David Burke – Giant Steps: Diverse Journeys in British Jazz
(Desert Hearts. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)
Giant Steps presents short chapters on 25 musicians from the British Caribbean, African and Asian (including West Asia) communities in the UK. The chapters include one American, Rod Youngs, who has settled in this country. It also presents a short biography of each one. The musicians featured are listed below. Many are from the 1980s generation and the Jazz Warriors Big Band, others are from more recent times and many are graduates from the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme.
Each chapter is the result of an interview in which the musicians talk about the ways they entered the jazz community, their influences and their views on the current British scene. The chapters are thus similar in a style to a feature in a monthly jazz magazine such as Jazzwise or Jazz Journal.
The list of musicians featured is comprehensive, but focuses almost entirely on the London scene; there is a chapter on Soweto Kinch, but it does not discuss his role in Birmingham apart from a brief mention of the Flyover Show, and Ashley Henry mentions the Leeds scene in passing. It also neglects the role of musicians from these communities in the improvised music scene; there is a chapter on K T Reeder and his approach based on ‘noise trombone’, but I would have liked to have seen a chapter on Neil Charles, and a discussion of the Freedom Sessions run by Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss and Tori Handsley. I was also surprised that Nubya Garcia was not included.
Nonetheless, this is a useful and informative survey of the development of the Black and Asian British scenes and their status today. A number of key points emerge.
- The Jazz Warriors Big Band and the Tomorrow’s Warriors project run by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons have had a massive influence on this scene, and nearly all the musicians featured emerged from one or the other, or have had contact with them. Both projects have had a key role in opening up the jazz scene to the various communities of Britain. We should note in passing that Tomorrow’s Warriors is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary.
- It also becomes clear that Claude Deppa‘s Kinetika Bloco community band has also played an important role in providing a stepping stone for young musicians before they join the Tomorrow’s Warriors project.
- Music from other cultures has had a strong influence on the music of these players. The players with a Caribbean background talk of the influence of sound system culture and Afrobeat, those with an Asian background talk of the influence of music from the Indian subcontinent and Yazz Ahmed talks of her Bahraini background and her integration of Arab Bahraini music with jazz.
- It is clear that the influences from other styles on the music of these players has led to a distinctive British identity, which arises from an openness to other cultures. Soweto Kinch talks of a ‘recalibration of British culture’, and Arun Ghosh talks of how he sees his music not as ‘fusion’, but as jazz informed by the musical language of South Asia.
- The players featured all talk of the importance of a respect for the jazz tradition and their inspiration from the giants of American jazz, notably John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams. They seem oriented towards the American scene, rather than, say, ECM records with its focus on European jazz. Nonetheless, they are much in demand at European festivals.
- As well as the already-mentioned role of The Jazz Warriors and Tomorrow’s Warriors, the tertiary level courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and in the USA the Berklee College of Music have played an important role in developing the careers of many of these musicians.
- Many of these players also play in non-jazz contexts; Ashley Henry, for example, plays with the French artist Christine and the Queens, Mark Mondesir has toured with Glenn Hughes and Jethro Tull, and Shirley Tetteh is developing a role as a singer-songwriter.
- The sense of community is very strong with these players; Gary Crosby suggests that the collectivism of the jazz community is in the nature of the music.
The book is a useful and very welcome introduction to this part of the British scene. It is up to date and takes in the musicians’ reactions to the Covid pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Musicians interviewed: Courtney Pine, Gary Crosby, Gail Thompson, Julian Joseph, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss, Dennis Rollins, Claude Deppa, Denys Baptiste, Mark Mondesir, Tony Kofi, Soweto Kinch, Arun Ghosh, Rod Youngs, Zoe Rahman, Peter Edwards, Zara McFarlane, Camilla George, Mark Kavuma, Theon Cross, Shabaka Hutchings, Ashley Henry, Shirley Tetteh, Yazz Ahmed and KT Reeder.
I should point out one mistake in the chapter on Yazz Ahmed. Her Alhaan Al-Siduri project was part of her Jerwood Fellowship with the Jazzlines programme at Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham, and was premiered with her own band at the CBSO Centre, the venue and rehearsal space of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). It did not involve the Orchestra itself.