Get Down to Brass: Nottingham's Jazz Scene

24 August 18 words: Will Ryan
photos: Richard Chung

Jazz has been around for over a century now; the exact date disputed but its birthplace is unanimously agreed on: New Orleans. African-American communities of this vibrant, palpable city kicked off the magical creation in the early 1900s, and an entirely new music genre formed. After a period of being frowned upon by many, it became the soundtrack for twenties America, otherwise known as the Jazz Age. These days, the West African rhythms, blues, ragtime and European military band infusions have danced their way across the globe, and into the corners of cities like ours. But what of Nottingham jazz? Where did it all start, and what’s going on in the scene today?

After eventually realising success and canonising itself in America's identity as the country’s “classical music”, jazz found its way to London via visiting musicians and imported records. The rest of the country readily embraced the music, further popularised by newspapers and the radio. The forties signalled the beginning of Nottingham's jazz history when the Nottingham Rhythm Club was formed, which still runs to this day and meets at The Stadium Leisure Club monthly to hold heavyweight performers and occasionally more modern acts.

In the early fifties, the Trent Bridge Inn hosted some of the earliest live performances from local jazz music makers. Over the following years, the city welcomed renowned jazz musicians like Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington to play in venues that included the Albert Hall, which was notoriously built with disappointing acoustics. Alongside concert acts, many pubs and bars held nights and residencies for listeners to sink into the smooth sound of jazz.

In 1997, the genre underwent a change in Nottingham and entered the Jazz Steps era. An organisation built on nurturing and progressing the genre within the city, Jazz Steps consistently held concerts in the Bonington Theatre, hosting a number of contemporary professional musicians, and continues its work today. Before Jazz Steps, the genre lacked a solid centrepiece to identify with, and a dedicated team of volunteers strived to change this. Carl Bilson, a Jazz Steps contributor, describes their aim as "fostering jazz throughout Nottingham and Nottinghamshire." Their efforts to find, mentor and train people to play jazz music and master the art of sound engineering, further preserves the city's jazz culture.

Jazz drummer, Andrew Wood, says that "Nottingham doesn't have a specialist [jazz] degree pathway; the scene is more organic." People contributing to the scene are purely self-guided, and that spirit is evident through the tight-knit connections between musicians and organisers. Jazz Steps have helped to promote a brand new jazz bar, Peggy's Skylight, set to open on Friday 24 August. With the recent closure of many of the city’s independent hangouts – like the Malt Cross, which hosted the Jazz Jam every month – it’s exciting to be introduced to a new venue for both casual and dedicated listeners to attend freely and regularly.

One venue that’s stayed true to the traditional format and styles of jazz is The Pelican Club, which hosts live music from jazz trios, quartets and other acts who scatter songs on diners every Friday and Saturday. On Sunday lunchtimes and Monday nights, however, you can catch more traditional swing featuring at The Bell Inn. There’s also The Lion at Basford, which hosts quality traditional musicians all day every Sunday, attracting a multitude of serious performers.

Bitches be Brewin, a night running on the first Thursday of every month at Jamcafe, is pushing the genre forwards too; blending styles like hip hop and funk with more improvisational jazz, as well as welcoming musicians to contribute and collaborate on spontaneous one-song gigs with strangers or the house band.
And on the movement side of things, Out To Lunch, the monthly jazz dance sessions at the Rose and Crown, enables a niche jazz subculture to reside in Nottingham.

Mainstream jazz has always had an association with the older generations since it passed its time as “pop” music. Adaptation was necessary to engage younger listeners, and events like The Jitterbug, a night of electro-swing (classic swing music combined with mainly house) have come and gone. The introduction of Swing and Bass nights, which served up jazz mixed with drum ‘n’ bass, also had a hand in creating a period that saw the genre reach a younger audience, and do something a bit different.

Sadly, these events ended earlier in the year, but The Jazz Recovery Sessions offer another club-infused jazz experience, although with purer dance-jazz vinyl gracing the record player. Justin Turford from Truth and Lies Music runs these sessions, and is delighted with the mixed-age turnouts they see: "A large percentage of punters are twenty-year olds losing their shit to records I've not had an audience for in years."

The future of jazz in Nottingham has a unanimous verdict of growth from the insiders on the scene. Through innovation, jazz will remain at the forefront of creative musical advancement. There’ll always be a place for the official soundtrack to bars and coffee shops, for the classic sound that rebels and brings people together all over the world.

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