Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Jazzwise Magazine.
As venues remain closed another aspect of jazz’s musical life-blood is also dormant, with jam sessions silenced too. Christine Hannigan speaks to those who’ve created and benefitted from these vital, informal meetings that help players network, improve and spontaneously create new sounds
According to musician Renato Paris, conservatoires often teach traditional jazz in ‘a clinical environment where you get graded.’ So, in May 2019, he started Straight Pocket, the ‘antithesis’ of prescribed academic improvisation. Pre-lockdown, it ran at Claudia Wilson’s record shop Pure Vinyl in Brixton. Their vision for a weekly groove-centred jam welcomes an array of listeners, students, and acclaimed musicians. When there’s no music playing, they’re mingling. “Young musicians can’t believe who they’ll stand next to. If they are stuck practicing on their own, things are static. I can see new people improve week after week,” Paris observes.
After the Southern Syncopated Orchestra brought jazz to London in 1919, ‘club promoters started recruiting Black players,’ says Lloyd Bradley, author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital. “Depending on the day, they’d pass them off as Americans or Cubans, so they had to be light on their feet.”
The emerging sound circularly influenced itself as recordings and musicians travelled around the UK and commonwealth. Adds Bradley: “A pure American art form began to get corrupted in the best way possible. Guys from Nigeria and Ghana brought highlife, Caribbeans brought calypso.”
Black-owned clubs in Soho were places of intellectual gathering in the mid-20th century, with progressive music policies informed by Jamaican sound systems’ DIY ethos. In 1954, during 50 Carnaby Street’s iteration as the Sunset Club, Rupert Nurse took over as bandleader. Bradley says the Trinidadian immigrant “encouraged players to bring their own influences.”
Late jams, which American sailors also frequented, heated up hours after the big band shows ended. “A lot of the musicians were classically trained. It ended up being put together informally, but they had a deep understanding of what was happening and knew what they were creating was unique.”
Shabaka Hutchings recollects that, while studying classical clarinet at Guildhall 15 years ago, “there were about five or six jams a week, and I went to most of them. That’s how I learned to play jazz.” He frequented Brixton’s Effra Hall and guitarist Alan Noel Weeke’s night at The Haggerston in Dalston. Eventually, he stopped going to those and ‘just jammed with people I liked playing with’ in casual settings with the latitude and privacy to collaboratively make new sounds.
“The ideal jam sesh,” Hutchings adds, “is where everyone is playing together in a very sensitive operation. It could as well be a band. Some are free and open, which means there are politics of who dominates the stage. The openness can be a detriment.” Tests of mettle, however, ‘build the thick skin demanded of musicians to always play to the best of their ability’.
“Once you come out of an annoying experience where you have to play silly, unnecessary chops, you realise we can play for ourselves,” says Kwake Bass, co-owner with Wulu of The Room Studios, site of post-recording, impromptu jams and planned ones open to listeners and streamed over social media. “The main advantage of an audience is that you can try out ideas in front of people who won’t pander to your ego. They don’t know and don’t give a shit.” Without them, though, he adds, “your mates will give you more honest feedback. There’s no agenda. The UK hip hop scene amalgamated and evolved into what we now know as the ‘London Jazz’ scene. Specific open mic sessions in the early 2000s were the breeding grounds.”
Deal Real, a record store on Carnaby Street, hosted one. Many musicians cut their teeth at Jonesy B’s Apricot Jams in Tottenham, and at Brixton’s Jammbox, where DJ Snuff and MC Manage ran Speakers Corner.
Like Hutchings, Jelly Cleaver jammed with Tomorrow’s Warriors at the Southbank Centre. Her own night in Brixton, Jelly’s Jams, emphasises inclusion.
“Less experienced musicians might not know you have to butt in,” she says; so she walks through the audience at The Windmill, inviting tentative musicians to join. Cleaver likes to always have at least one woman on stage. “Psychologically, it opens up a lot. If it starts all-male, it stays all-male. Whoever is performing is as the house band for the jam [the last hour of the gig] which tends to be gender-mixed and adds variety to the type of music that unfolds. You might have a punk band and the groove ends up being world. You never know where it’s going to go.”
Jams can be logistically demanding and don’t make much money. Venue closures jeopardise musicians’ ability to meet and sharpen their skills. The majority of the 80-or so of the capital’s grassroots venues that shuttered in the eight years preceding 2015 were in central London. Soho is now a gentrified tourist enclave, 50 Carnaby Street is now a clothing store.
The Mayor of London has assembled a Music Venues Taskforce (MVT) with the aim of making London ‘the world’s best music city’. The consultancy that produced MVT’s first report cites gentrification, business rates and environmental, public health and licencing measures as among the many factors contributing to club closures. It prioritises ticket sales profit and music heritage as part of ‘Brand Britain’s’ competitive edge against international tourist cities. Eight years after it closed, a simulacrum of Deal Real was successfully resurrected as a Record Store Day pop-up in 2015.
Rupert Nurse’s initiative from back in the 1950s, however, lives on over the other side of the river. Paris recalls the long night bus commutes back home from central London when attending previous jam sessions: “A key thing with Straight Pocket is to create a night that is accessible to our people here in South London.”