs in New York. They have created a new audience for jazz by creating a space that’s unique, having a great piano and by treating musicians with great respect.”

Gilad Atzmon recently played there and he said of the Bear Club, “it is basically a genuine club run by a music lover and has made itself into a home for music lovers. The sound is great; it is inexpensive. It is heaven.”

Away from music, Paul is keen on the visual arts, and tries to get to as many exhibitions as possible. He also has a particular interest in photography. Still, it is clear Paul has a deep love of music and especially jazz. His background has given him a grounding and understanding of both the expressive and commercial sides of jazz music, and he supports free music with every bone in his body. He is also a joy to watch perform, whether it is playing sax or clarinet. He has helped me by giving his thoughts on the very first steps I took with my forthcoming book, and his interest and support are valued by many musicians. They all speak of his honest and positive approach, as well as his candid and open advice.

As for the future, Paul Jolly says: “I want to explore some more connections between U.K. and European musicians, with a view to opening up some interesting creative possibilities.” Boasting such a deep understanding of the music and the richness of experiences to share, and a great philosophy on life and music (“wake up every day and do something positive and with love,” he says), you get the sense the future is looking very good.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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