THE UK JAZZ SCENE IS MORE PLURALISTIC AND COMPLEX THAN RECENT MEDIA REPORTS SUGGEST
It's easy to get carried away by hype and there is a lot of it about the current UK jazz scene in some well-meaning but very narrowly focused articles published in recent months. A lot of the artists who are getting hyped up are perfectly fine. But are they even half way down the road of becoming icons yet? Also they are very London-centric. What about the Scottish scene which has been stronger than most in 2021? Check out the just announced nominees while at it for the 2021 Scottish Jazz Awards, that strength not mentioned at all in any articles that I have seen about the UK scene certainly the ones written from a US perspective which only really concentrate on the Jazz Re:Freshed, Tomorrow's Warriors and Brownswood label artist scenes which are tiny in the bigger picture and over-emphasised. In the north of England the tiny efpi label has achieved a lot in terms of pushing their artists. And what about another Mancunian outfit, Gondwana, again it's not all about London. In Birmingham Stoney Lane has had a good year championing local acts such as Xhosa Cole and Young Pilgrims. In Northern Ireland the scene however has been largely dormant heavily impacted upon by stricter Covid rules and a continuous Lockdown that saw hardly any releases (only singer Katharine Timoney under her own auspices and the Lyte label releasing Donegal's Murray brothers for instance among the few to put anything out). In Wales established icons from yesteryear combining with new artists as Tomos Williams is with Orphy Robinson, Soweto Kinch, Eädyth, Aidan Thorne and Mark O'Connor and who are touring this month is notable for an inventive intergenerational approach and fine new writing created into the bargain.
Not all leading jazz artists on the UK scene are aligned to a particular label, indeed some change label regularly. So it is reductive to assume that the energy of the scene necessarily comes from labels as often they only service the artist in terms of production deals and aren't equipped enough to resource artists' projects unless heavily funded. Scenes like the free-improv loving Mopomoso get no publicity. But that doesn't stop them being highly active and developing new energy on a community level. Generational bias is also highly evident when it comes to media profiling. Middle age jazz artists who have already established themselves tend to receive little publicity and may only do again when they have reached the ''elder'' cycle of their careers and are deemed ''legends''. And unlike a lot of names who are icons and yet are resolutely left out of all reckoning the balance needs to be addressed to accommodate that, part of the point of this article. Is it not too soon in some of the new artists' cases to be treating them like they are equivalent to the second coming? Some have made one or two records and have been around only a matter of a few years and yet it's like, ''wow''. Who knew? Emperor's new clothes time more like. Why isn't anyone actually putting this all in context? The answer may be that it is an inconvenient truth that UK jazz has an incredible pedigree from the days of icons who have left us be they Ronnie Scott, Joe Harriott, George Shearing, Stan Tracey, Kenny Wheeler (a Canadian who made his career in London for decades), John Taylor or Tubby Hayes.
The old adage of don't let the truth get in the way of a good story applies and the same narrative gets played out time and time again concentrating on a few artists who really have not proved themselves fully yet beyond a few well received gigs and perhaps an EP, album, or two. Check out this well meaning if overly narrow piece in Stereophile for instance. Young jazz musicians in their twenties have a lot of new ideas to give. They are only just beginning. Will we be remembering all their names so well in a decade? Who knows. They are only part of a rich tapestry. So scroll down below for a list of UK jazz icons still with us usually not mentioned in any articles, or if so played down in favour of whoever it is now flavour of the day and not heard of before breakfast. These formidable artists often not written about much these days in the press paved the way for whatever style you are into.
Importantly there is no one style of UK jazz, that is a media construct and meaningless. The emphasis for the ''boom'' often revolves around club DJ-favoured artists (Gilles Peterson as an entrepreneur as well as a DJ has no qualms about pushing his own Brownswood label artists for instance on his BBC radio show) but that is only one relatively small strand. Visit a small suburban jazz club or even a central London regular club or pub venue and most times you will hear bebop and hard bop, styles which Peterson prefers less of compared to spiritual jazz and remixes or his current obssession jazz-funk. The real story is when you are out there on the scene in clubs week in week out as marlbank is, not just speculating about what the scene is. Venture out, dear reader, and you will know that a lot of unhyped UK jazz icons are keeping things going and getting the punters out to hear them. And most jazz audiences in these regular spots are drawn from older generations. Younger jazz fans are often thinner on the ground on a regular basis even if they flock once a year to say Love Supreme or a special festival that caters for mainly crossover acts more suited to Glastonbury or commercial eclectic multi-genre music festivals. There are many individual styles and many are not necessarily defined by UK nationality either. In fact nationality is usually well down the pecking order of influence given the cosmopolitan nature of global jazz and its myriad forms. You're not going to say, are you, I'm going to play ''like a Brit'' it's ''like Coltrane'', ''Fela'' (given the UK's appetite for Afrobeat) or ''Kenny Wheeler'' more like. The new generation stands on these shoulders and we ought not forget it unless we just want to be deluded:
UK HEAVYWEIGHTS WHO STILL COUNT BEYOND MUCH OR ANY CURRENT MEDIA COVERAGE GIVEN A LONDON-CENTRIC YOUTH-OBSESSED NARRATIVE
When you listen to all their records and actually realise what all these artists have achieved over the years you realise that what the much-hyped new artists have built in their careers so far is only a relatively small beginning. Where would they all be without all the above and without the audiences for jazz all of these have built over the years and the pioneers before them, the Harry Golds, the Victor Feldmans? Cut through the hype to get to the reality by all means. A cool head is needed and a lot of perspective. Stephen Graham
Dave Holland top plays the EFG London Jazz Festival with John Scofield on Sunday
Further reading: top UK jazz albums in 2021