The living, breathing manifestation of London's multicultural, music underground, UK Jazz has ambitions beyond the dance.
Jazz has become the beating heart of London’s music scene. Endlessly innovative, effortlessly cool, yet accessible to all, it’s been embraced by a new wave of multicultural talent, modern virtuosos carving out their own cultural space in the capital’s underground. It’s the new sound of London’s nightlife. A living, breathing entity that spills out of clubs and bars and gives rise to all manner of spontaneous jam sessions and impromptu gigs.
Such rebellious spirit is not just a reflection of jazz’s seductive, outlaw past, but the sense of freedom and open collaboration with which this diverse generation operates. In short, it is a genuine modern phenomenon, giving birth to the UK’s brightest new musical stars.
Or course, jazz and London are not new to each other. Pre World War II, legends like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would regularly fill dancehalls. By the late 1950s, Soho was a global jazz centre, venues like Ronnie Scott’s and The Flamingo key players in the genre’s burgeoning popularity. It’s been a constant in the capital’s music scene ever since: a raw, energising, ever-evolving presence that’s taken in African and Caribbean influences, Norman Jay’s “rare groove”, and the acid jazz crossovers of the mid ‘80s.
The seeds of jazz’s rebirth can be traced back to the latter, a time when DJs started playing horn solos over house beats and young Afro-Caribbean musicians were influenced as much by hip hop and dance music as Thelonious Monk. Centred around Talking Loud And Saying Something, Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge’s legendary Sunday afternoon dance at Camden venue Dingwalls, a niche was carved where diversity, community and free musical expression reigned supreme. “Feeling over chops” is how saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia, one of London’s rising stars, puts it.
Garcia learnt her trade at Tomorrow’s Warriors, a youth-music programme founded in 1991 by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby, a leading bassist in the acid jazz movement. Tomorrow’s Warriors has had a formative influence on just about everyone associated with the new British jazz explosion. Drummer Moses Boyd and tuba maestro Theon Cross are among programme graduates who’ve hailed it as a place where learning traditional basics are secondary to honing individuality and experimentation. Such liberation gives modern jazz it's vitality; a space where rule-breaking and genre-bending innovations are constantly pushing the boundaries.
Those at the vanguard of such boundary-pushing have recast jazz in their own image. Respectful of its heritage, but unencumbered by the weight of the genre’s historical legacy – and reflective of the diverse, cosmopolitan city they call home. Truly, jazz has become the alternative music of the 21st Century, a joyous, life-affirming ode to the city’s minorities and unique mix of people and culture. London has been an intrinsic element in this regeneration, and not just in terms of pulling ideas and sounds liberally from other genres and art forms. While elements of soca, reggae, Afrobeat, grime, calypso, breakbeat, and dub are swirled through the fresh new sounds being created, the cultural integration of the city has also been the perfect incubator for micro-scenes and DIY spaces where the new generation have flourished.
Nights like Church of Sound at St James the Great Church in Clapton, an innovative live music program that hosts the finest contemporary jazz musicians, or venues like Hackney’s much-missed Total Refreshment Centre, a homely place informed by street-level energy and creativity that encouraged risk-taking and collaboration. London clubbers have also benefited. DIY Peckham all-nighter Steez and Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section, which sees up and coming talent play squat raves and pool halls, are two prominent examples. The latter has grown organically and now incorporates a record label alongside events and radio shows.
“When a project is born out of a desire to make something happen in the moment, it’s development is naturally organic and by definition is open ended – allowing it to become something you could never have imagined,” says Zero.
All these events are rooted in the desire to foster a real sense of community, relying on small venues and word of mouth to serve dedicated local partygoers. “We are attempting to inspire positive changes, and improve not just ourselves but the people that we are speaking too,” say multi-disciplinary arts and music collective Steam Down Orchestra. “Music is universal, and can transcend those limitations of language and reach deeper.” And, much like the music these events showcase, freedom and an “anything goes” attitude are founding principles; Steez is essentially a bring-your-instrument jam session where the only goal is to keep people dancing, while Zero discourages photography, doesn’t publish set times, and gives equal billing to low-key and novice artists.
But why jazz, and why now? Partly, it’s a reflection of heritage as first and second-generation immigrants dive into not only their own family’s cultural past, but the effects colonialism had on the UK as a whole, and underground music in particular. But it’s also jazz’s ability to accommodate huge swathes of contrasting styles and motifs, and to give a voice to artists traditionally denied one. The audience fueling this rebirth mirror this; tolerant, open-minded, and culturally voracious, they’re as likely to take inspiration from Roll Deep as Charlie Parker and delight in seeing rappers like Kano employ Cross’ low end in their live band.
As such, the London sound is less deferential to what might be termed traditional African-American jazz, and more of a living, breathing manifestation of the city’s artistic underground, party music for a post-genre generation reared on the entire history of music being merely a click away. Some, such as scene grandee Shabaka Hutchings, don’t even believe it to be “jazz”, arguing that such a description is overly limiting and underplays the movement’s importance and musical ambitions. “When music is from the heart it becomes a universal language that surpasses the barriers of genre,” says DJ and Brownswood Recordings label manager Kwasiba Savage. “You can connect people from all types of backgrounds and unite them in the dance through rhythms and voices from just as many different types of cultures. It reminds us of humanity.”
In this way, the new wave of jazz echoes the rise of another subculture that was inexorably entwined with London, and an era of societal strife – punk. “Punk is not really a style of music. It was more like a state of mind” runs the famous Mike Watt quote, something that’s equally true of jazz in 2019. “It’s an attitude of ‘Fuck it’,” Hutchings told The Guardian (link) last year. “The musicians are just getting on with it.” “It’s rebellion music,” added singer-songwriter Yasmin Lacey. “You sing from the heart, tell the stories that are real, say what you see, what’s going on in society. There’s a strength in that.”
Certainly, that spirit runs through much of what these new artists are doing; listen to the fervent politics and innovation of Sons Of Kemet, or Poppy Ajudha’s explorations of mixed-race identity and love from a feminist perspective. There’s a sense too that this movement isn’t simply about jazz, or even music in general. Trumpeter and visual artist Sheila Maurice-Grey called it “a new wave of British culture”, and one that’s taking aim at inequality and discrimination in all its forms. “We have an opportunity to create another dynamic that two, three generations from now could be equal, gender-wise, ethnicity-wise,” says Nubya Garcia. “That’s so exciting to me.”
For those invested in the scene, and the music, it all comes back to one key concept: freedom. To be who you want to be, and to play what you want to play. In doing so, they’ve created not just their own community but an international movement, and a genuinely innovative sound that encapsulates 21st century London – eclectic, diverse, and defiantly modern. It’s music for everyone, and these rising stars are determined to spread the joy as far and as wide as possible. Expect this feeling in full flow at the opening night of Boiler Room Festival, where vital collectives like Steam Down, Church of Sound, Brilliant Corners and Rhythm Section host stages that champion the power of community.
Written by Derek Robertson
The Spirit of London is personified by its burgeoning Jazz scene, which has been inspired by the vibrant, contrasting mix of genres the city harvests. Boiler Room and Beefeater celebrate a movement steeped in history, but shaped by the contemporary rhythm of the city. Buy tickets here.
Centred around Peckham, the Boiler Room Festival will push the boundaries of a traditional festival. Four Days. One City. No Headliners