For our fourth interview in a series of interviews with jazz promoters and venues – which LJN is publishing in partnership with Nigel Price – we have spoken to Steve Crocker who set up Jazz Leeds, the city’s main jazz venue based in Chapel Allerton, North Leeds. The Nigel Price Organ Trio Tour date was cancelled after Leeds were put into Tier 3, but has now been rearranged for Thursday 9 April 2021.
It’s an achievement to still be a venue. How have you managed it?
We have a large and loyal audience! We are also a promoter rather than a venue, so we don’t have huge overhead costs. We are a charity run by volunteers so we are nimble and quick on our feet. We are well supported and financially sound and not dependent on arts funding for our survival.
During the first lockdown, we had to cancel our regular concerts, including the JazzLeeds Festival in July. We were determined that we would keep jazz available in some form however. Initially we achieved this with radio shows about the Leeds jazz scene with East Leeds FM – a local community radio station – and with archive video blogs and live recorded solo concerts.
Since July we’ve had a rethink. We work a lot with Leeds Mind at the Inkwell centre – a place that gives positive messages about mental health through music. That has taught us a lot over the years about helping people in stressful situations. The lockdown has certainly caused high levels of anxiety and depression amongst both our audiences and musicians. So we decided to increase our live jazz programme throughout the summer in order to do just this. In times of such uncertainly jazz is a perfect antidote – offering joy, spontaneity, dance, interaction and enjoyment.
We set up a live outdoor jazz festival and a programme of 30 live and (mainly) outside jazz concerts featuring musicians from Leeds and Yorkshire – many more than normal. We’ve had to be careful about hygeine and distancing of course but the results (the feedback from our audience, musicians, venues – and to be frank, from us as promoter volunteers as well) have been more than worth it. Our main venue in Chapel Allerton, Seven Arts, has also benefitted significantly through the trade we have brought to their bar and café.
Who has helped?
Seven Arts has been really helpful – in allowing us to try things out, and in arranging for their venue to be safe. Other local businesses like Gledhow Sports Club have also helped by offering their venue free of charge for a jazz picnic. Leeds Inspired (part of Leeds City Council) has offered us funding to support our live outdoor “Flying High” Festival. Leeds City Council has been helpful in looking at and approving our event safety proposals along with West Yorkshire Police.
Our audience has been incredibly generous financially in supporting the musicians we have booked. They recognise the plight musicians are in. Our volunteer team have done a lot of hard graft (unpaid of course) in making things happen at short notice. Leeds musicians – what an interesting and talented group of people! They’ve seen what we’ve been trying to do and got behind us, making it work superbly well.
Name a low or high point.
High – since we started? Probably winning the Parliamentary Jazz Award for best venue in 2016. More recently – the success of our largest (so far) citywide Jazz Leeds Festival last year, and the 12 concert Women Jazz Leaders programme we held in 2019.
Low – cancelling most of our spring and summer programmes and Jazz festival in 2020 due to Covid 19.
What’s been the biggest challenge or the thing you’re finding it hard to get used to?
During the lockdown, we have tried and failed to persuade arts funded jazz promoters to join us in offering more live outdoor music. The volunteer jazz sector (other northern examples are Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues, The Jazz Co-op Newcastle, Wakefield, Sheffield Jazz) seem to have been more active. Why have the larger funded arts bodies not responded by running more live distanced events?
What will success look like a year from now?
Being able to run a full programme of concerts, festivals, workshops and our choir in our venues again. Having our plans approved for next summer’s JazzLeeds Festival in July. More fundamentally though: getting our ideas about music as a way of tackling mental health issues and depression taken seriously by UK arts and health organisations.