Seeing is believing
- Kevin Legendre
The Royal Race Row hit the headlines at the tail end of 2022. Although accusations of bigotry had been previously leveled against the British monarchy this episode was notable because it had the emotional charge of identity politics. When Ngozi Fulani, a woman of African-Caribbean descent who runs Sistah Space, a domestic abuse charity, was engaged in conversation at Buckingham Palace by Lady Susan Hussey, former aide to the Queen, she was curtly asked: But where are you really from?
Arun Gosh, the clarinetist born in Bolton to Bengali parents, titled his 2017 album with those very words: But where Are You Really From? While Gosh might well be reluctant to say that he was willfully prophetic he did catch the zeitgeist. His intention was to reflect his lived experience, above all the inquiry that had pursued him many times over. Here was an example of jazz holding up a mirror to a British society shaped by immigration and an ongoing confusion over where ethnic minorities fit into a nation in the grip of a globalised world yet indelibly tied to its history of Empire.
For people of colour in Britain the really from trope has become a tiresome bone of contention in modern times because it lays bare a distinct outsider status. To state that one might be from London or Birmingham or Manchester is not enough. Being black or Asian can still mean a less valid claim to ‘real’ Britishness, hence the need to disclose the origin of one’s ‘people’, as Hussey demanded of Fulani, for skin colour is, in the eyes of some, the overriding factor in the initial perception of an individual.
A term such as intersectionality, which has been extensively used by many social commentators of late, stands as a salient feature of the debate Gosh broaches in his work. But while theorizing is useful in terms of understanding how race, class, and regional identity collide – Gosh could well answer that he is a Northerner, or at least really from the North as much as he is a British-Asian – there is arguably nothing more significant than the way the clarinetist makes music. He draws on the many resources available to him by way of his heritage and upbringing, namely Indian classical and folk, rock, dub and Afro-Brazilian samba. Jazz, or improvised music provides a flexible and empowering lingua franca, a binding agent for his creativity.
The groups Gosh leads have also had many strong personalities. Over the years his bandmembers have been a notable microcosm of multi-cultural Britain, with several highly talented women, pianist Zoe Rahman, guitarist Shirley Tetteh and bassist Ruth Goller, all of whom have, respectively, Bengali-British, Sierra Leonean-Nigerian and Italian roots, also making fine contributions. A contemporary society that has a gender balance and a wide range of ethnicities can be seen when Gosh appears in concert. Whether his music is duly enhanced by this state of affairs or is simply its spontaneous representation is quite beside the point. Call it Britain being Britain.
There are more racially mixed bands working in UK jazz than at any other point in the history of the music.
There are more racially mixed bands working in UK jazz than at any other point in the history of the music. Back in the ‘50s the alliances formed by West Indian and British players such as Shake Keane Michael Garrick, Joe Harriott, Pat Smythe and Coleridge Goode reflected the impact of colonial era population shifts, and the make-up of our nation has kept changing colour and culture ever since. Indeed the very idea of a group that presents an emblematic snapshot of the entwined histories of several countries is hardly worthy of a front page. It is a fact of life rather than a fault of it.
Nonetheless it is worth hailing the groundbreaking work done by organizations such as Tomorrow’s Warriors and Kinetika in greatly improving access to jazz education for aspiring musicians of all backgrounds since the ‘90s and 2000s because they have increased the cohort of black and female artists playing instruments to a high standard and also led to creative kinships across racial lines. Think Jason Yarde and Andrew McCormack; Mark Kavuma and Artie Zaitz: Nubya Garcia and Joe Armon-Jones.
There are different ways to interpret this state of affairs. On one hand, the existence of such duos, with their origins drawn from many rather than one part of the world, is logically inevitable, certainly if one lives in a British city moulded by a former imperial power’s vast expansion. On the other hand such a blending of cultures is eye catching in comparison to the world of classical music, where ensembles such as Chineke and Orchestra X were formed precisely to further the cause of diversity in what is a traditionally mono-cultural preserve. Doors had to be broken down.
Doors had to be broken down
Genre notwithstanding, a multi-cultural and mixed gender group does symbolize a dimension of nothing more than real life, right down to the desire of one individual to work with another, regardless of putative dividing lines, be they economic or social, that a society striving to attain the elusive ideal of equality has to confront and cross.
British jazz artists of Chinese heritage such as Nikki Yeoh or Alex Ho are important for their abundant talent as well as the way they are flouting the stereotypes that cling to their community, which for the most part is not highly visible in the mainstream, where considerable advantages if not privileges are still granted on the basis of class as well as race. To see as wide a demographic range as possible in an artform such as jazz, which is predicated on discipline and dedication as well as congenital ability, resonates with the notion of meritocracy. The music is, or should be, open to all.
While giving young Britons born to ethnic minority parents the opportunity to see themselves on stage, just as they should in the media, in an academic setting or on the field of play, is vital for the sake of both inclusion and empowerment it stands to reason that the next generation of jazz artists need more than ‘relatable’ role models.
The form, content and quality of the work they produce is of the utmost importance.
To the highest possible levels of creativity
To uphold the history of a genre marked by successive generations of innovators, contemporary incumbents have to aspire to the highest possible levels of creativity. Yet jazz has, since its earliest flowering, also been fertile soil for debate, dissent and socio-political comment. Skilled players can change hearts and minds by way of sound as well as through word and deed. The consistent statements on anything from climate change to economic exploitation to armed conflict made by pianist-composer Robert Mitchell in his career, above all with his latest ensemble, True Think, are as important as his virtuosity as well as the racial equality and gender balance his band embodies. And tellingly, the many new female soloists and composers who have emerged in the past decade, from the aforementioned Garcia and Tetteh to Cassie Kinoshi and Jasmine Myra, have also passed comment in their recordings on a whole slew of personal and social issues, be it the loss of family members during Covid or the Grenfell tower fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people, many of whom were migrants, due to corporate greed and lack of concern for the living conditions of the underprivileged. It is a key indictment of inequality at the heart of modern Britain.
All things considered, contemporary jazz artists in the UK are under no hard and fast obligation to broach current affairs such as the aforementioned. But the far-reaching history of the music has always had a wealth of illuminating insights on the state of the world, with all the political and cultural issues it raises. In the ideal scenario, musicians who root their work in improvisation and interaction with their peers, will tell personal, thought-provoking stories, developing their art and offering a vision of what and who they are on their terms. They may even tell you where they are from.
This article was published in the second edition of Périscope Magazine Creative Spaces for Innovative Music, published during the European project Offbeat.
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