The recent nomination of Fergus McCreadie for the Mercury Prize has turned attention on the Glasgow jazz scene.
Similarly, when Glasgow jazz DJ Rebecca Vasmant released her album With Love, From Glasgow in 2021, it came with the confidence that new listeners would find a thriving jazz scene based in Glasgow, but also acknowledging a debt to the past.
Some key elements appear to have coalesced to propel an extraordinary variety of young musicians to the fore at the same time which include the formative work being done at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland an open mindedness to collaborations with non-jazz music; and the DIY ethos of independent musicians who know that they often need to become reluctant entrepreneurs and largely self-supporting. Timing is also on point with the burgeoning London jazz scene having become internationally recognised and a commercial success.
Playing jazz, however, is different to forming a band with some mates based on rudimentary guitar skills and some swagger. It takes education and technique which is why the RCS is a crucial part of the story. Matt Carmichael, the saxophonist whose debut album Where Will The River Flow came out in 2021, is a boy from the Highlands who scooped all 3 of the end of year prizes at the RCS the previous year for improvisation, composition and arrangement.
The jazz course at RCS was founded by ex-Blue Note recording artist, Tommy Smith, and he is also a key link to the Scottish Youth Jazz Orchestra which has nurtured nascent Scottish jazz musicians. This to some degree echoes the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme in London where young people have been able to come together to learn and play jazz. Nubiya Garcia, Moses Boyd et al are distinguished alumni of that school.
This cerebral and classical music influenced ecosystem has made a contribution to the sound of the key players. If the Tomorrow’s Warriors culture has brought distinct elements of other kinds of black music to its jazz players, the RCS/Scottish Youth Jazz Orchestra influence mixes with the very vibrant Scottish folk music scene to create a distinctive sound, showcased by, among others, Carmichael, Fergus McCreadie, Chris Amer and David Bowden. The influence of the geography of Scotland in song titles and album covers is potent. This link appears to stem from a genuine desire to connect two distinct musical histories.
The jazz diaspora has seeped into every corner of the globe, with, for example, a major fusion scene in Japan, which largely shields a predominantly white group of musicians from accusations levelled against other derivations of black music. Perhaps a function of its distance from South London (and New Orleans); the demographics of Scotland and the link to Scottish music that all provide comfort here and a real point of difference with England.
Glasgow‘s reputation as an authentic audience is also important as to how others perceive anything cooked up by the Glasgow music scene. It is also true that criticism tends to come with commercial success rather than aimed at plucky outsiders. It would be remiss not to highlight the work of Paix. Something of a renaissance woman, spoken word performer, session vocalist, director, artist, Gillian Katungi, brings an extraordinary voice as well as a social perspective to the scene. Her work across the culture and charity sectors in Glasgow provides a link to the black community and activism beyond the city limits.
Another key player, Graham Costello, arrived “with two goals: firstly, to merge scenes and expose people who I knew would like this music, but who wouldn’t go to stuffy ‘jazz’ gigs; secondly, to often share the bill with an artist who was totally different from us and usually from a different scene”.
It’s not just a classical or “trad” crossover. Costello, another graduate from the RCS, is taking an indie rock, DIY starting point and mixing it with a minimalist jazz aesthetic to create something new, something a bit Glasgow. Meanwhile, AKU! and corto.alto are coming at it with a more hip hop influenced sound. This kind of open-minded collaboration sounds healthy and outward facing. A lot of these musicians play on each other’s albums so a community is formed which can support and nurture itself and welcome new players. With Love, From Glasgow features a host of players from different groups playing together to collectively promote the city wide scene.
With many music venues in the city, Glasgow really can be a platform for these musicians. The Glasgow International Jazz Festival is a key focus and city centre jazz club, The Blue Arrow, due to re-open imminently, post lockdown, has the opportunity to be the centre of the live scene. Smaller venues like the 78 in Finnieston provide improvised jam sessions. Glasgow is not trying to recreate the sweaty intensity of Deptford ; it is developing its own distinct ambience.
London based record label Gearbox, known for high quality vinyl recordings, have released recent work from Costello’s STRATA, so adding to its roster of UK and international jazz (and beyond) artists. Micro London label, Sola Terra, have also released music from Glasgow.
This both suggests that success beyond the city is possible but also that music economy of Glasgow is not laden with profitable record labels able to take a risk on emerging young local jazz talents.
Generating attention for the scene remains an issue both locally and globally. Music streaming services like Spotify and PR/social media activity are essential. In addition, the BBC continues to play its traditional role as arts sponsor with Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights every Sunday and the indefatigable Vasmant is a regular on Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM and other online radio stations.
The collaborative nature of the scene, which emphasises loose group structures rather than bands with fixed line ups, may fit the streaming based musical economy, with its emphasis on a central key musician on a particular project rather than a splitting revenue many ways.
The combination of local elements (live venues, Scottish folk music, RCS, local radio) with UK wide infrastructure (record labels, music publishing companies) fused with international resources (Music streaming services, internet radio) could provide a musical economy capable of sustaining the Glasgow Jazz scene beyond its 15 minutes and into something with lasting foundations.