Cape Town Conversations 1: no borders for Black British jazz

A diverse crew from the new UK jazz scene excited Cape Town this year. But how did their distinctive, diverse sounds emerge?

The most recent tune UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia composed, she tells me, “was inspired by living in London.

Nubya Garcia (3rd from right) with another of the outfits she works with: Nerija

“I tour so much I’m hardly there any more. When you are, you get used to that rat-race, mouse-wheel, ridiculous pace of the life. Then, when you’re away and come back, it really hits you. My starting points for composing are different for every tune I write, but that one started with a bass-line…”

Garcia is by no means the first musician to draw music from the feel of London. At this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival, she was one of a powerful contingent of visiting jazz players whose heritage lies in the historic communities of colour of Britain’s big cities. Like Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchings before them, the music of Garcia, Moses Boyd and Alfa Mist was welcomed by audiences because it was crammed with tough ideas and playing, yet completely accessible – and paid no heed at all to meaningless genre walls.

A hundred year tradition

“Black British jazz” – like “African Jazz” when Todd Matshikiza first used the term back in 1957 – crams into inadequate words a multi-voiced, distinctive jazz tradition whose roots can be traced back nearly a hundred years. As in America and South Africa, its roots weave back to early dance and swing bands. And the fearless musical boundary-breaking isn’t new.

Imperialism, colonialism and racism cloud that history, of course. But while South Africa’s white musicians’ union spent vast energies excluding black players from lucrative city gigs, in the early Jazz Age its British counterpart had other worries. Invading, high-wage Americans playing this new music seemed more threatening than black citizens of countries in the then British Empire. (It became the Commonwealth in 1931.) So, from the 1920s, performance spaces opened up for skilled black musicians, especially from the Caribbean. (In fact, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the Welsh seaport of Cardiff – not London – had the oldest and largest black British community and that left a musical imprint too, in the emergence of hugely successful pop singers such as Shirley Bassey.)

Swing bands of the 1930s

Leslie Thompson

Black players led some of the most successful UK dance bands of those early years. Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson recorded his memories in his book Swing from a Small Island ( ). Urbane Grenada-born pianist “Hutch” Hutchinson scandalised English racists as he found favour among the aristocratic socialites who swarmed the original Nest Club. During World War II, Guyanan bandleader Ken Johnson – an admirer of Marcus Garvey, who inspired Johnson’s preference for all-black ensembles – scored a regular gig broadcast by the BBC from the prestigious Café de Paris. It was black music that comforted Londoners as they huddled over their radios during the Blitz. Johnson and several members of his band died when a German bomb scored a direct hit on the Café de Paris in 1941.

Free form and fusions

Shake Keane

In the post-war years, Britain’s drive to attract cheap labour from the Commonwealth for reconstruction and industrial growth brought in more skilled musicians too. Some had to combine hard work in an industrial day job with music by night; others pursued the path of precarious professionalism in a deeply racist social environment. There were calypsonians, and musicians working across pop styles such as bluebeat, ska and rock steady and, like trombonist Rico Rodriguez who arrived in 1961, they often jammed where jazz was played too – rare, undiscovered catalogue items featuring this boundary-free music are still occasionally coming to light.

Joe Harriott

But for jazz fans, the most famous name is that of saxophonist Joe Harriott, who played searching free jazz

and challenged genre boundaries, collaborating with John Mayer for the Indo-Jazz Fusions Others included trumpeter and poet Ellsworth “Shake” Keane, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who headlined Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in 1964.

Africa rising

KK Lond 61 playbill
The original 1961 London playbill for King Kong

In 1961, the South African musical King Kong toured London, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa remembers how West Indian musicians in the theatre orchestra sought insight into South African jazz. “I particularly remember Paul Peterson who was a trumpeter…and we used to try and exchange ideas with them…they were kind of interested, always asking Mackay [Davashe] what’s happening now in the music, and why this, and how this?” By the mid-60s more South Africans had gone into exile in the UK: reedman Dudu Pukwana and others in ensembles around pianist Chris McGregor. Jazz photojournalist Val Wilmer noted how these South Africans “completely overturned” the London scene, and added their ideas to the collaborations among black musicians. By 1969, other pan-African influences were sounding as well, with the foundation of Osibisa by musicians of Afro-Caribbean and West African origin African independence and the striving for self-reliance was supporting strong national music scenes across the continent.

Warriors then and tomorrow

Through the 1970s and 1980s this polyphony grew. The children of those earlier generations of migrants found their own voices as young black Britons, absorbing and re-visioning all the musics UK cities had to offer. That was the London jazz scene I was part of. Aspiring young players crate-dived the record shops for Trane, Ornette and Monk. The lineup at the cavernous 100 Club on Oxford Street featured South African bands headlined by, for example, Dudu Pukwana, but onstage you could find everybody from British reedman Mike Osborne to Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett to Ghanaian saxophonist George Lee. Younger players jumped musical fences with cheerful abandon; Rip Rig and Panic combined Mark Springer’s explicitly Abdullah Ibrahim-inspired piano, Sean Oliver’s dub-punk bass and Neneh Cherry’s multi-culti vocals, with a trumpet guest who might be her stepdad, Don Cherry, or South African Dave Defries.

Rip Rig & Panic: Sean Oliver and Neneh Cherry

Out of that era, the bands and individuals acknowledged as the direct mentors and inspirers of today’s generation of new musicians emerged. Most notable was the collective of black, British-born players, the Jazz Warriors , co-founded in the mid 1980s by, among others, bassist Gary Crosby and reedman Steve Williamson. (Again, the jazz label wasn’t exclusionary. Many of the Warriors worked fluidly across many music scenes; Williamson’s first band had been reggae outfit Misty in Roots.)

From there, the musical lineage – Pine, Kinch, down the line to Hutchings, Boyd and Garcia – is better known in the rest of the world. Garcia told music site The Quietus that Crosby’s successor band to the Jazz Warriors – Tomorrow’s Warriors, established in 1991 – “basically gave birth to the [current] scene”. And it was a scene that grew out of collective efforts, self-organisation, mentorship freely given and ideas freely shared. The scene is much more de-centred than in the 1970s, with pop-up events in multiple South London suburbs characterised by their own crews, loyalties and sonic concepts – but the small pop-up is the way to go when resources are tight and the desire to make music urgent.

Crosby today
Bassist Gary Crosby today

In these newer formations, the patriarchy of those 1930s dance bands – where women were only seen as vocalists – finds that stance untenable, faced with bands like the female-led  Nerija, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, and more prominent women players. (It’s a pity that the transport picking up Garcia from the airport in Cape Town last week was under the impression she was a singer.)

In this context, your identity as a musician – your voice – certainly matters, but the hard marketing borders of the commercial music industry are irrelevant. “The creative mind,” reflects Garcia, “draws on everything you’ve ever heard.”

Open season

Composer and pianist Alfa Mist’s trajectory shows just how irrelevant the marketing categories are. His early musical interests were in grime and hip-hop. “I was sampling from the start,” he says, “things like Q-Tip and Slum Village. There are heavy jazz samples in their sound, and at some point I said: I wanna make beats like that.” Something he listened to over and over was a practice tape he found of pianist Bill Evans, and he also rates Thelonious Monk, for “completely his own approach.”

AlfaBut in the era of Kamasi Washington, hip-hop meeting jazz isn’t surprising, if it ever was. Alfa Mist cites another influence that completely floors me: film composer Hans Zimmer, responsible for the scores to Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and other big-screen epics.

“Soundtracks can work in an important way in sampling, so I’ve been into film music for a long time,” he explains, “and in terms of the films I was watching at that time, he dominated.” Alfa’s own music aims to speak to listeners’ feelings “so I’m interested in how sound manipulates emotions. That’s what film music is for …I talked to some of my classical music friends, and not everybody rated him, and that led me into listening to a lot more classical music – but I still rate him.”

Shabaka album.jpg
Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse) Artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi

There’s a long, proud history behind today’s generation of black British jazz. It’s rooted in the skills and hard work that kept musicians from the Caribbbean working in the most prestigious venues from the 1930s, in the open ears that saw Joe Harriott exploring Trane and Indian music, Rico Rodriguez building bridges between ska and jazz, and pioneers like Gary Crosby persistently leading, encouraging and mentoring. South African influences have played their part, and today Shabaka Hutchings’ latest release, Your Queen is a Reptile features cover art from Mzwandile Buthelezi and a track dedicated to Albertina Sisulu As for the future, Alfa Mist reckons the music can only get more diverse and untrammelled: “With the internet, you can find anything, and put anything out. It’s open season now.”

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