Some stories never get to be told properly. At last ours has been.
Back in 1992, I wrote a dissertation called ‘The House that Jazz Built’ about what was for me a remarkable scene, far more remarkable in fact than Madonna’s transgressive bras or house. It was a scene that was not a single style of music but many, it was a scene where you could see people dancing in astonishing complexity and elegance (and not with a drug-induced grin on their faces and waving a can of beer around), a scene where black and white kids were not only at the same venue they hadn’t even noticed that there was anything unusual about it. People made odd little livings going off buying records in Brazil for DJs or whatever and well it was the first time I had ever really got lost in music because there was so much of it. You could go back through decades of jazz, funk and rare groove or you could skip across the world picking up tunes from Brazil, Cuba, Japan, West Africa and more. It was so deep and so broad that no one could hope to keep up.
GIlles Peterson’s show and Straight No Chaser were the reference points for me. Trying to actually get hold of these amazing tunes you would hear or read about was nigh on impossible. I would be down in Honest Jon’s scanning the vinyl and asking in vain for tracks that never seemed to get released. A gawky James Lavelle would ignore the punters so he could concentrate on playing records in the store. It was wide open and sometimes it could be cliquey but then that is what subculture is all about.
And it all went a bit pear-shaped when it got a name, acid jazz, and the label of the same name put out some pretty tame recordings and cashed in and it was all too easy and flat and faddish and this thing we’d marvelled at suddenly became uncool. But wait we’d say, Corduroy is not what this is all about! What about Tribe Called Quest and Miles Davis and Airto and Fela? But the people who make cool had left the building.
But Chaser carried on and Gilles Peterson is bigger than ever and many of the people who read Fly and write for us carry on and have never stopped going back and across looking for heavy grooves. Did any of us prosper? Maybe Jamiroquai and that would be about it but we are in it for the love. And pretty much everyone in it then is in it now.
Snowboy’s book goes back further than that of course. It goes back to pre-historic Essex, the margin lands where East London’s black youth and Essex’s soul boys found common ground and it goes north for that soul thing. He talks to the movers and finger poppers across the country and assembles — painstakingly — the story of a culture that didn’t have one look, one sound and one path. A subculture that wouldn’t fit nicely into a box and too often got written off before it got written down.
It’s not that I am just enjoying the book, I am thrilled to be reading it. Us old jazz cats are going to feel that something valuable has been caught before it slipped away for good. I am dipping in and coming out with gems and ‘a-ha!s’ every five minutes.
Will it sell to people beyond the scene? I hope so but I think it might struggle to do that, the format of a series of interviews works well if you know who the people are but of course many readers will not. It feels like a reference point for hopefully future books that will weave wonderful stories out of this solid raw material, whether the books will be dedicated to the scene or books with a broader scope finally giving the jazz scene its due in the broader picture.
If you feel jazz, you need this book. Buy from the publishers.