A Sweaty Night Out in London’s New Jazz Scene
Oct. 19, 2018
Femi Koleoso, center, played drums in the band Ezra Collective at the Steam Down improv night in London in August.Andrew Testa for The New York Times
LONDON — In a tiny converted railway arch south of the River Thames, a mosh pit had formed in front of a three-way brass-off. The house band played from the floor, as if it were a punk show. Other musicians crowded around, waiting for their turn.
The pianist Sarah Tandy and Nubya Garcia, who plays saxophone, climbed onto a sofa to get a better view. Sheila Maurice-Grey delivered a breathless solo on her trumpet. And by the time that Ezra Collective, a five-piece jazz band, rolled up and joined in, the corrugated metal walls were streaked with sweat.
It’s like this every week here. By day, the venue is a cafe but each Wednesday it hosts the hottest improv night in town: Steam Down. Since March it has become a hub for London’s flourishing jazz scene, whose players are breathing new life into the genre. Star guests like the American saxophonist Kamasi Washington drop by to jam when they’re on tour, and London D.J.s, radio hosts and jazz heads all turn up.
“I’d never seen that kind of energy at a live gig,” Garcia said of the first time she came to Steam Down.
Steam Down’s founder, Wayne Francis, said that public perceptions of jazz were wrong. “Jazz-influenced music doesn’t have to mean chin-stroking music,” he said.
In London, a new generation is challenging jazz’s stuffy reputation as the conservatory-honed noodlings of middle-aged musicians for affluent — and seated — audiences. A tight-knit scene of players in their 20s and early 30s has sprung up, nurtured by a grass-roots infrastructure of gig nights, talent showcases, online radio stations and independent labels.
Their popularity has increased, particularly among young music fans, and is reflected in the number of these London acts booked for summer music festivals outside of the traditional jazz realm, as well as by streaming figures. In July, for example, Spotify told the BBC that the number of listeners to its “Jazz U.K.” playlist under age 30 had more than doubled.
“Young people love it so much because it’s not intellectual, cerebral jazz; it started in pubs and clubs,” said Dylan Jones, who plays in Ezra Collective.
The trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey performing at Steam Down.Andrew Testa for The New York Times
The band is one of the liveliest groups to emerge from London’s jazz renaissance, made up of Jones on trumpet, the brothers T.J. and Femi Koleoso on bass guitar and drums, the pianist Joe Armon-Jones, and James Mollison, who plays saxophone. In an interview, Femi Koleoso joked that having two black players, two white players and a mixed-race one in the group made it look as if they were a box-checking boy band dreamed up in a record exec’s boardroom.
But Ezra Collective is anything but calculated. Since forming in 2012, the band has grown an enthusiastic fan base without a major record label. Next month it will play its biggest headline show yet, to more than 1,000 people at Koko, a venue in London.
In an interview at Femi Koleoso’s South London apartment, he and his brother explained that, at first, a career in jazz seemed unthinkable to them. “I saw jazz music as an elite art form that I didn’t have access to,” Femi said, “like playing the violin or riding a horse.”
The brothers were playing in a church band when they heard about a jazz development program called Tomorrow’s Warriors. It was a “youth club for jazz music,” Femi said. Tomorrow’s Warriors, which was founded in 1991, offered training to musicians who could not afford private tuition, with a “special focus on those from the African diaspora and girls,” according to the organization’s website.
From left, Dylan Jones, Femi Koleoso, Joe Armon-Jones, T.J. Koleoso and James Mollison of Ezra Collective.Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Tomorrow’s Warriors and similar nonprofit organizations in London, such as Kinetika Bloco, have helped bring new talent to jazz and have nurtured many of the scene’s breakout names, including Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, who also plays the saxophone. Hutchings’s band, Sons of Kemet, was recently nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
The Koleoso brothers met the rest of Ezra Collective at Tomorrow’s Warriors, too. The program’s alumni have formed a supportive, multiracial network of artists for whom collaboration is key, and who move fluidly between each other’s bands.
Femi said people used to think of jazz musicians as white men, rather than women or black people, but in London that image was changing to reflect the diversity of the city. “It looks like London when you watch us,” he said.
The new jazz sound mixes in other popular styles of black music in the city, from the sounds of the African and Caribbean diasporas — calypso, dub, Afrobeat — to the beats of the city’s night life, like jungle and grime.
The saxophonist Nubya Garcia, center, with members of Ezra Collective and an attendee of Steam Down.Andrew Testa for The New York Times
T.J. said the London players were resonating because they were relatable.
“There’s a phrase ‘real recognize real,’ ” he said. “When someone is being real, you respect them straight away, because at least they’re being themselves.”
His brother said, “Kids in London feel misrepresented when they see a pop star,” adding that they don’t feel a kinship to “the pretty person that was scouted out of nowhere and put on a pedestal.”
“That’s not the life they know,” he said.
Femi said he was hopeful that the scene’s growing success would paint a different picture of young people and especially young black men. The only stories about them he saw in newspapers were about crime, he added.
“You have to address the fact that not all black men are thieves and robbers,” he said, “and not all young Londoners are negative people.”
The crowd outside Steam Down. “There’s a sense of community,” Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective said of the improv night.Andrew Testa for The New York Times
T.J. added: “We’re going to make positivity cool again. We’re going to rebrand what young London looks like.”
Back at Steam Down, Wayne Francis, the owner, took the mic and announced that racism and sexism would not be tolerated in the venue, before asking the audience put their phones away and focus on the music.
It was impossible, however, to ignore Ezra Collective when they played. They were as hectic as a college house party, and brimming with abandon as they broke into a cover of a well-loved British tune called “Sweet Like Chocolate.” The vibe, said one attendee, was like being at a rave.
Outside the venue afterward, Ezra Collective and clubbers traded cigarettes and stories. There was an easy rapport between the band and its fans.
“There’s a sense of community,” Femi Koleoso said, “a sense of belonging when you like this music.”