The Different ‘Scenes’ Within the ‘London Jazz Scene’
In perhaps oversimplified terms, I see the London jazz scene as comprising of two parts: one being what I call the ‘bebop scene’ and the other being what I call the ‘South-East London music scene’.
The ‘bebop scene’ mainly consists of people who have studied at or are currently studying at conservatoires in London, and almost everyone within this scene is white and male (an issue that is also worsened by the conservatoires’ lack of diversity of students and staff). It seems to disregard the fact that jazz is a Black American music, and seems to make little effort to acknowledge or rectify the ‘whitewashing’ of the scene within London.
The members of the ‘South-East London music scene’ have often come through Tomorrow’s Warriors, an organisation that focuses on nurturing the musical talent of “individuals who are most likely to face barriers to progression in the music industry – which, statistically and anecdotally, are most likely to be Black talent and girls”.
Tomorrow’s Warriors also makes an effort to create an “open, inclusive environment for musicians and audiences.” I have felt this in full effect when attending some of the jam sessions run and attended by musicians within the ‘South-East London music scene’, where all musicians feel welcome to take the stage and improvise. Musicians and audience members alike are incredibly supportive and encouraging to all musicians, no matter how experienced they are. This is an incredibly important aspect of this scene, in my opinion, as helping musicians feel comfortable to improvise in a group can bring so much joy to so many people, and avoids potentially discouraging some from attending jam sessions, or playing music seriously.
The ‘bebop scene’ jams, in my experience, don’t attempt to create a welcoming atmosphere for musicians, and musicians seem to be listening to others play from a place of judgement rather than a place of enjoyment. It can be an incredibly intimidating environment for many people – numerous friends of mine have told me they feel excluded from this scene because of gender and/or race – and there doesn’t seem to be much awareness or acknowledgement from the members within the ‘bebop scene’ about this, or any action being taken to try and create a more inclusive atmosphere. The exclusivity of this scene is also because of the fact that so many of the members have gone to the same conservatoires and so know the same repertoire, have studied the same composers and know many of the same licks. It doesn’t feel like the musicians on stage are listening to each other either, or truly improvising. Rather, it appears the musicians are trying to show off how fast they can play as a way of showing how good a musician they are to the other people within the scene.
To me, this defeats the purpose of improvising music; where people are all listening to each other and improvising for the purpose or creating something greater than themselves; serving the music, rather than the ego. The ‘South-East London music scene’ seems to incorporate much more active listening and communication between band members than the ‘bebop scene’, in my opinion.
I have felt torn between these two different ‘scenes’, because the music that I listen to is often created by people who have been to conservatoire (mainly in New York), and the music that I write is more similar to the music played in the London ‘bebop scene’ than the ‘South-East London Music scene’. And yet, I feel no desire to be a part of this elitist ‘bebop scene’ in London. I want to incorporate elements of both scenes within my musical and artistic journey; a combination of the two styles of improvised music played within both scenes, whilst trying to subvert the idea of playing for one’s ego, but rather playing for enjoyment and to serve the music. I want to incorporate and encourage the active listening and communication that is prevalent in the ‘South-East London music scene’ and for my music to reflect that jazz is fundamentally dance music (which the ‘South-East London music scene’ also seems to encompass much more than the ‘bebop scene’). I also understand, especially after conversations that took place in Chelsea Carmichael’s lectures, the importance of uplifting and amplifying the voices of people who are more likely to be excluded from the scene, like Tomorrow’s Warriors does so well, and wish to make that a part of my artistic journey also.
Learning to Lead
Performing for the video submissions for the different visiting tutors helped me learn the importance of being a leader, even in situations where there is no clear ‘bandleader’. I think I often don’t want to insert myself into this role, and have felt awkward in doing so. When playing with my housemates Joel and Meitar, who are both on the course, I found that things ran more smoothly when one of us took more of a leading role. It started because me and Joel are both pianists, and Joel had no prior experience playing in a two-pianos setup, which I did have. To begin with, the two-pianos felt clunky and the two of us were getting in each other’s way. After stopping to talk about our roles and encourage more listening, the dynamic between the two pianos worked much better (there is a clear difference in the standard of our two-pianos setup between our video submission of Sea Lady and Place the Place). This made me realise the importance of taking the initiative to lead in a situation where no one else will lead, and the necessity of this in many situations. I took this forward when rehearsing with my group for the performance, as the group hadn’t played together before and so things felt a little tentative. I had organised the rehearsals meaning, even though it wasn’t my group (others were being assessed too), people were still looking at me for feedback after we ran through the tunes. Rather than try and avoid inserting myself into the ‘leader’ role like I would have done previously, I stepped into it – whilst still trying to encourage everyone else to offer insights and lead if they wanted to. I think this was a positive thing to have done, as the music felt like it had more direction than I think it would have done otherwise.
My Compositional Process & Reflections on the Performance
The idea that I mentioned earlier of truly improvising and communicating with one’s bandmates is something I wanted to take forward for my performance, and something that I tried to bear in mind when composing Ouroboros. I wanted to create a piece of music that would encourage as much listening and improvisation as possible, by having a real ‘bare-bones’ loop that could be recontextualised in myriad ways. Ouroboros was written partly as a result of listening to and playing Kenny Wheeler’s Kind Folk, where I realised the harmony and melody of the tune was very simple and the step-wise harmony was similar to how other compositions of mine have started, before I thought they needed more points of tension and changed the harmony and/or melody. I tried to bear in mind Mark Lockheart’s advice from his lecture: “always [stay] true to your creativity… so follow your nose and break the rules sometimes.” I tried to enact this when composing Ouroboros by just playing around on the piano to find chords that I thought worked well together without questioning if they were too sweet, or needed more dissonance. After Laura Jurd’s lecture where she talked about writing for the specific members of your group, I was encouraged by the tonal nature of my composition because I knew that Dominic, the saxophone player from my group, has joked that he “hates dissonance”. This was encouraging as I thought this composition would be very suitable for his style of playing, as there is very little dissonance throughout the tune.
My composition was also was inspired by Wheeler’s use of melody and countermelody, which I had never tried writing before, and also Norma Winstone’s lyric-less vocals on Sea Lady. Unfortunately, even though my tune was written for vocals and sax, we performed without vocals, meaning I played the melody on the piano. This was a bit restricting, as I was not able to open up texturally as much as I would have liked throughout the tune, because I was playing the melody on loop throughout.
Overall, I was quite pleased with the performance as I felt we were all trying to listen and communicate with each other as best as we could. There were a few moments where the form got a little lost between us, meaning things felt a bit shaky (which wasn’t ideal as that can only happen if one or more people aren’t listening to everyone else!), but I was largely pleased with my performance and the performance as a whole, because it felt as though we were all trying to serve the music rather than our egos. I found this trickier than I had imagined, as it relied on keeping composure when things went wrong and remaining calm throughout, not feeling the need to insert ‘licks’ into the improvisations to try and sound flashy!