Music moves differently depending on the space it’s played in. A typical pre-Covid Wednesday evening at the Matchstick Piehouse in London would see its arch space filled with writhing bodies as the jazz collective Steam Down spilled off the stage, their music in dialogue with our yelps, claps and calls to the band.
But on a humid night in May, during the first week of socially distanced indoor performances beginning again, the music took a different route. Playing two Steam Down sessions to a 30-person, seated and masked audience, the seven-person band launched into an extended riff on Nas’s The World Is Yours and bandleader Ahnansé’s liquid tenor solo bounced off the walls while a train rumbled overhead. Steam Down’s music loudly reverberated around us as we danced in our seats, feet vigorously tapping to the beat.
For fans of the London jazz scene, which has gained a global reputation in recent years, Steam Down was a weekly pilgrimage – a jam session-cum-performance that has seen the likes of Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington, Sons of Kemet bandleader Shabaka Hutchings and saxophonist Soweto Kinch all sit in to collaborate with a new generation of players and listeners.
With dancing frustratingly restricted, the band’s excitement at returning was still palpable, culminating in a raucous singalong to their latest single Empower at the end of the first set. “The limitations in the room force your creativity to open up to keep the audience engaged, but I felt the crowd at that first show back were more appreciative than ever,” Ahnansé says over a video call a few days later. “We’re used to playing to a seated audience now and we’re all just desperate to be back in a room together.”
The tentative return of gigs could not have come soon enough for jazz performers. A 2008 study on the economics of the genre found that 49% of jazz musicians’ income came from live performances. With everything other than live streams cancelled for the best part of a year owing to covid, a 2020 survey conducted by Encore Musicians found that 64% of musicians were considering leaving the profession altogether. Group improvisation, a crucial factor of jazz composition, was effectively outlawed during lockdowns.
Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed is one of the best-established musicians in British jazz, having collaborated with Radiohead and Lee Scratch Perry and won the 2020 Jazz FM award for act of the year. She usually averaged 90 shows a year, and had a US tour booked for 2020. The pandemic “knocked me sideways”, she says. “I didn’t know how I would survive with all my gigs being cancelled. There were many times where I thought, ‘Should I just quit?’ It was hard to see a way out.”
Grants from the Arts Council and Help Musicians plugged some of her financial gaps, while livestreamed performances and the release of four EPs on Bandcamp kept Ahmed’s creativity flowing. “I keep trying to be optimistic, even though gigs are still being cancelled week-to-week,” she says. “I just have to stay determined and keep practising.”
Producer and trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray was due to release her anticipated debut album last year following several EPs, but after contracting coronavirus, she found her abilities severely limited. “For seven or eight months I couldn’t sing or play the trumpet, and even now I still have some difficulty,” she says. “I had to really pace myself and I was worried I’d be losing career momentum as we had planned shows in the US and Istanbul, which were all cancelled.” Thackray used her recovery to focus on production work for other groups, as well as reconsidering her career priorities. “I’m trying to focus on gratitude for just being able to still make music now,” she says. “I won’t be doing as many live shows going forward, as I realised how exhausted touring was making me.”
Drummer and bandleader Sarathy Korwar also found the pandemic brought his own reliance on touring into focus. “80-85% of my income was coming from gigs. I reconsidered if that was something I wanted to keep up, or if I got an injury how I would survive,” he says. “I’d never had to ask myself those questions before.” Luckily, Korwar had already planned time off to work on his next album and he had film scoring work to fall back on. Still, he struggled to be creative for the first six months of the lockdown, even stopping practising.
With shows now booked and his album under way, Korwar believes the pandemic has highlighted that we should not return to the old way of doing things. “We need to address how badly paid live gigs at certain venues are,” he says. “So many bands are lining up to play for just £50, which is unsustainable. The ‘normal’ that existed made things this bad in the first place, and I’m wondering how quickly we’ll slip back into it again.”
For many jazz artists starting out, these small venue gigs are some of the only means of developing their improvisatory skills. With the pandemic gutting venues’ income, there is concern that these opportunities will not return. “If we lose grassroots music, we can’t sustain UK music,” says Thackray. “We’ll fall over on our arse if we only allow people with a certain amount of money to be in the industry.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, founders of the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz educational organisation. “We’ve done well with what we’ve got but there’s no good story to come out of this,” Irons says. “We’ll soon see the fallout of all the money spent by the government during the pandemic, so schools will be hit by cuts and the arts budget is always the first one to be dropped. It’s insanity and we’ve worked so hard to diversify the jazz scene but we could lose it all now.”
Crosby, who suffered a major stroke in 2018, also speaks of how music is vital for mental health. “No one’s thinking about amateur musicians and how music keeps people alive,” he says. “The arts have been the saviour of the pandemic and we need to remember that. A lot of the younger ones will have dark music to release from this time, as they’ve had no other means of expression.”
Tomorrow’s Warriors have continued their free learning sessions with young musicians online and are planning a return to in-person workshops in June, with a waiting list of more than 100 students, as well as a slate of live dates to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Similarly, organisations like Women in Jazz – who aim to rectify the startling statistic that only 5% of jazz instrumentalists in the UK are women – and label and promoter Jazz Re:Freshed have been providing opportunities for up-and-coming acts through paid live streams and mentoring. “We have to be optimistic because we’re used to working on a shoestring budget to keep things free. It’s scary but we’ll soldier on,” Irons says.
For saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch, surviving through scarcity is built into the jazz ethos. “If this moment isn’t one where you’re asking what’s the point of the music you’re making, then you’re not really a jazz musician and you’re misusing the genre,” he says. “Jazz is part of the healing process and it has always been created through struggle. I don’t want things to return to normal, as we should be bold in our ambitions instead and use art to show us the future.” Kinch describes his next project as an “emotional response” to the pandemic and the global Black Lives Matter protests that took place following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.
New Zealand drummer Myele Manzanza moved from Wellington to London in October 2019 to take his career to the next level, enthused by the level of appreciation for the genre shown by crowds while he was on tour. “I came here full of plans and then lockdown came into effect and everything got wiped out,” he says. “I thought about going back to New Zealand, where friends were playing concerts like nothing had happened, but after a month of existential crisis I realised I was going to have to make something out of this situation.”
Aided by a part-time job as an adviser for arts grant applications in New Zealand and with a small amount of savings in the bank, Manzanza set about composing an ambitious five-album project, aptly titled Crisis and Opportunity, the first of which was released in April. “This has been the most artistically productive year of my life,” he says. “I just had to show up for work each day, to sit behind the drums or keyboard and play, and I’m really excited for what’s to come.” However, he explains that if the lockdown continued much longer, his financial belt-tightening might not have been able to last. “It has been really tough and I know lots of people who have had to move back home or get work elsewhere. Mainly, we all just miss human connection and I hope we don’t take that for granted any more.”
The day after the Steam Down show, I am at the sold out reopening of London’s Ronnie Scott’s as pianist Reuben James theatrically takes to the stage in a woollen poncho to lead his 10-piece band through a set of head-nodding soul-jazz improvisations. Aside from the Perspex screens slotted between the tables, it is as if nothing has changed.
“I initially had to move back in with my parents in Birmingham when the lockdowns hit, as all my work was gone,” James says that morning. “Luckily, they have a piano so I could focus on writing my new album and I picked up some scoring and session work. But nothing beats working with people in real life. It’s all about the thrill of knowing you could change someone’s life with a performance.”
James’s fellow Birmingham native and winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician in 2018, Xhosa Cole, also found himself back home during the pandemic, a move that has refocused his efforts on promoting the UK jazz scene outside of London. “We have so much great jazz in Britain, from Bristol to Manchester and Birmingham, and I realised that, before the lockdown, my priorities were short term,” he says. “Now, I want to start thinking long term, about what music we’ll be making in 40 years’ time, so I’m making things happen here by starting a jam night, to help build the next canon of musicians.”
Like Kinch, Cole believes struggle is built into the music itself. “I’m taught by Coltrane and Monk and Rollins and they didn’t stand still in the face of their difficulties,” he says. “This music is definitely going to continue; how, and by who, only time will tell.”
“Playing this music is our dream and dreams can’t be given up that easily, especially when everyone’s in it together,” adds Steam Down’s Ahnansé. “The momentum hasn’t stopped – there is plenty more music to come, no matter how or where we get to play it.”