Interview: Justin McKenzie of Jazz Re:freshed
Jazz Re:freshed began in 2003 as a weekly live music event but soon grew into a larger arts organisation that helps promote the younger generation of jazz artists through educational work, a record label and its annual summer festival, Jazz Re:Fest which comes to Brighton Dome on Sunday 22nd July. SJM Editor Charlie Anderson spoke to Co-Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Jazz Re:freshed, Justin McKenzie.
You co-created Jazz Re:freshed with Adam Moses 15 years ago. Did you have any idea at the time where you were going to go with it?
“Not really. It was one of several things we were doing at the time. We were a group of promoters who were under a banner called Up Rock. So Jazz Re:freshed started out, literally, as the jazz night that we created, amongst other things that we did, like hip hop and soul. When we first started it we didn’t really have that kind of long-term vision of ‘this is going to be the thing that we’re going to stick with’, but after a couple of years it gained momentum and started to have its own power to pull off in that direction.”
When you started it, how did you approach things differently?
“Because we were not coming from the jazz world, we were involved in a lot of different scenes, like the broken beat scene which was quite hot at the time. We had ways of promoting, our aesthetic was different, we had this really forward-thinking way of doing stuff. When we started to get involved in jazz, we looked at what the jazz world was doing at the time, it was all a bit dated. Our whole ethos was about promoting music to whoever. Rather than it being ‘oh, we’re doing a jazz thing, let’s get jazz people there’, we knew that people who came to our things listened to general music would be interested in whatever we were putting on. So we decided to stick to our way of doing things.”
“A couple of members of our team, myself and another guy, had a career in art and we had a lot of creatives within our team so we said ‘let’s continue to do things the way we do them’ with the promotional assets like flyers, posters, website and we just ignored everything else in terms of jazz that was happening. As far as we were concerned we were just pushing the music that we were pushing. We were always concerned about actually moving it forward and being at the forefront of things in terms of technology, aesthetic and so on, and with jazz it was no different. In some ways with jazz it was more necessary because around the time there weren’t many doing that and jazz had, to an extent, this stigma of it being very stuck in the past. We eschewed all that and we had no interest in replicating the bad side of that.”
As Jazz Re:freshed started to grow, was there a certain moment where you felt it going to the next level?
“There came a time when we were tapering off some of the other things that we were engaged in and Jazz Re:freshed was becoming the nucleus of what Adam and myself were doing. So I think it was 2008 that we put out our first release, a double album. We didn’t consider ourselves a record label at that time, but the reception that we got from that gave us the scope for it being something, and thinking ‘this can move forward’. We always started with this quality, this innovation, this pushing music. What’s happening now could have happened at any point, musically, from even before we started, but as time progressed, after we released the double album, we started to think about this as being something that we could grow and expand. We were doing this weekly, it was a passion. It still is but we started to see possibilities after we released that.”
“The biggest leap was in 2014 when we applied to become an NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) with the Arts Council. The possibilities if you have that status is that myself and Adam could go full-time on this, then we could really try to achieve what we had in our heads at that time.”
“So the biggest leap was in 2014 and then in 2015 we became an NPO and that gave us the security, and in some ways more pressure, but it meant that we could dedicate our working time to doing what we wanted to do. I think that was the biggest leap forward.”
Where do you envision taking it in the future?
“It’s a funny one because when you’re fighting for something, for recognition for artists and music, you start to realise that what you’ve been trying to do has come to fruition. Although, there’s always that fight with jazz. Even though it’s getting a lot of press, there are some hard heads out there. But for us, our direction and focus has opened out into more regional and international areas. That’s where our focus is for the next few years. The last two years we’ve been doing a lot of international work including Brazil, the US, in New York and SXSW in Texas.”
“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time but now we’re actually able to do these things, and planning for the next two years. It’s about creating channels abroad and the fan base for artists, possibilities, spreading the creativity that we have here and with our artists.”
“More closer to home, we’ve never really been regional, which is weird. We’re going to be in Brighton, which is great but we’ve always been London based. Although we have loads of bands that we work with from outside London, we haven’t really done anything that’s our own project outside London, so this is a first.”
“That’s now the focus, working away from home, moving out of London and thinking internationally as well. There’s also a complete other side, the media side that we do, the creative side of what we do, which is the work inside the record label and our film work, that’s another side that we’re pushing forward.”
Tell us about this year’s Jazz Re:Fest.
“Every year we’ve been putting up a few bands that we believe in. This year it’s Vels Trio, Daniel Casimir, Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED ensemble, Yussef Dayes, Noya Rao, Blue Lab Beats, Ruby Rushton.”
“It’s a similar format. This is our sixth year. The first years were at a smaller venue in Ladbroke Grove, then we moved to the South Bank and this year at Brighton Dome. We were already last year looking at where we could take it regionally, not necessarily to replace London. The London one is the home one, but to do it as well as. We happen to not be doing it in South Bank, but we wanted to bring the same model in terms of having a group of bands that we feel will light up a stage and also having a group of DJs, because we feel that DJ culture is important as well. With this festival, we’ve increased the number of DJs from last year, but we’ve kept live bands and musicians.”
“We’ve got other things going on like an informal jazz dance class taken by Masumi Endo from Japan. We’re really trying to bring the vibe to Brighton. It’s going to be a different model. So for those who are used to South Bank, it’s going to be something different. We stress that, and that’s not a negative, that’s something exciting. For us it’s quite scary and intimidating that we’re promoting in a new place altogether but it’s also exciting and it’s nice to meet people from another area that we can vibe with and have a good time.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
“With Jazz Re:Fest it’s intentionally open for all age groups. Children are free and it’s £7.50 for adults. We encourage all ages to come because that’s an important thing for us. It’s not about old heads or young heads, it’s about families and whoever wants to come and hear good music. It’s something that everyone should come to, and party and experience.”
Jazz Re:Fest is at Brighton Dome on Sunday 22nd July, 2018.
For more information on Jazz Re:freshed visit their website.