ACID JAZZ – DOES IT REALLY EXIST?
FIRST PUBLISHED: Phaze One, 1988
ACIEEED! My god, it looks like jazz is finally moving out of the middle class drawing rooms and late night dinner clubs and back where it belongs – on the streets! Youth and arrogance are hijacking a long since stagnant form of music, and injecting it with fresh life – and not a little cappucino. Watch out, here come the Sex Pistols of jazz.
It’s happening in the clubs, it doesn’t involve smiley shirts and ecstasy trips, it hasn’t appeared overnight, and it isn’t going to go away. Jazz has always been alive, but now it’s got a new marketing policy, a new image and a new spirit.
Jazz is bouncing back into youth vogue! And whenever ‘youth’ is mentioned, the ears of the big corporations buzz. The cash register rang and Polydor picked up the tab, deciding to take-on the new dancefloor craze – even before it was out of the hip London clubs – by releasing the compilation ‘Acid Jazz And Other Illicit Grooves’ into a marketplace that is ready to tire of acid house. The gamble paid off and now there’s a second Acid Jazz album, along with an album entitled ‘The Original Illicit Grooves’ scheduled for release.
It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s got spirit, but what exactly is Acid Jazz?
Alan Barnes looks puzzled by the question as he stands in the hallway of Camden’s Dingwalls dancehall. Behind him, the second London Jazz Alldayer is in full swing, a showcase for most of the talent on the Polydor compilation, and a chance for the converted to dance all day. Alan’s band, the Jazz Renegades, are featured on the new compilation – therefore they must be Acid Jazz! Put your saxophone down a minute Alan, tell me all about it. What the hell is Acid Jazz?
“I don’t really know what it is,” he apologises. “What is it? What is Acid Jazz? Apparently I’m part of it, but I don’t know what it is, I really don’t.”
A sharp looking geezer passes eating a burger. Why it’s Alan’s drummer-in-crime, and ex-Style Councilor, Steve White. If anyone’s going to know what’s going on, then surely this cat will, as he’s simultaneously the current sticks and brushes man with both the Jazz Renegades and the James Taylor Quartet – and as such, he gets to both open and headline today’s festival. Steve mate, what’s this acid jazz thing all about? “I don’t know,” he says, “but I wouldn’t worry too much about that label, I think I’d just look at the bands individually and decide which ones that you like.”
Up on stage, there’s an angry looking jazz rapper, burning with feeling and intensity. He spouts angry rhymes with laid-back venom, holding the attention of everyone in the club. The dancing has stopped as all eyes watch this flame of rhyming passion. This is Galliano, Britain’s best orator of jazz-oetry, and the man behind the exciting ‘Fredrick Lies Still’ indie release. Surely he’ll know what this thing is all about. Galliano?
“Acid jazz is just a phrase, a name – it means nothing,” he says. “It just gets more young people listening to it.”
“It’s a scam,” whispers James Taylor as he passes between Quartet and bar. “It’s a way of selling records, it’s a way of making money.”
What? Then that makes acid jazz the new balaeric beat?
“It’s actually pre-Balaeric,” says James as he returns with his Perrier. “And what’s good about it is that there are quite a few bands involved, it’s not just a DJ thing.”
As if in vindication of this theory, James points me in the direction of jazz DJ Gilles Peterson, the executive producer, together with Working Week’s Simon Boothe, of the Polydor compilation, and apparently the young man who coined the term acid jazz. Gilles looks about 13, but is in fact 23. As the voice of Radio London’s lamented ‘Mad On Jazz’ show and long term WAG Club DJ, I expected Gilles be much older, and probably have a beard. But in keeping with the idea of the new young jazz, he doesn’t in fact have a beard, just a bizzarre lop-sided beatnick wedge hairstyle. Any man who has a haircut like this must surely be able to enlighten me as to the origins of acid jazz. Please, Gilles – what’s it all about?
“Well, the jazz scene is very strong now, but we felt that it needed a little boost to keep it up there. By calling it acid jazz, people are going to say, ‘Oh, this must be interesting’ and then dance to it. So, subtley you are introducing them to new forms of music and new forms of jazz.”
Ah, I think I’m beginning to understand. It’s a bit like the Meat Marketing Board taking out TV space to promote the sales of meat as a whole, with no brand names involved. Acid jazz is a way of giving a loose and diverse collection of musicians a new and trendy tag. It’s a way of making jazz more acceptable to those people who have not already discovered the delights of the jazz dance scene. To the man on the street, jazz is still seen in terms of corduroys, beards and 20 minute solos. But this isn’t what jazz is really about. It’s young, vigorous, exciting, and currently the soundtrack to a whole new dance explosion and jazz culture in London. Exaggeration? Who cares! Every journalist’s allowed a little license.
Dancing to jazz, it would seem, is an Eighties evolution, and apparently the dance aspect was the central catalyst for the development of this latest reincarnation. “Already a lot of the older generation who didn’t grow up in a club culture don’t understand how people can dance to jazz,” suggests Peterson, “but jazz is just a way of saying ‘freedom’ really.”
Freedom of movement, freedom from musical restraints and freedom of spirit. Sadly not freedom of pigeon-holing, hence Acid Jazz.
Galliano concurs with the Peterson theory of the second (third? fourth ? twenty-seventh?) coming of jazz. “It came out of dancing to jazz, as opposed to wearing corduroys, having the Guardian and listening to jazz. Since the early Eighties everything’s been steadily building and now we’re at the point where music’s being made here and it’s become innovation – it’s not retrogressive at all now.”
The ‘Acid Jazz’ compilation shows a variety of different avenues being explored in the name of the music. If acid jazz is a tag, it’s definitely not a barrier, as a quick examination of the diversity of talent involved will show. Galliano, as we have seen, is a madcap jazz ranter; the Jazz Renegades play a commercial variety of the more traditional end of jazz; Ace Of Clubs play something that sounds very much like jazz over a house rhythm; while Push (currently working with Paul Weller, if rumours are true) and the Rhythm Blades come off sounding like Animal Nightlife and Curiosity Killed The Cat. The Acid Jazz Alliance breathe funky, jazzy, brassy life into ‘Shaft In Action’, as well as acting as an allstar showcase for James Taylor (Hammond organ), Working Week’s Simon Boothe (guitar), drummer Harbans Srih from Animal Nightlife, Ernie McKone from Push (bass), Rockschool’s Alistair Gavan (keyboards), and the Kick Horns. ‘And Now We Have Rhythm’ by Night Trains even sees hip-hop cut-up techniques introduced into jazz (or rather, onto jazz!).
Galliano talks excitedly about some of the innovations and experiments that are going on. “We’re having so many ideas now. There’s ideas at the moment to do a kind of Art Blaikey ‘Orgy In Rhythm’ percussion, and use a scratcher as a rhythm instrument. That’s never been done before. And then over the top of that, loads of different kinds of things. There’s so many influences.”
What on earth will the purists make of that – using a scratcher in jazz?
“Well, that’s what growing up is.”
The new wave of young British jazz is regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by the old guard. They must be experiencing the same kind of feeling that Rick Wakeman had to live through when he first saw the Sex Pistols. The difference is that young jazzers don’t harbour that punkish distaste for their peers. Galliano, in particular, has a great deal of respect for the older jazz tradition, simply objecting to the monopoly that they try an exert over the music: “They corner jazz and say: ‘right, this is mine, I understand it’; and then they claim a kind of totality in understanding it all and tell other people that they haven’t got intensity. But jazz came from the ghetto, it’s black, it’s hard, and it’ll kill you if you listen to it. It’s not for middle class drawing rooms. The youth have got hip-hop, but the youth can also have jazz, because Coltrane’s horn is as hard as Public Enemy. It’s just a question of where you’re listening to it and how you’re listening to it.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the current jazz scene and other forms of dance floor music is that live bands have a crucial role to play. Gilles Peterson is a DJ and not a musician, but he has strong views on the subject. “Jazz is a living music,” he explains. “Jazz is still happening, there’s still a lot of experimentation going on. Jazz is a music that progresses all the time, and for jazz to progress, jazz bands have got to be able to play live. If they play live, they’re going to make records; if they make records, I can play their records.”
All this is something very encouraging in a sadly stagnant music scene. More and more, musicians are going back to the roots of music and beginning to build on new foundations. Rock’n’roll is going ‘specialist’ in the face of boredom, and this can only serve to encourage the bourgeoning jazz scene.
“A lot of groups have decided to take on jazz recently,” continues Gilles, “because it hasn’t got that horrible ‘serious’ aspect attached to it anymore, which obviously is what acid has done; it’s given it a punky feel, making a lot of new bands think that they can have a go. I’ve been receiving loads of demos – a lot of them are technically pretty bad, but the spirit is really good. So, those bands are only going to progress, learn more about their instruments and become technically very good as well – with the spirit.”
Slowly record companies are starting to take Polydor’s lead, realising there is life outside of teenybop pin-ups. The James Taylor Quartet have already hovered on the outer edges of the charts; jazzy instrumentalists The Butterfield 8 have signed to Go-Disks; and Push, with considerable interest, and the Jazz Renegades, look likely to be the next acts snapped up. Gilles Peterson is running an indie label with the James Taylor Quartet’s manager, Eddie Piller – called, what else, Acid Jazz Records – and sees it as a vehicle for any kind of jazz and dancefloor experiments that they feel have merit. Releases to date include Galliano and the Jazz Renegades, while future output includes an album from the father of them all – Jalal, of the Last Poets, and a solo album from James Brown’s trombone player, Fred Wesley.
Whatever the name for it, whether it’s acid or something equally as meaningless, it’s all got to be of benefit to the jazz scene. Despite an entire lifetime playing jazz, Steve White is still young enough to make most of the people involved in, say, the Acid Jazz Alliance look old. But although he’s just a lad he knows how hard the jazz trail can be and that others haven’t been able to develop and experiment in the same way he has. For this reason he is very much in favour of anything that makes the life of the jazz musician a little easier: “I really like the way that a lot of the young jazzers in London are handling the scene. I would like to see a lot of them make a lot of money out of it, because I think they deserve it. It’s a shame that so few English jazzers find the chance to get record deals, because there are some superb players out there.
“Jazz is as accessible as you want to make it,” he continues. “I think anything that’s done with passion and belief and soul is going to appeal to people.”
Acid? It’s all jazz to me!
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007