Jazz: No sell-by date

As people’s tastes change over the years, so does music. Music is constantly changing its form to fit with the changes in what is popular and what has died down. With genres such as Latin American and K-Pop having their time in the spotlight, other genres are not as lucky.

While pop mainly dominates the charts, it leads people to believe that other genres are ‘dying’. One in particular, is jazz. Jazz was introduced 100 years ago in New Orleans. Since then, it went through sub-genres including soft jazz, blues jazz, swing jazz, among others.

However, in the 21st century with much more competition, has it seen the end of its popularity, is it making a comeback or has it never left?

Artefact spoke to Ross Dines, Music Manager of Pizza Express Jazz Club. While it’s a brand that is widely known for its “irresistible Italian pizzas”, it has, since the late 60’s, also been hosting live jazz nights every night, presenting more than 2,000 shows every year across different venues.

“Peter Boizot is the founder of this place, and he started Pizza Express in 1965,” Dines explains. “He was the first man really to bring pizza to the UK, so that’s where pizza started. In the beginning, they opened up the first restaurant in Wardour Street, Soho, and he put on live jazz there.”

“You could say that when it came to pizza, jazz was already there,” Dines tells us. “The third or fourth restaurant he opened up in Dean Street in Soho was in 1969 and in 1976 it turned into a full-time jazz club, known as the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Since then it’s been averaging ten live jazz shows a week, every day of the year. It was a big part of his passion.”

  • Interior shots of the Dean Street Pizza Express, Central London.
    Interior shots of the Dean Street Pizza Express, Central London. [Ross Dines]

When it comes to finding jazz musicians to fill their schedule, they are never short of numbers as they receive around 200 emails a day from people wanting to perform. “It’s more about getting the right balance for the programming strategy in the short term and long term so that each night we put on world class music and it suits the time of year,” Dines explains.

With jazz being something that is associated more with the older generation, is it something that the younger music-lovers could warm to?  When looking at the number of people attending these gigs in the Pizza Express Jazz Club, it appears that there is a mix of all ages and genders.

“It’s a whole new age of reaching new audiences, but saying that, it also brings more content.”

“There’s a lot of new hip, new soul jazz acts which bring a very young crowd, so we’re seeing that come through. Jazz is a small word but it means a lot, and there are so many different sub-genres in there. There’s certainly a buzz, and the national press is saying that it’s having another round in being cool, so it’s certainly in no way doom or gloom,” Dines says.

As music is constantly changing, the audiences also change. With a new sound of jazz developing, there is a bigger chance of attracting the younger audience, while still sticking to its traditional roots. Likewise, with the help of social media, attracting a younger audience is becoming more possible now than ever.

“I’ve been a music manager for ten years and promoting music has changed a lot in those ten years. In many ways, it has gotten easier. You can do much more targeted (work) and (use) a lot more intellectual ways of getting new crowds. The artists have also been empowered in a way with social media and digital marketing.

“We’re just bombarded with content, so there is certainly almost too much of it in respects. It’s a whole new age of reaching new audiences but saying that, it also brings more content. If it’s something you love, you can share it with your friends quite easily in the age of mobile technology and the internet. Things are becoming in many ways, more convenient and it is getting easier to promote to a wider audience,” Dines explains.

But, is jazz dying as an art form? This is a question that has been asked for years, as the genre is not as widely listened to, in comparison to its early ages.

“It’s ridiculous really,” Dines states. “There’s going to be highs and lows in the media. There’s going to be people who love it and don’t. You’re going to hear a mixed bag of responses. But there’s loads of new talent coming through, and there are loads of legends still going at it as well as ever.

“There are things that can be addressed, but not the art form itself. The talent is getting even better and better. The audience numbers seem to be growing. If anything, we’re having a good time of it. But the important message from all of that is that there is definitely room for improvement,” Dines says.

“Jazz is a small word but it means a lot and there are so many different sub-genres in there.”

With a venue that seats up to 120 people, setting the atmosphere is the most important part of hosting a successful live jazz night. “There are some types of music that just would not suit that intimate environment. It can’t be too deafeningly loud. So, when you walk in the room, you sort of go, ‘wow, yeah, I get it’,” Dines told Artefact.

“The acoustics are comprehensively perfect, combine that with the world-class acts we have and the utmost best performers you can possibly get in the world going through those doors. The atmosphere, the food, drinks, service and all of that history, which you can see on the walls with the all the photographs. It’s the ultimate experience for live music.”

The Pizza Express Jazz Club is an extremely popular venue for their food and their jazz nights. With music venues in Soho, Holborn, Birmingham, Maidstone and Chelsea, they are targeting a much bigger audience with different styles of music and events with their country music nights, chat shows and stand up comedy acts.

They also have three music venues in the United Arab Emirates, two in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, hosting live music every night, so it’s a business that is expanding on a worldwide scale.

“It’s good because we’re opening up into new territories and reaching new audiences and that also helps to feed back into what we’re doing in our other venues. So people see what else we’ve got up our sleeves and what the other venues have got to offer,” Dines explains.

“So, five ticket venues in the UK, 1,500 ticketed shows a year (between them). Then you’ve got around 20 restaurants up and down the country doing live music. It is expanding. But for us as a brand, we enjoy what we’re doing. We’ve been doing it since day one, sharing our passions. The customers seem to appreciate it, and we certainly do.”

Green Note Jazz venue

Green Note: Live Jazz music venue [Sinead Carroll]

Looking at the experience of Pizza Express, it’s become clear how popular jazz is in the UK. Though it’s not soaring in the charts, the number of people who are attending these performances show how important it still is to the public.

Needing to see this crowd for ourselves, we arranged to meet Rosie Frater-Taylor 19-year-old-old jazz singer/songwriter. Set to perform alongside Ella Hohnen and the Ford’s Treeclimbers at the Green Note — a live music venue in Camden Town.

With the only light coming from candles on each table, the room was cosy. At the front sits a small stage, squeezing in a drum kit, cello, guitars, violin and vibes on the side. Every seat is filled, and the red curtain behind the stage is drawn closed. Ella Hohnen, the lead singer, laughed and spoke comfortably in between songs. With the audience interaction, the atmosphere was calm and made everyone feel like they were among friends for the night.

We talked to Rosie after her performance. With another band coming to perform, the musicians were squashed in a narrow hallway, packing away their instruments. We laughed about how hectic it was; instruments laid out on every part of the floor.

With everything finally packed away, Rosie had a minute to breathe. She is currently studying a Jazz degree at the Royal Academy of Music. While managing her studies, Rosie has also recently released her new album, called On My Mind on October 1, 2018.

  • Rosie Frater-Taylor and Ella Hohnen in the Green Note
    Rosie Frater-Taylor and Ella Hohnen in the Green Note [Sinead Carroll]

With both of her parents being writers, composers and jazz musicians, Rosie grew up around the genre and found her passion for it at the later age of 13: “I think mainly just the love for so many different types of music. There’s this one artist that I’m particularly inspired by called Becca Stevens when I saw her live it kind of cleared up a lot of things for me in my head,” she told us.

“I thought ‘Yeah, I can make a career out of this.’  You don’t really realise it’s any good until you start playing to people and you get a positive response,” Rosie explains. “I guess things kind of escalate from that point and it just inspires you to write more.”

With jazz not being as popular as other genres, there would be more difficulty in finding venues that suit the instruments. However, with most new young artists falling under many categories of music, it is something that makes it easier to promote and gain access to different venues.

“I’m quite lucky in the sense that the music I write comes under several different genres, so it’s kind of a bit of folk, a bit of pop and a bit of jazz in there, so there are a lot of different venues that I can approach with those angles.

“You don’t think of pop music as something that’s going to die, we actually expect it to evolve and I think it’s time that people start thinking about jazz that way as well.”

“Things are sort of starting to take off a little bit for me so I can use that to approach venues, but I wouldn’t really cast myself as a stereotypical jazz musician, if anything, I take it more as a principle than fact,” Rosie adds.

With social media being a very useful tool for new musicians, it has become easier to promote music online for free. With websites and platforms such as Soundcloud, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, it is much easier for artists to share their music and grow their fan community from home.

When we asked Rosie about her opinion on jazz dying as an art form, she laughed and explained how she still sees it being said all the time: “Traditional jazz will always be a thing in itself and to play the kind of music that I play, I had to learn the traditional kinds of music.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead. I’d say it’s something that is always there in modern kinds of jazz, but it’s completely understandable why people would find it inaccessible. I think there’s always so much you can do with jazz and jazz-inspired music that it can never die.”

With the other band starting their set in the back, Rosie focused on their performance as the music consumed the room. Regarding her plans, there are still many in progress including writing new music and finishing her degree.

“Right now, it’s the songwriting that’s kind of taking precedent, but also, I’d love to bring what I have to the table. Accompanying other musicians as well, I’d love to perform with some big names maybe. I’m really into the songwriting thing, and I think there is so much you can do with that. With university, especially in a practical musical degree, you need to really start your career before you leave. So I will continue to grow as an artist and improve as a musician.”

With jazz artists often having musical parents and being surrounded by that sound, it is more common that people will be pulled towards music and grow to love it. However, many artists found jazz a lot later.

Zara McFarlane is jazz singer/songwriter based in the UK. She started singing at the age of 11, and from there she found her passion for writing songs and performing them in school. Attending competitions from the age of 12, Zara continued to grow as an artist.

“I like to try and take people on an emotional journey with music, and I think that’s because of people like Nina Simone, her voice is so distinctive, and you literally can’t get away from going on an emotional journey with her because she has everything in her sound,” Zara says. “That is something that I tend to put into my music, whether it’s through lyrics, writing, the music itself or the vocal delivery.”

  • Zara McFarlane
    Meeting Zara McFarlane [Sinead Carroll]

With Caribbean parents, Zara’s music is a combination of styles and genres, integrating Reggae and Caribbean beats into jazz: “I studied musical theatre in a place called the Brit School, and I went on to do my degree. My teacher was really complimentary of my voice in the style of music. So, he was like ‘we’re going to go and do some gigs together’, so he got me to learn 30 songs for this gig that was a 45-minute set gig,”

“After I did my undergraduate degree, I ended up hanging out and singing at a place called the Jazz Café. I got to meet a lot of musicians there, and I got involved with a company called Tomorrow’s Warriors that were about developing young jazz musicians.”

Tomorrow’s Warriors are a close-knit team that helps young developing artists start their music careers. “They gave us opportunities to be able to perform and tour. I was probably about 19/20 when I met them. We’d get the opportunity to tour and perform around Europe and around the UK.” Zara says.

There is a resurgence in the jazz scene, with new young musicians making their way to the front. While it may not be seen as much as pop music, they are having a good time with it, and that’s noticeable.

“I think at the moment in the UK jazz scene, there’s a lot going on,” Zara explains, “a lot of young new jazz musicians are doing good stuff in jazz, and I think because they’re younger, they are attracting a younger audience.  I think people are having the opportunity to hear the music. Once they hear the music, any style of music, they’ll get the chance to see if they like it or not.”

When it comes to any genre of music, it is important for artists to show who they are through their music. With different personal influences and styles, that is something that is becoming more noticeable in the way we listen to music.

“We’re not particularly preoccupied with the old traditional way with doing things necessarily. We’re inspired by that, but we’re also bringing ourselves, our personalities and our other influences in and I think that’s how music develops in general,” Zara explains.

“We’ve got different styles of jazz anyway over the years, but sometimes people can get preoccupied with a particular sound of jazz. That approach to music, in general, is stifling and not necessary, so it’s exciting right now because we’re approaching it very differently.”

Instead of sticking to the traditional ways, they continue to be inspired by it, but they’re adding their own style into the mix, breaking that stereotypical idea around jazz and breaking out as individual artists.

When bringing up the dreaded topic about jazz being ‘dead’, Zara laughs: “It’s something that I think has been said about jazz since it was invented to some degree,” she explains. “You don’t think of pop music as something that’s going to die, we actually expect it to evolve, and I think it’s time that people start thinking about jazz that way as well.

“I think there’s always so much you can do with jazz and jazz-inspired music that it can never die.”

“When you’ve got the swing feel, you’ve got dancing, and it’s very much a social thing,” Zara says. “It’s very physical and exciting. But when it became more of an introspective art form, and people were sat down, listening to it in a bar as opposed to dancing to it, I think people might have felt that the art form was dying as they knew it.”

Social media is a massive help to upcoming artists who have yet to be in the spotlight. There is a lot more choice of music for listeners, which ultimately increases the competition.

“I think music, in general, is just really competitive,” Zara says. “Especially right now, because you can put out your own music. There’s so much music out there. More so than even ten years, 20 years ago. It is competitive, but I think it is a niche market. It’s maybe a slower burn in some ways, but it has been over the years than other styles.

“It’s one of those things to me, trying to be true to myself musically and hopefully that connects with people. You can build your audience that way. I think that’s more important than trying to think about competing with other people.”

While Rosie was brought up in a jazz background, Zara was not brought up in that environment. Regardless of their different upbringings, they still found their passion for the genre and have both been successful with it.

“I’d probably approach things at a more open perspective than perhaps people who were homegrown in jazz, because my parents didn’t listen to jazz when I was growing up. That’s not my background. I came from a popular music background and then discovered jazz later. So I’m pretty open to the styles that I’d like to incorporate into what I want to do and explore,” Zara says.

With her ambitions becoming a reality, Zara has been able to do things she only dreamt about before. As she will be singing jazz in an opera with the Nord Pole orchestra in Holland early next year in the prestigious venue Glyndebourne.

After recently finishing her tour for her 3rd studio album Arise, 2018 has been a busy year for the musician. With one last gig this year on December 16, at the Jazz Café in London, Zara plans to continue working on her music and hopefully release her next album in the coming future.

After getting an insight into the world of jazz, it is clear that it is still something that is very much alive and kicking. While it may not be something seen in the top of the charts anytime soon, the genre itself is still widely celebrated in the UK, and by broadening music tastes and introducing people to this new take on a traditional art form, it is something that will only continue to grow.




Featured image by Ian Munroe via Flickr CC