Out East, the Vortex swirls jazz goodness around but west London has its own pockets of perfect jazz. Our favourite is Hammersmith’s Basement Jazz Sessions. We caught up with accidental jazz entrepreneur Joel Reeves on the eve of Elan Mehler Quartet’s visit
So how did it all start?
The idea of starting up the Basement Jazz Sessions came to me when WTF – a jazz-funk band I play in – played a gig at the Brook Green Hotel’s basement bar at the back-end of 2005. The venue seemed made for jazz, conjuring up the spirit of all those buzzing-with-emancipating-creativity, epoch-defining jazz and folk joints of New York in the 60s, like the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Gerde’s Folk City, Café Wha?, and the Gaslight, which I’d never seen, but whose image was painted in my mind by all the old records I’d listened to.
I was also disgusted by the tedious, soulless going-through-the-(slow)-motions that was passed off under the sorely abused and bedraggled name of jazz in most of the major venues and festivals around London
Gigging around in London had made me sick to the back teeth with all the bent, money-grabbing promoters, with no interest in finding the best music and an audience for it. I was also disgusted by the tedious, soulless going-through-the-(slow)-motions that was passed off under the sorely abused and bedraggled name of jazz in most of the major venues and festivals around London. I saw a chance to build a stage for sincere artists to give of themselves in an intimate communal setting where the musicians and audience are pushing in the same direction.
You have had the cream of British jazz down there: can you share some of the highlights with us?
In July 2006, Jason Yarde performed with his trio Wah! (with Larry Bartley and Mike Pickering). Marcina Arnold opened up with a beautiful solo set. I knew Jason and Marci had a history, as they played together in Quite Sane back in the day, so I suggested they might like to do some kind of collaboration. The result was one of the best musical experiences I’ve witnessed. Jason, in my opinion, is a national treasure and also the humblest guy you’ll meet.
Another memorable night was the time the Robert Mitchell trio (with Richie Spaven and Tom Mason) played. Fireworks-a-plenty that night with some thunderous collective improvisation. Robert Mitchell also happened to play in Quite Sane. I still hope to get that band back together for a special Basement Jazz Session…
Tony Kofi has played a couple of mind-blowing Sessions, one with his organ trio and one with his Monk trio. Both featured the amazing Winston Clifford on drums. Talking of drummers, Dylan Howe has delighted audiences on two occasions, with Brandon Allen and Quentin Collins thrilling on horns. In June of this year, the Max Grunhard Quintet really blew people away with an impressive display of intense beauty.
The first year and a half of Basement Jazz Sessions has also seen other top jazz artists, like Andrew McCormack, Rasiyah, Heidi Vogel, Nathan Allen, Kit Downes, Vasilis Xenopoulos (with the amazing Mingus band, the Underdog Ensemble), and also some of the best in folk and acoustic singer-songwriter music. This is another passion of mine, and it’s been a real pleasure to have young stars like Oliver Talkes and Sam Beer perform. Some label should snap them up right away.
There needs to be a certain understanding. No artistic compromise for the sake of commercialism. It’s a hard way to live
Your own band used to play there a lot but nowadays they are rarely seen, what is going on?
The first Basement Jazz Session took place in March 2006, and featured WTF, with an Anglo-Algerian trio opening up. My hope was to grow a community of good people, so what better seed to plant than that of my friends. The idea was that we might play the Basement Jazz Sessions every few months. We did this throughout 2006, but 2007 saw external pressures – work and family, the stuff of rock and roll – increase to the extent that WTF has to all intents and purposes taken a sabbatical year. I’ve kept the night going once a month and I’m sure WTF will be back when we have something to say.
It’s not easy getting people through the door, especially on a Tuesday night, but you are pretty tireless with mailing lists, discussion boards and so on. What are your top tips for guerilla marketing a jazz night.
First rule is keep the quality high and never lower your standards. I don’t book anyone unless they are capable of making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t make any money out this, so I have to believe in the musicians and passionately want to help them reach a wider audience. That also means that they must be good people, as well as good musicians. There needs to be a certain understanding. No artistic compromise for the sake of commercialism. It’s a hard way to live.
So I guess that means I’m trying to convince people that I’m for real. If I say that we have one of the best saxophonists in the country playing, most people won’t believe me, since I’m not preaching to the converted – I’m trying to reach out to new ears. But those that come realise I’m telling the truth, so they come back.
I don’t really get into guerilla marketing. I don’t have the time anyway, but you have to let people come of their own free will, drawn by word of mouth. I try to focus my attention on people that are into live music, through the MySpace profile, through building up an emailing list and through leaving flyers around record shops, but most people will tend to favour well-known venues. It makes sense to target people living locally too, since crazy people like me who will go all the way to the other side of London and beyond to catch Jason Yarde and get back home at 3am are thin on the ground. I haven’t had any luck with getting major jazz journalists to come down to the nights, even though they write rave reviews about some of the same artists when they play the established (or establishment?) venues or put out an album. But I’m still plugging away.
What is the state of the current jazz scene would you say?
It is generally pretty drab with a few isolated hotspots. And those hotspots can be miraculously life-affirming. They include, in terms of venues and nights, Jazz Re:freshed, the new Vortex, the 606 Club, and Pizza Express in Soho. There are also some good jam nights around London. In terms of jazz musicians, there is some great talent out there, but still so much boring, uninspiring music that young people, in particular, are rarely drawn to jazz. What nights like Jazz Re:freshed and the Basement Jazz Sessions do is provide the certainty that you will only hear the very best jazz, which means it is creative, pushing the boundaries, but informed by the glorious past of be-bop and what followed in the 60s. So if this message can go out to current and potential jazz fans, at least there’s a chance that the best and most honest jazz, rather than the most commercial, will survive and forge a bright future for musicians and music-lovers alike.
What are your plans for the near future?
The next Basement Jazz Session, on Tuesday 4 September, sees the Elan Mehler Quartet come over from New York to launch their new album on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings. We’ll also have two of the finest young British jazz musicians, Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, opening up with a Rhodes and sax duo. In fact there’s a possibility that Kit’s great jazz fusion trio, Troyka, will come down and play with Tom. I’ll be on holiday in October, and then Examples of Twelves will play the November session. This is a great progressive band led by bassist Riaan Vosloo, who plays with Nostalgia 77 and Max Grunhard, which plays cinematic jazz with an orchestral quality. I’m just working on a Christmas special. You can get the latest news from http://www.myspace.com/basementjazzsessions, where you can also sign up to the mailing list. But you knew that already.