London's flourishing jazz scene is just getting started

London's flourishing jazz scene is just getting started

As the city’s unconventional young community advances into the mainstream, we caught up with some of the artists pushing things to the next level.

Lead image: Alfa Mist by Kay Ibrahim.

Every Wednesday, a Deptford railway arch fills with bodies and explodes with a rich cacophony of jazz innovation. Hosted in Matchstick Piehouse – a cramped bar, cafe and art space – and set up in 2017 by composer, producer and saxophonist Ahnansé, Steam Down is a local artist collective and weekly event that encapsulates the joy and experimentation of south London's flourishing jazz scene. It's one of several regular nights that, in recent years, has played a key role in the rise of numerous young artists fusing US jazz sounds with influences from West Africa. From the Afro-fusion group Kokoroko to quintet Ezra Collective drawing on everything from hip-hop to calypso and beyond, a wave of musicians are subverting the po-faced seriousness often associated with jazz, challenging broader perceptions of what it can sound like and receiving praise across the world as a result.

While many of these artists have been immersed in jazz since they were waist-high, East London’s Alfa Mist stumbled upon the sound by chance. As a teenage beatmaker inspired by pioneering hip-hop producers like Madlib and J Dilla, he began scouring the net for tunes to sample – the more unusual, the better. The world of jazz soon sucked him in, with legendary American pianists like Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk proving particularly inspiring. Honing his keys and production skills through "so many YouTube tutorials I lost count," he developed a captivating style that blends smooth, laid-back hip-hop rhythms with chiming jazz keys and incisive social commentary – "Three options / Music, sport or crime," he raps softly on “Borderline.”

Alfa's unconventional path into jazz is indicative of recent shifts in London's scene. "Coming into it, I was like ‘This ain't my world at all!’ But you can know that you don't belong somewhere and still revel in it," says Alfa, who considers himself a peripheral figure within London's broader jazz scene. His reticence is understandable, given his non-formal schooling and the attention he's received for hip-hop-leaning collabs with artists like Loyle Carner and Barney Artist, although the success of sprawling, improvisational jazz pieces like “BC” or “Keep On” shows that it's a world he's now very familiar with. We meet for a coffee a couple of weeks before the release of his fifth studio album, Variables, and soon get chatting about the title, which reflects his interest in the strange role that chance and coincidence play in shaping and defining our life experiences.

"I think everything's pretty much chaos," he tells me. "Taking a certain route home versus another route home could literally result in your whole life being changed. For me to be exactly here, there's a bunch of decisions that I've made in my life… I think that's interesting."

It's an idea that could be applied to London’s wider jazz movement. Say, for instance, that iconic British musicians and educators Gary Crosby and Janine Irons hadn't set up the youth jazz programme Tomorrow's Warriors back in 1991. Would the city's scene be what it is today?

Top to bottom: Alfa Mist by Kay Ibrahim Camilla George Oscar Jerome

"Without Tomorrow's Warriors, there would be less diversity. I think it would be quite a depressing scene," says Nigerian-born, London-raised saxophonist and bandleader Camilla George, who has benefited from Crosby and Irons' mentorship since meeting them aged 11. Born out of double bassist Crosby's influential band Jazz Warriors, the programme offers a free, supportive space for young Londoners to gain high-quality music lessons from some of the world's best players. "Everyone says it and it probably sounds cheesy, but they are a family," adds George. "They really look after you throughout your whole career."

The network that's developed as a result is remarkable. Tomorrow's Warriors' alumni contains many shining lights of London's thriving jazz scene, with graduates including Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd and Ezra Collective, as well as George and many of her former and current bandmates. And, partly due to the environment fostered by the programme (and by sister organisation Jazz Jamaica), there's a real sense of community spreading across the capital's scene. Just like New York's old bebop pioneers – Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker et al – many of London's contemporary musicians have played in each other's bands, crafting a similar story of collaboration and harmony.

George's drummer Rod Youngs, who's worked with artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Courtney Pine, replaced Ezra Collective bandleader Femi Koleoso, who stepped down when his rising group's touring schedule got too hectic. Elsewhere, Koleoso's bandmate Joe Armon-Jones, a supremely talented pianist, performs in Nubya Garcia's band, while ensembles like SEED and Nérija allow various solo performers to seek out fresh spaces to improvise and create in. For a generation of artists that have blossomed in tandem, this kind of community is second nature.

Top to bottom: Camilla George

"Everyone played in each other's bands, we were doing loads of gigs and stuff, but we didn't really view it as a ‘scene.’ It was just making music in London," recalls guitarist and singer-songwriter Oscar Jerome, a former member of Kokoroko who toured the world with the group before going solo. Joining me on a call from just down the road in his adopted home of South East London, he's thankful for how he's been embraced by the city since moving here from Norwich to study at esteemed conservatoire Trinity Laban aged 18. While most jazz conservatoires are intimidating, difficult places – Camilla George notes how, despite their offer of "access to amazing master classes" and technical teaching, "there are very few people that have been to a conservatoire that would be like ‘Yeah, it was great!’" – institutions like Trinity have played an important role in fine-tuning London's jazz talent, and placing different innovative artists in rooms together.

"Music is a form of communication, it's a language, and it's something that has brought people together throughout history," says Jerome. "I've grown infinitely as a person since living here. There's such a deep history of music and art in this place that's been going on for so long, and I feel very lucky to have been able to become part of that."

That sense of communication, of performers sparking off one another, is central to jazz. However, artists like Alfa Mist, Oscar Jerome, and many others within the broader London scene are understandably reluctant to be confined to just one genre. In Jerome's music, elements of psychedelia, punk, and blues linger unapologetically, and while there's plenty of room for improvisation and experimentation, his 2022 album The Spoon is tight, structured as a pop record rather than an extended jam. A concept album "focused around a journey that I'd been on over a specific period of time," The Spoon is one of many recent projects that have skilfully transferred London's rich jazz-influenced culture into recorded format.

"I remember there was a time where people started finishing things and putting stuff out," says Alfa Mist. "A lot of fully fledged albums dropped and came out around the same time," – Ezra Collective's You Can't Steal My Joy (2019), Nubya Garcia's Source (2020), and Moses Boyd's Dark Matter (2020), to name a few. As a clear sense of momentum developed, the scene became more visible to wider audiences. Although for Jerome, that wasn't always purely positive. "It started to get viewed as a bit more of a thing that people could put a label on," he recalls, uncomfortable with the idea of being pigeonholed. "I used to feel a little bit cynical about it, to be honest, but now I can see that it's a great thing. People are more aware of what we have here."

That's a vital point for Camilla George. When she travels across Europe (and beyond) – a process that, thanks to the heightened "bureaucracy" and admin caused by Brexit, has become "annoying" – London's jazz scene is a hot topic. "They're really in awe of it, from what I've seen… excited by it. It started blowing up in 2017, it's 2023 now and it's still there!"

Oscar Jerome

So what is it about London jazz that makes it so unique? "What is special with this scene is the links to people's heritage, whether that be Nigerian, or Iranian… people are not afraid to bring that into their music," says George. "Jazz is Black American music, but it was influenced by the African enslaved who came over to America, so I think there's always been that link there. I think it got lost a bit along the way. But now in London, it's really been re-examined." Whether through the fusions of Nigerian Highlife and US soul concocted by bands like Kokoroko, or the complex stories of the Ibibio people of south eastern coastal Nigeria told in George's latest album Ibio Ibio, West African music is at the forefront of the contemporary London jazz sound.

These rich, diverse influences typify everything great about how jazz music is being pushed forward in London. At its core, this is a scene untethered from the genre's roots in the Deep South, and willing to take inspiration from anywhere – an idea highlighted by the Newham pianist for whom "hip-hop sampling was my teacher." Alfa Mist believes in the notion that "you're looking for the furthest thing from your ears, because you wanna make something interesting, or something new, within the parameters of your genre."

For the generation of young jazz acts creating in the capital, this sense of freedom is paramount. As Jerome sings on “Feet Down South:” "This town has given me so much life." Returning the favour, he and his cohorts have created a special scene that's only just getting started.

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