A group of musicians has slowly built a scene that has the whole world listening – and they did it without the help of major record labels, big venues or mainstream media. Some say they’ve created a completely new sound, others that it’s the next stage in the development of a great tradition. Nobody really knows what to call it. For now, we’ll call it jazz. London jazz.
Gary Crosby can shoot the breeze, but don’t mistake it for small talk. On a biting April morning in London, rain lashing the skies, the jazz legend can be found strolling around the Southbank Centre – chatting with everyone from senior executives to young street dancers.
Much like jazz, even his seemingly random syncopations have purpose. On the fourth floor, where he runs a youth music programme, Crosby doubles back on himself to chase after a student.
He instructs him to enter a prestigious national competition. “I’m not ready,” the young musician says. “You’re ready,” Crosby counters. He’ll shake hands with officials, deliver words of encouragement to former students, and give hugs to old musicians – though no one is exempt from a good-natured insult.
The effortlessness at which Crosby mingles with people from all walks of life, fusing them together for a common purpose, can be seen both in this new musical movement and London itself.
“It could happen in any city,” Crosby says. “But it won’t.” He stands outside a glass-walled practice room where a group of young musicians are setting up. In these classes, he explains, there could be kids from five or six different ethnic backgrounds, rich kids, poor kids, the academically gifted and those who’ve been kicked out of school. “The role London plays is that mixing of people. When they’re here, they’re all Londoners.”
Crosby played double bass in British jazz supergroup Jazz Warriors, and the charity music programme he runs at Southbank is called Tomorrow’s Warriors. The new London jazz scene is made up overwhelmingly of musicians from this organisation, founded by Crosby and partner Janine Irons in 1991. Its success, he says, is built on togetherness.
“We take away all these barriers of race and nationality. When we first started there was an emphasis on females and the black community – because we were trying to get that balance – but at present its just kids who want to learn this music. Some swing, some don’t. Some sightread, some don’t. Nobody’s laughed at. We won’t accept that. We have to see ourselves as a community.”
Crosby was born in London to Jamaican parents, at a time where he remembers Southbank as a place to avoid after dark. He believes in no uncertain terms that music saved him and that it can save others. “My thing is: by engaging with art, you enrich your life. My experience of growing up in London in the ‘60s and ‘70s was that those of us who survived the trauma, were those of us that were taught art.”
I’m honoured to play Ronnie Scott’s, but if the audience doesn’t want to be there, or they haven’t come to see me, that isn’t a gig that’s the same as playing in a warehouse where your people are
He stops to watch a very big, very loud band led by Claude Deppa, another founding member of Jazz Warriors. Crosby points at various musicians in the band: “That’s one of mine. That’s another one of mine.” Bumping into a street dancer (and former Tomorrow’s Warriors saxophonist) limbering up in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, “look at him,” comments Crosby. “He’s got muscles in his eyebrows.” Crosby promises to watch his dance performance later that day. He heads down into an underground library that used to be the den for Tomorrow’s Warriors. “Another reason Nubya and all them got to where they are – in this basement, nobody could see us. We could be here all night. And we were.”
Upstairs is a performance by String Ting: violinists Rhiannon Dimond and Barbara Bartz, Julia Vaughan on viola, and cellist Miranda Lewis. The Tomorrow’s Warrior’s string quartet is practising for tonight’s gig at jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. They play My Favourite Things, the song from the musical The Sound of Music, which saxophonist John Coltrane famously covered and made his own. When asked what’s different about this new, young wave of London jazz musicians, his reply is succinct.
“Not one damn thing,” he says. “The press need to use the words ‘new’ and ‘young’, but since I’ve been conscious about what’s happening in jazz in the 80s, I’ve seen three or four supposed ‘new’ jazz movements. It doesn’t go like that. What really happens is that you make a contribution to a tradition. You add on. This idea that you’re creating something new – I abhor it. Because what they’re doing is setting the young against the old. You can’t create good art thinking like that.”
“The mentality is new,” Moses Boyd says. “The approach is new. We can’t invent new notes. But we’re not afraid to mix different things and we’re not trying to claim it’s one thing or another.”
Boyd started playing drums at 13, joining Tomorrow’s Warriors a few years later. Crosby would call Boyd and invite him to the pub to work on music: “A great institution,” Boyd says. He counts among his influences the American jazz pianist Duke Ellington, Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and British grime godfather Wiley. Not long after he got into drums, he was working on electronic productions, the two disciplines overlapping to create one of London’s most exciting young musicians. But even he can’t put a name on what he does. Its countless influences, all integrated, complicated in the best possible way. Like London.
“When I was in primary school,” Moses says, “my two best friends, one was a Rasta and one was from Iran. I think that could only happen in a few places in the world and London is definitely number one. From as early as I can remember, I’ve had different influences in my life – food, culture. So when you throw music in the mix it’s always going to be an interesting blend.” But what’s it called?
“It’s really hard for any journalist to coin a term, particularly for what I do because it’s so varying. It’s music being made by people my age, who come from a very specific point in history and time, when there’s a lot going on socially and musically.”
I head down to Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. String Ting mesmerises onstage. Crosby sits at the bar and watches the quartet so attentively you’d think they were his own children. Afterwards, he’s pleased with the band’s debut at the venue.
Ella Fitzgerald performed at Ronnie Scott’s. Curtis Mayfield, Chet Baker, Prince – Jimi Hendrix played his last gig here. It’s everything you want from a jazz club – small, dark, a bit plush. But the main act, Tomorrow’s Warriors graduate Nubya Garcia, built her reputation playing very different venues.
Her generation of London jazz musicians honed their live acts at places like Total Refreshment Centre, an old West Indian social club in Dalston; the Church of Sound, where an old Clapton church hosts shows that go on into the early hours; and new club night Steam Down at the Buster Mantis bar in Deptford.
“It’s more about who’s in the audience,” Garcia says. “I’m honoured to play Ronnie Scott’s, but if the audience doesn’t want to be there, or they haven’t come to see me, that isn’t a gig that’s the same as playing in a warehouse where your people are, your musical family, they’re with you from the beginning until the end, they’re not a passive audience. Each venue has its own vibe. I’m looking forward to it. But I hope that people are present in the audience.”
Tomorrow’s Warriors, free for everybody, helped Garcia with practice space, find gigs, and get into college. She learned to play with other people, how to be in a big band, and arranging and composition But it was more than that. The basement in the Southbank was somewhere to hang out. Crosby made it feel like it was their place. The importance of that, Garcia says, shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Kids need a place to go,” she says. “They need an outlet to focus on, they need perseverance, all of these goals and guides in life to make it somewhere.” Like Boyd, and most of their peers, Garcia plays in several bands alongside her solo work: “Most of the people I play with now – nearly all of them – came through Tomorrow’s Warriors. It was very diverse, ethnically diverse, which is not always what you see when you’re a kid. If it’s in an expensive course, it brings out certain types and people, and other people are put off by it.”
Onstage, with her saxophone and band, Garcia sometimes seems to disappear to another place. She closes her eyes, smiles often, snarls occasionally, dances constantly. The set is laid-back, now its groovy, now its getting more aggressive. Her connection with keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones drives everything forwards. He’s up off his piano stool and back down again. He sweats. His face twists with concentration. With little looks and nods and smiles, Garcia and Armon-Jones urge each other on, build momentum, create tension. There’s a push and pull to it all: You hear how jazz influences, say, hip hop or house music, and how hip hop, house music and UK club culture in general are now influencing jazz. Garcia has those things you can’t teach or learn – believability, presence. If any of the audience isn’t present it’s not down to her.
“Labels are rarely given to the music by the people who are creating it,” Garcia says. It’s not that we’re disassociating from it. It’s that we’re questioning what does that actually mean. I love bebop and I love trad jazz and I love New Orleans swing. All of that. It’s a part of what has brought me here today. But so has dub, so has soca, so has calypso, so has reggae.
“You can’t put it into words what it is. Everyone’s been trying. But you have to go and be there live to fully feel it. Why is live music still here? We need it. Humans need that connection. It’s exhilarating. You’re completely bare to everyone.”
Trying to put a name on this music is perhaps missing the point. It has too many influences, was built by countless waves of immigration and integration, loads of different cultures and subcultures all tangled up as one. Labelling it would be a simplification and it doesn’t come from a simple city. This music’s lineage is so beautifully messy it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for life in modern London. Perhaps the real question is how did this music happen? Perhaps Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, String Ting, and the rest, would’ve made a life in music without Crosby’s help.
But picture this: Every city has a Gary Crosby, somebody who’s given money and space and time to do magic, so any kid from any background has the chance to be told something life-changing. Something like: “You’re ready.”
WORDS: MARK EVANS