In an interview with SJM editor Charlie Anderson, writer Daniel Spicer discusses his latest venture, the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival which launches this month at The Old Market.
Tell us a bit about your background.
“I write for The Wire and Jazzwise magazine so I’m a jazz critic and I do a radio show on Radio Reverb on Sunday nights called The Mystery Lesson that plays free jazz and improv. And I also make music. I’m in a band called West Hill Blast Quartet who are a free jazz quartet, and some other groups as well.”
Did you start out as a musician?
“No, the opposite, actually. I started off writing about music I suppose. I’d been in bands when I was younger. Jam bands, really. I guess it was when noise was a thing about ten years ago. For me it was a bit like punk: it was permission to have a go. There were all sorts of non-musicians making sounds, so I started jamming with some friends and we had a band called Bolide, just a kind of noise, ecstatic kind of band. It totally took off in a big way and I really enjoyed it. And a bit more recently I’ve gotten into a bit more improv scenarios, so I don’t think of myself as a musician, I’m more of an improvisor. I’m an improvising non-musician, I would say. I don’t have any chops – I couldn’t play Happy Birthday on the trumpet but I can do some convincing and entertaining free jazz. I’m lucky, I play with some really talented people who make up for my lack of talent. I’m in a band with Gus Garside, a double bass player who has been around on the improv scene since the Seventies, Ron Caines, a saxophone player who was in an amazingly great prog-psych group from the late Sixties called East of Eden. He’s our sax player and he’s amazing. Andy Pyne, on the drums, has played in all sorts of bands and has been around for ages. They lift me up. I tend to occupy the front of the stage role which works and it’s good fun. We’ve made a couple of CDs and played Cafe Oto stuff. It’s good fun and we’re playing at the festival. When I put the festival together I thought it would be good to have representation of the hometown. It’s the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival so you’ve got to have someone from Brighton playing, right? And then I thought ‘oh, that means me’. I’m not doing this to be a total egotist, that I want to get my name on the bill, but the sort of music that I want at the festival, I’m involved in making but unfortunately that means I’ve got to be on the bill. Nobody’s going to believe me but I mean it.”
Tell us about the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival and how it all came about.
“About two years ago I wrote an article for The Wire in which I was bemoaning the corporatisation of jazz. So I was moaning about Jazz FM being mainly a station that plays soul and funk with not much jazz. And I was also moaning specifically about what passes for a jazz festival, in the UK and elsewhere – it’s global thing these days. I was moaning about Love Supreme [festival] which I will go on record as saying that I think is a travesty and an insult to jazz. The fact that they have the nerve to call it that, by co-opting the name of John Coltrane’s deeply felt spiritual epiphany and offering to the Lord in the name of money-making, watered-down commercial mainstream event for twits in matching crocs and trilbies is to my mind, blasphemous. It’s pretty bad. Also, I disagree with what the London Jazz Festival has become as well, especially now that it’s known as the EFG London Jazz Festival, which means they get funding from a Swiss bank, which specialises in helping people avoid paying tax. I’m not sure if that really chimes with the spirit of jazz. It’s the sound of an oppressed people – I can see some disjunction there.”
“So, I wrote this article and I got it all off my chest. I felt very strongly about it. And then I thought ‘it’s all very well being negative about it but perhaps I could do something about it and wouldn’t it be nice to have a festival that people would actually like to go to’. So I gave it some thought and I thought ‘well, let’s give it a try’. So I applied for funding from the Arts Council, got the funding and the festival has fallen into place.”
How did you find the whole process of applying for funding?
“Not too bad, actually. I had some help from a freelance fundraiser. When you know what you need to do, how to fill in the forms and what the Arts Council are really interested in supporting then it becomes an easy matter. But I genuinely felt that the cause that I was trying to further is a worthwhile one and because I was able to articulate it in a passionate way in my application, I think that helped my cause.
The other thing is, the main thing about this festival is that there’s four words involved: Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival. It’s quite trendy these days to have festivals that have a name, e.g. Under the Covers or whatever, but I just wanted to say exactly what it is. So, in other words, it’s an alternative, it’s very much an alternative to these mainstream jazz festivals that don’t really have any jazz in them. It’s in Brighton, which is a well known hub of alternative musical energy. And it’s jazz, not improv, not just free-form improv but I want music that has got real heart, soul, fire and connection to the source.”
“An important part of it as well is to give female instrumentalists more of a platform because too often if you go to a jazz festival and there’s a female artist she’ll be a vocalist singing the songs of Ella Fitzgerald or some bullshit like that. There’s so many really talented female instrumentalists working in the UK and elsewhere and I thought ‘well, let’s try and level that playing field a bit’. That probably helped my application a bit because that’s about equality. I didn’t even have to fib. I just filled in the forms in such a way that told them how I felt and that obviously chimed with them.”
“I saw a wonderful illustration of this not long ago when they were advertising Love Supreme around Brighton and they had big posters hanging off lamp posts. They had one which had three of the headliners and it had their faces in an unholy triumvirate: Chaka Khan, Lisa Stansfield and Rebecca Ferguson. You’ve got an Seventies/Eighties American soul singer, an Eighties UK pop has-been and you’ve got the winner of a TV talent contest. And that’s how you’re advertising a jazz festival. Those are the best women that you can get? It’s just wrong in every way. It’s the very essence of what I’m against. It’s terrible. It’s making me cross again, just thinking about it!”
“So this is what we’re up against. Jazz doesn’t denote fire, protest or self-expression or creativity or risk or danger or adventure or any of these things. It’s become a brand name for safety. It’s not even dinner table anymore, it’s more like dentist’s waiting room. And there’s so much good music being made, it just makes me a bit cross.”
Tell us some more about the support that you’ve received for the festival. You got Arts Council funding as well as support from other places.
“We did get Arts Council funding, we got just under £15,000 which is great and then we also had to do an Indiegogo appeal to raise some extra funds, which I think is just to show the Arts Council that you mean business and that you’re not just lying around waiting for people to give you money. You’ve got to make a bit of an effort. So we did that and we had some very generous donations and particularly out of that we were really lucky to receive an offer of sponsorship from a record label called Two Rivers Records which is London based. It’s a new-ish label but it’s got a really interesting roster of artists, people like Calum Gourlay the bass player and Oli Bryce, another bass player playing in a trio with Mark Sanders and Tobias Delias.”
“It’s a really interesting label and I met with the owner of the label, who is also a performer and artist, her name is Alya Marquardt. We met to discuss her offer of sponsorship and we hit it off because she agreed with everything that I was saying about why I wanted to do the festival, with equal amounts of vim, so I was very happy to accept sponsorship from them, which really helped. And they will be a presence at the festival, they’ll have a stall there selling their stuff.”
“The plan is for this not to be the only time we do this. We’d love the festival to continue and become an annual thing. That’s the idea. And hopefully this will be the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the two of us and we’ll see where we can go.”
“In terms of money, that’s it. I shudder to think how much Love Supreme costs to put on. Millions probably. We’re doing this with five figures. It’s not a lot of money, really. There’s not a lot to spare. But we’re spending it all on getting some great musicians.”
Tell us about the musicians that are performing at the festival.
“I thought it would be good to have musicians from America and Europe. Another thing I was keen to do was to try and steer away from this very PR-driven London jazz scene. I won’t name names but there are certain promoters and certain PR companies who tend to tie it up a bit in London – a bit of a jazz mafia thing going on. If you’re not part of that circle then you don’t get the gigs. You just have to look at the London Jazz Festival to see what I’m talking about. Certain people get to play it over and over again.”
“I thought that there’s so much happening in other parts of the UK, there’s loads of great stuff happening in the North, around Manchester, loads of good stuff, and in the Midlands as well. I thought, ‘well, let’s get some of these people down’. So, we’ve got guys like Corey Mwamba coming down from Derby.”
I’ve interviewed him for the magazine. He gave lots of great advice about applying for Arts Council funding.
“He’s a super-smart individual. I like Corey a lot. So he’s playing and we’ve got Nat Brichall coming from Manchester. Also, from London we’ve got Woven Entity, who are kind of an underground band really, they’re not going to be playing at London Jazz Festival any time soon. They’re underground, psychedelic, but very jazz. They’ve got a mid-Sixties Sun Ra kind of vibe. Cosmic psychedelic explosion. Just absolutely great.”
“And everyone’s getting paid. That’s the nice thing. Nobody is doing it for free and everybody is getting paid properly. Everyone gets to stay in a nice hotel. That’s where the money is going. Doing it properly. We’re not making any money out of it.”
“I’m glad that you’re picking this up because I’m really trying to spread the word about it now. Tickets are moving and I’m convinced there’s an audience for it. I’ve had loads of great feedback, loads of encouragement. I think, though, in Brighton people are too cool for school sometimes. They wait to the last minute to buy concert tickets. There’s a little bit of a spike when you first put them on sale and then everyone will wait until the last minute because there’s so much to choose from in Brighton.”
“The Old Market is a great venue and the way we’ve planned it is we’re going to have tiered theatre seats so that everyone can get a good view and then at the front we’re going to have cabaret-style tables and chairs so it’ll be quite an intimate vibe in there. There’s only about 250 tickets going for each night. All along I’ve been thinking ‘we’ll sell those, easy’ but now I’m thinking ‘but will we?’. But I’m sure there’s enough people in Brighton to fill it. I’ve had interest from someone in North Wales, which is interesting because if the word has spread that far then I wonder how we’re going to do. I managed to get an ad in The Wire magazine and a little news item on it.”
“I also occasionally contribute to Jazz On 3 on BBC Radio 3. They’ve tweeted about it and they’re going to include it in their listings for the week. We’re getting the word out. Without a big publicity budget, like Love Supreme for example, it’s sort of half-relying on word-of-mouth and trying to sneak posters into other people’s clubs, but it’ll get there.”
“I have to say that getting William Parker and Hamid Drake was a major coup. They’re clearly one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz. That’s going to be amazing. There’s also a brand new band, Keirmyer-Birchall Transcension which is Franklin Kiermyer, a Canadian drummer who played with Pharaoh Sanders in the 1990s and plays with Juini Booth and Azar Lawrence. He’s a heavy, spiritual drummer. And Nat Birchall the English saxophone player.”
“At the end of last year I did my top ten jazz and improv records for The Wire magazine and I had Nat at number one and Franklin at number two and they’d never heard of each other but they saw the list and got in touch with each other. So when I got in touch with Nat and asked him to play at the festival he said ‘yeah, can I bring a friend?’ so they put together this new band with two guys from New York with the best jazz names you’ve ever heard: Davis Whitfield and Nimrod Speaks, a bassist and pianist. So this is a new band playing compositions that they’ve never played before and they’re going to be recording an album together next year. So this band was put together through my agency, by accident (which I’m pretty chuffed about). This is going to be their first gig and pretty amazing.”
The Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival
Friday 11th – Saturday September
at The Old Market, Hove