In 1951, Jamaican-born music lover Lee Gopthal, part of the Windrush generation, arrived in England and, frustrated by the lack of Jamaican music in Britain, opened up a chain of record stores. In 1968 he joined forces with Chris Blackwell (of Island Records) and set up Trojan Records as a way of distributing Jamaican music to British audiences. Bassist and founder member of Jazz Jamaica All Stars, Gary Crosby OBE, remembers the importance of the music and the effect that it had on him. “There was always music in the house and there was always an awareness of Island Records, and then Trojan, and its connection with my family.” Crosby’s uncle, guitarist Ernest Ranglin performed on, and arranged, the hit record My Boy Lollipop. “That was the song that made me think about playing music. There was just a buzz in the house that I became aware of. I would have been about 7 or 8 and I remember seeing the guitar one day in the kitchen. That was the first time I saw it. That was my connection with wanting to become a musician, seeing that big red guitar. You can imagine, it would have been about the same size as me. I fell in love with music then, so My Boy Lollipop plays a big part of my life.”
The Jamaican music of Trojan Records has also played a big part in British cultural life. The Liquidator by Harry J’s All Stars, for example, has famously been a Chelsea football anthem for decades. “I grew up right next to Chelsea football ground, for my sins. There was a large Irish community, a large Polish community, and quite a few Portuguese around Stamford Bridge. We were all going to the same parties, listening to the same music, which was Liquidator, Double Barrel, Monkey Man, all those songs. The Trojan 50th Celebration is about about saying to the UK, our country, there are lots of good things about diversity, and Trojan music was one of those. It introduced Jamaican music to England. All of us working class kids in London listened to this music and it holds a very special place in a lot of peoples’ minds. We’re celebrating 50 years of Trojan music, not only to celebrate the music but also to make a statement about the things that we have in common.”
Whilst the Jazz Jamaica band began back in 1991, the Jazz Jamaica All Stars have been going for more than a decade and have featured a host of guest soloists. For the celebration of Trojan Records, the band features two veterans of the British soul and reggae scene, Brinsley Forde and Noel McKoy. “They’re not only great musicians and great singers but they’re also great friends of mine. I’ve known them well over thirty years. We all have very similar backgrounds. We’re all West Londoners, first generation Black British, so we have that in common, and a love of reggae music. A lot of people have heard of Brinsley because of his connection with Aswad, but Noel McKoy too has a deep connection with this music, through his brothers and sound systems. It’s great for me to be on stage with people I like, people I trust and people I know that really support this project. It’s not just a gig for them, there’s something more, they’re bringing something special to this.”
“I don’t think there are any survivors from the original band but we have a lot of young players who have come through Tomorrow’s Warriors that have listened to the music over the last couple of years and have been doing rehearsals with us. As part of their learning they would have been introduced to Jazz Jamaica’s music, five or six years ago. We’re now ready to present some of this new talent beside us.”
Crosby started Tomorrow’s Warriors with his partner, Janine Irons MBE FRSA, 28 years ago and the premier jazz education organisation in the UK is largely responsible for the recent wave of younger talent on the current jazz scene, as well as a number from previous generations. “I tend to use ‘generations’ in a very loose way, for us whenever we change the band, which is every four years, we tend to call it a new generation. The first band featured Denys Baptiste, Byron Wallen, Tony Kofi, Robert Fordjour, Alex Wilson. The next generation was Jason Yarde, Robert Mitchell, Julie Dexter. Then the next one was Soweto Kinch and so on. As we come up to today, I think we’re in our seventh or eighth generation.”
He credits the philosophy behind Tomorrow’s Warriors to the teaching that he had when he was younger. “I had a great teacher, Peter Ind, who now lives in Brighton. I learnt a lot from him. What I learnt from him, even though he didn’t say this directly, you have to allow the people you’re teaching to discover the magic for themselves. That’s exactly the philosophy of how and what we do at Tomorrow’s Warriors. The student has to discover the magic, because there is a magic in jazz music. My true love is bebop and straight ahead music. I’ve produced or worked with people who are from many other areas in music. It’s not for me to decide how they should play or what style they should play. That’s not my job. My job is to say ‘look, discover the magic’. That’s how I look at it. I know it’s really difficult on paper to how people would be able to read into it and say ‘The Gary Crosby Technique’ or The ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’ Technique’, I’m going to use this. It’s not that easy. It’s a lot of trial and error. I’ve been really fortunate to have people who trusted it, like Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde. There have been loads of people who have trusted it, but there’s also been people who haven’t been able to gain from it. Some didn’t get it. It’s a type of osmosis. A lot of the kids that come to these classes, I know exactly what they’re going through. Many of us come from the same background.”
Crosby is also honest about what he thinks is the formula for developing young talent. “It’s about trusting them. This may sound like a paradox or egotistical but the technique is to drop your ego. Remember that we are artists and basically we want to tell the world how fast we play, how much harmony I got. If you’re focussing on that while you’re teaching, then your ego is getting in the way of that other person’s development. You’re not actually concerned about that person’s development, what you’re concerned about is getting across how great a teacher you are, how great you are as an individual.
That’s the key: it’s not about us, it’s about those people in the room. If you’re really honest about it, you’ll give up all of your own insecurities, hopes and wishes. I came up in the 70s. I was a teenager in the 70s so I was influenced by that type of philosophy, and I’ve kept it with me the whole way. I want to introduce as many people as possible to this great music. That’s more important than my own artistic endeavours, to be honest.”
He is also keen for students to pass on what they have learnt. “The technique that I’ve always used, as well as ‘each one, teach one’, is that those who have developed through Tomorrow’s Warriors should go on to be teachers. Not everybody, but the ones that are capable of it. I expect them to come back and help. I don’t insist on it but I try and instil that in them while they’re learning with us. The next group of players to come out of Tomorrow’s Warriors, who’ll be ready in the next four or five years, they are Binker Golding’s students.
Seeing young talent develop is, says Crosby, something that gives its own reward. “The young people I’ve been working with have really given back something. I’m very proud and happy to be around such wonderful young talent. It’s just been great fun for me. Sense of duty, yes, but it’s also fun. I do find it quite satisfying to watch a young talent come in and in five or six years time be out there playing on the jazz circuit, or at college studying. I like to see young people develop. That’s why I started it and that’s why I’m still doing it.”
Crosby suffered a stroke in January which has stopped him playing this year, but he remains sanguine. “I had a little experience early this year that’s taking me out for a few months but I’m keeping an eye on it. I won’t be playing in Brighton but I will be there, possibly MC-ing the show.”
Jazz Jamaica All Stars will be presenting a show that is meant for audiences to enjoy. As Crosby says, “Jazz can be fun. Jazz has its roots in dance music and we are a part of that tradition. We’re still soloing like jazz players but there’s this incredible groove going on at the bottom which people will get up and dance to. That’s what we’re there to do. I know what the audience is like in Brighton, I know it’s going to be an audience that is open-minded and up for having a good night. It’s going to be great fun. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Jazz Jamaica All Stars: The Trojan Story, Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Sat. 29th September, 2018.
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson.
Photo by Steve Cropper.