As New York’s Winter Jazz Festival comes to a close, I felt compelled to write about a certain jazz night that has been at the forefront of London’s independent jazz scene, and two extraordinary personalities who have strived to keep this prodigious art form alive.
Since 2003, in an intimate bar called Mau Mau on West London’s Portobello Road, Jazz re:freshed has been showcasing some of the most cutting edge musical talents. Their stage has been graced by the likes of Fertile Ground, Azymuth, RAMP, Jose James, Flowriders, Elza Soares, Electric Wire Hustle and Dwight Trible – to name just a few.
Started by Justin ‘Top Rock’ McKenzie and Adam ‘Rock’ Moses, the Jazz re:freshed night has a loyal and respected following of staunch music lovers alongside celebrated musicians and producers. On any given night, you are likely to find in the audience some of London’s most innovative and talented minds, including 4Hero’s Dego Ranks or singer Michael Kiwanuka.
Jazz re:freshed is, however, more than just a live music night. It is an artistic movement, a proud and profound statement, that embodies Adam and Justin’s two passions – music and youth. When they’re not organising music events, they’re either teaching in schools or involved in youth work. Despite their noble intentions and indefatigable efforts to make jazz music accessible to a younger generation – encouraging young bands as Psylus and TURTL on their stage, or by making their gigs very affordable – they have been met with resistance by mainstream jazz agencies.
Despite the quality acts they’ve showcased over the years, Jazz re:freshed has reluctantly remained at the margins of London’s jazz world. During the London Jazz Festival in November, Jazz re:freshed featured Marc de Clive Lowe (a long-time member of the Jazz re:freshed family) and a week later hosted a jazz jamm with all-round musical genius Kaidi Tatham. And yet, Jazz re:freshed was not included in the London Jazz Festival programme, which listed over 250 acts spread across the UK capital over ten days.
I caught up with Adam and Justin at Mau Mau to find out a bit more about the Jazz re:freshed movement and their views on this enigma.
Q: Tell me about how and why you started Jazz re:freshed.
Justin: When Jazz re:freshed started, it wasn’t going to be a live night. It was going to be a night of just playing jazz. We had a lot of records. We were playing at parties and stuff like that. We had jazz collections, so we had opportunities to play. No pressure – we just had to make people dance. It was for our own pleasure. It wasn’t meant to be live, but then the opportunity was there and we just ran with it.
Adam: We were going to a lot of jazz events and we luckily knew a lot of bar managers of certain clubs and we were able to see a lot of great artists perform for free. But we were quite young then and we couldn’t afford to pay GBP£40 / £50 each time to see someone at Jazz Cafe or Ronnie Scotts – guys like Airto and Bob James. I was really inspired by the music and collecting, and we wanted to inspire the next generation.
I remember having an argument with someone, trying to blag my way into Ronnie’s because I didn’t have enough money to get in, and it cost £40. I was having an argument with the person at the door saying, “You’re not making it accessible for younger people. You’re not going to have the next generation coming through.” And they were so dismissive of me. They couldn’t care less. I stood there for a little while trying to argue the point. That day stuck with me – the idea that they we’re not feeding the next generation, not getting enough people into it. Since the live stuff started, we were always about trying to make the music as accessible as possible. When we first started it was free entry, and even now we mostly only charge around £5.
Q: Nine years down the line, how has Jazz re:freshed changed and developed?
J: It’s become more established. In terms of its structure, how the night goes, not a lot has changed. Our attitude towards Jazz re:freshed has changed. We are now putting out more music and looking beyond the night. Our mindset towards what we had set out to achieve is still there. That’s stayed pretty constant.
A: We’re definitely doing more outside of the live night – the record label, the clothing line. It’s an extension of promoting what we do and it’s our way of giving back to the people. The releases were always about helping to promote the artist. The compilation was about getting the music out there. And with the 5ive series it was making the music accessible. £5 for a CD – it was about getting the music out there. I think we’ve developed the art side out of it. Justin is our Creative Director and his vision has become a lot clearer through the art that we’re putting out there.
Q: Are you looking at getting Jazz re:freshed to be franchised in other countries?
J: We would have to be in tune with whoever wants to do it, but we’d love to have Jazz re:freshed happen in other countries – that would be amazing, that would be the future. We were supposed to do a tour in the States in 2012 – east coast. But it didn’t fall into place. And this year, we’ve got too much planned, so maybe we’ll do it next year.
Q: Is there any one performance or group that is the most memorable for you?
A: Too many to mention – different memorable performances for different reasons. But the first time Kaidi Tatham played live here, something just switched in my head and it was like – this is it! It was so raw, so underground. It was full in here and what they played was so amazing. I thought, “Wow, this is us in them!”
J: Kaidi could be the ambassador of Jazz re:freshed. Kaidi has always embodied what we’re about, and that is progression – in terms of being forward thinking and always trying to push the boundaries in his performance, and in terms of his band as well. It’s not to say that we only like Kaidi’s brand of jazz or brand of music.
Q: I noticed that your gigs weren’t included in the London Jazz Festival listing. And you’ve told me that it hasn’t for the past nine years. Why do you think that is?
A: When we first started doing Jazz re:freshed we were so outgoing with a lot of the jazz agencies and establishments. We were cold calling them saying, “Look, we’re doing this night. We’re trying to bring more young people into it, make it more public.” They weren’t really enthused by it and they were really apathetic for us. I remember I phoned up one of the publications and they said, look we’re doing this jazz event in London, and she was saying, “Yea, well, I’m not sure.” I said, “We’ve got this person and this person.” And she said, “Well I don’t know who they are.” I replied, “Well they are jazz.” And she said, ”You do know we’re a jazz publication, not soul or reggae.” And I said, “Yes, I do know that. Do you know Jason Yarde?” She said yes. I said, “Well, he’s playing next week. Do you know Robert Mitchell? Yeah? He’s playing the week after.” And for me personally that made me think, “You know what, let’s just do what we’re doing.”
We’ve been promoters for a long time. We did sound system stuff; we did hip-hop raves. We did soca for years. We’ve promoted and we’ve brought in a different audience to different kinds of music before. So we’ll just treat it with that sort of mentality, we’ll just do our own thing. Every year I go on the Jazz Festival website and email what’s on there and I don’t get a reply – every year. I don’t know how I feel about it these days. It’s become a running joke with us – no listings again this year – hehehe. Other than being appreciated as being a credible jazz night, which, you know, we’ve been doing this for nine years, we don’t need to prove anything anyway, but it would be huge exposure for us.
J: With many jazz publications and magazines, they’ll have artists on the front cover who have already performed here. I don’t know what it is, but we don’t want to think too much about it because we don’t want to be bitter. But it is about exposure, and the biggest problem with me is that what we’re trying to do is wonderful. We’re trying to push the appreciation of this music as wide as possible, so I don’t understand the passive opposition to what we are doing. And if certain agencies like Serious came to us and said, “Look, let’s do something,” we’d do it. We’d never had the resources to do something so big. We do whatever we can do within our means. Sometimes we have to dip in our own pockets. But with the backing of one of these agencies, we could actually achieve something.
2013 is the 10-year anniversary of Jazz re:freshed and the organisers assure me that big things are in the pipeline to mark this significant milestone. My hope for them is that this will also be the year that they receive the recognition they so rightly deserve.
Jazz re:freshed takes place every Thursday at Mau Mau, 265 Portobello Road, 8pm – 11.45pm.
photo credit: Alex Coley