Vocalist Becky Alice, a recent graduate from the jazz course at Trinity Laban, has just taken over the running of the Wednesday night gig at Oliver’s Club in Nevada Street in Greenwich from pianist Sam Leak. Becky was the winner of the second prize in the 2022 Ella Fitzgerald Competition in the US. Interview by Sebastian.
LondonJazz News: For people who have never been to Oliver’s, what’s it like as a venue?
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Becky Alice: Oliver’s is London’s answer to the basement jazz club – they have live jazz of many kinds every night of the week, with small candle-lit tables, a large back room away from the music and an intimate stage. One of the things I love about the venue is the limited separation between audiences and performers!
LJN: Do the evenings you run at Oliver’s have a shape… a “dramaturgy”?
BA: There will always be a set of music from a house band at the start (which changes each week with different guest horn and rhythm section players) followed by a short break where I always try and reach out to new and regular players alike, and then a jam session.
9pm – 9:45: Music from the band
10pm – 11 15: Jam session
There will always be a set of music from a house band at the start (which changes each week with different guest horn and rhythm section players) followed by a short break where I always try and reach out to new and regular players alike, and then a jam session.
LJN: How was the first night with Deschanel Gordon?
BA: It was great! We had a wonderful selection of players at the jam and a great audience – I couldn’t have been happier. In the first set we played some music from Dinah Washington records, particularly Swingin’ with Dinah with Quincy Jones, which is one of my favorites. I was delighted to have Desch come and play, he’s an incredible musician with a really great feel. We had Kielan Sheard on Bass who was also a finalist of BBC Young Jazz Musician in a different year. Serendipitously, Kielan came and played on my first ever gig at Oliver’s, which felt like a lovely dovetail to start off the Wednesday nights!
LJN: What first drew you to live music and what other roles have you had in supporting it?
BA: I’ve been very fortunate in having Jazz musicians as teachers from a young age, particularly Karen Lane who used to take me with her to her gigs and get me up and sitting in when I was very small. I didn’t have any formal music qualifications when I left school 8 years ago, so I started out working in Videography for the Hideaway in Streatham, and working behind the bar and in the kitchen at The Junction in Loughborough Junction – both of which have now very sadly shut their doors. It wasn’t till I met Trudy Kerr and Anita Wardell on one of their summer courses in 2017 (which I highly recommend to all aspiring jazz singers) that I truly considered studying at degree level – I just didn’t think it was something I was qualified to do!
LJN: I gather that an you had an argument with a bus (and lost)… and that was quite important in detemining the musical path you followed?
BA: This came in the same year that I had to have vocal surgery for a cyst, so it really did feel like everything was going wrong at once. I was badly concussed and had to spend several weeks at home recovering. Luckily, my aunt specialises as a Therapist for people with brain injuries and she was a real help. Trudy had already suggested I should apply to Trinity Laban (where she taught at the time) – but I really got in my own head about it. After the bus accident, I definitely developed a much more “what have I got to lose?” attitude generally, and decided to audition. I only had two weeks to get in my application! Best decision I ever made.
LJN: It may be too early to look back, but how has the course at TL helped you to develop as a musician and a person, and who were the main people who made it happen ?
BA: I had such an amazing time studying at Trinity, I think Hans Koller is doing a truly incredible job at making it a vibrant, creative learning environment. After working so many different jobs for 3 years, not just in music venues but nannying, bartending and working in children’s literature, I really relished just being able to think about music and practice every day, and what I wanted to be working on creatively. I have to give props to Trudy Kerr and Brigitte Beraha who were both my first study teachers, and really helped me develop my voice, particularly after my surgery. There are so many wonderful teachers at Trinity, but I have to say Julian Siegel, Bruno Heinen and Cleveland Watkiss were three who had a real impact on how I approached studying this music – in very different ways. The masterclasses at Trinity were also truly spectacular – I was able to get to sing Jed Levy’s arrangement of Cherokee with him on stage in my first year, have a one-to-one class with Judy Niemack and a band and watch Mark Copland, Drew Gress and Joey Baron play – to name just a few!
LJN: Is there a calendar of gigs already booked / who is on?
BA: Yes! Particularly excited to have Sam Leak playing piano and organ on two separate dates, Donovan Haffner who’s an incredible Saxophonist currently studying at the Academy and Jay Phelps on Trumpet who’s played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to John Hendrix to Amy Winehouse. Shaping up to be a really excellent first month.
(6 September – Sam Leak, Menelik Claffey, Tim Sampson)
13 September – Donovan Haffner, Sam Leak, Tim Sampson
20 September – Olly Muxworthy, Tom Sheen, Tim Sampson
27 September, Jay Phelps, Menelik Claffey, Rick Simpson, Tim Sampson
LJN: How would you expect your own musical involvement in the gigs to develop?
BA: I love singing this music, so I hope to continue to sing with guest players as the night goes on – but I also look forward to having some takeover sessions! Separately, I’m currently working on developing a Queer arts and music space with classical singer Sholto Biscoe – I’d love to do a cross-genre night that focuses on some of the many incredible queer performers living and working in London.
LJN: And you like running jam sessions…how do you ensure the quality stays high?
BA: One of the first questions I ask people is if they have an idea of a tune they’d like to play – I feel this gives people the opportunity to feel comfortable in their playing and sound their best. Even if I can’t accommodate everyone’s requests, I can then use the information this gives me to put people together on stage who I feel will make great music with one another. When someone comes in who I’ve never met, I always endeavor to put them on stage with a musician I know well and who I feel will be able to really support them. Spontaneous music creation utilising the shared language of jazz material is something so beautiful, and I want to be a part of continuing that tradition. I’ve run a jam session at Oliver’s on other nights before, and we’ve had people visit from all over the world – it’s so wonderful to me to be able to have people from so many different places come together to make music.
LJN: Are there artists who the Oliver’s audience will be “discovering”
BA: I hope so! Watch this space!
LJN: With your TL background is it mainly going to be about young artists, or do you believe in mixing generations?
BA: I am a firm believer in mixed generation bands. One of the many wonderful things about jazz, is how someone’s relationship with the music can change and evolve through many years of playing. I think there’s something to be gained from mixing generations across all walks of life.
LJN: And who would be your dream guest?
BA: I had the privilege of meeting and playing with Jason Clotter this year, who plays bass for Jazzmeia Horn – if she came down I’d probably cry. Samara Joy, I’d weep. Cecile Mclorin Salvant, I’d bawl my eyes out. Patrick Bartley, Emmet Cohen, Kenny Barron, Nicole Glover, Alexa Tarantino... too many to list really. I’m hoping to have Anita Wardell come down at some point soon – she was an idol for me for many years, I’ve transcribed quite a few of her solos. That’s one I’m hoping to actually make happen!
BOOKINGS: Tables can be booked in advance by calling Oliver’s on 020 8858 3693, tickets are cash on the door (£10 or £5 for students and jam participants). If you arrive at 8:30 you can normally secure a good table without booking.