Julian Nicholas Interview
Julian Nicholas: saxophonist, composer, educator and now co-curator of the South Coast Jazz Festival. Meeting at The Verdict jazz club in Brighton, he talked to Charlie Anderson about the new festival and his views on the jazz scene in Brighton and the South Coast.
Julian began by talking about his early experiences of the jazz scene in the Brighton area and the beginnings of a Brighton Jazz Festival.
I suppose the beginning is when I first moved down to Brighton and the Brighton Jazz Club did The Concorde 1. There were some established pub gigs about, one at The Green Dragon. That generation of jazz musicians played at all the pubs down here. But the Concorde was a place where, very quickly it was established that Brighton had enough diversity of home-grown talent to constitute two or three rhythm sections for visiting artists. If Dick Pearce was coming down then it would be me, Mark [Edwards], Nigel [Thomas] and Ron [Parry]. If Bobby Watson was in the UK then it would be Spike Wells, although I say that but there was no fixed rule. It just so happened that Brighton Jazz Club were welcoming enough to have slightly more modern material based players. We did a Thursday night and Brighton Jazz Club did a Friday Night.
When it came to the Brighton Jazz Festival, the Brighton Jazz Club had a kind of sibling relationship with the Brighton Festival, in that they just advertised themselves as the Brighton Jazz Festival and they ran 30 days throughout the month. You had everyone from Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia to Andy Sheppard, Stan Tracey, Claire Martin, Jim Mullen and so on, and Americans like Red Rodney, Bobby Watson, Jimmy Witherspoon. All sorts of people. There were the occasional big name, like Nina Simone at the Dome and we were offered the support slot which was great because it could have gone to more established artists.
And then around 1993, Brighton Jazz Club tried to up the ante a bit and get into a bigger and better venue. The Concorde moved to the Beachcomber. BJC had gone to the Loft in Queens Road. Even though the established scene and community in this town carried on being under the umbrella of Brighton Jazz Club, and there had been an attempt at a Brighton Jazz Umbrella with its own ideas about a festival – Terry Seabrook and Adrian Kendon were involved with that, we all were.
There was a terrible event in 1993. I think there was a recession. I think that tobacco sponsors were no longer allowed to advertise and Camel was the main sponsor for Brighton Jazz Festival. And suddenly all the big plans about promoting a big event at the Dome fell through, because of lack of pre-sales. Not that pre-sales were a big issue in those days; people used to turn up at the last minute and ram places out. Jazz crowds, particularly, weren’t used to buying tickets ahead of time. Poor John Coleman (who had come in to help, upping the ante with the Brighton Jazz Festival) and Brighton Jazz Club suffered badly from that. The knock-back was so substantial that it scared anyone off ever doing any promoting again (on a big scale) off their own bat.
Rather than look at the Brighton jazz scene as a cultural heritage and a community heritage the Brighton Festival didn’t have the vision to take on board a Brighton Jazz Festival and continue to be an overarching, bigger brother and give it their grace and favour and help out venues and help out with ways of promoting but not being a big, professional VAT-paying promoter (though you had to be in order to compete). Unfortunately, in their wisdom, they didn’t book smaller jazz events and were very much more to do with the curating of an arts festival, which is fair enough.
Jazz has always trodden this fine line of being entertainment and being art. And I think the trouble with Brighton is that jazz musicians don’t really do the commercial venues. Well let’s say Concorde 2 or The Old Market, which is a commercial venue, not an arts centre. And it doesn’t really do arts venues very well – jazz. It does them very well up North because the arts venues up there have an idea that jazz fits into their scheduling programming really well. York Arts Centre, Lincoln, Derby, Leeds. All these places that have arts funding and budgeting also have a venue that they identify with and they put on jazz, touring jazz and national jazz circuits. Brighton doesn’t have that as a prerequisite – that it’s going to have a bigger stage for jazz. It doesn’t have an arts centre.
So what I consider to be the jazz scene in Brighton over the years hasn’t had a platform in a bigger venue. When I say bigger I mean bigger than a pub. So we don’t have a 150-250 seat venue in this town that’s built for purpose, designed to stage people with the standing of Spike Wells, Geoff Simkins, Mark Edwards, John Donaldson as musicians in the UK community who happen to live down here. It’s a terrible shame that Brighton, even though it’s got an incredibly vibrant scene and a really active jazz scene, doesn’t have a venue like that.
The Brighton jazz scene, even though it was beginning to mature and beginning to get a new wave of young players coming through from Chichester going to Middlesex and coming back to Brighton. So people of Jack Kendon’s generation were coming back to a town where the scene of my generation had found their feet nationally and were doing national work and not really tackling the problem of not having a decent platform down here.
Obviously Andy Lavender set up The Verdict about three years ago. There was no longer Jazz South and South East Arts didn’t really figure in it anymore. Jazz Services became a lot more absorbed into working in the regions and London in such a way that it didn’t really have a venue to support new promoters down here. Brighton Jazz Club had the Komedia but that seemed to be fairly erratic. The Komedia closed for refurbishment and I think that made them think about their security and they started to look at other ways of promoting, which was great because it culminated in things like the John Surman gig at the Dome Studio Theatre.
But still we had no Brighton Jazz Festival and I even tried to approach the people who advertised themselves as Brighton Jazz Festival online. I believe it was Heather Cairncross’ sister who made that website and involved quite a few people in the idea of a Brighton jazz festival but it never happened. So I was anxious to find out what the Brighton Jazz Festival was and I challenged the notion that it existed. Even though there was something on a website called ‘Brighton Jazz Festival’, there wasn’t one and I tried to get a dialogue going with everyone by putting out the feelers really and talking to Lynne [Shields] who was very pro-active in helping support a local stage and local platform for local jazz talent through Love Supreme. Before Love Supreme she was already very vocal about her desire to be involved in something rolling out as a Brighton Jazz Festival and indeed the work that she did with Eddie and Jack for Love Supreme Festival was crucial. And the input that all of us had, from Wayne McConnell at Brighton Jazz School to the lovely Mike who comes down and records things. The blossoming years of Dave Drake being around and the blossoming year of the scene locally, feeling like they’d put their shoulders behind The Verdict and got things going on here as a venue.
The beginnings of a festival
All of this still didn’t culminate in a Brighton Jazz Festival. And Claire Martin and I sat there saying ‘How can we no longer moan about this? What can we do?’ And we identified the venues in Brighton as suitable venues and we talked about the whole Dome complex and in fact we went and talked to The Old Market very thoroughly and they told us it would cost them £50,000 to put on the kind of event that we’ve put on at the Ropetackle.
We didn’t leave Brighton in a rush. We did give it a really good consideration but we went to the Ropetackle Arts Centre and we found in Anne Hodgson there a host who was both flexible but realistic. The double approach of flexibility and realism meant that Claire and I whittled back our ideas to what we felt would be a focussed three-day event with some education, with some entertainment, with some dynamic-type situations that people could walk into, like the lecture that Kevin Le Gendre is going to do on how do you get into jazz. He’s got a really good way with him with his broadcasting career and I think he’s got a good listener’s ear. Also, because he’s not trying to promote himself as a musician, he’s not under any illusions about how difficult it is to find ways into listening to jazz. So I’m hoping that he’s going to be a very good mouthpiece for the non-musicians way of getting into listening to jazz.
The workshops are very important . We’ve got three workshops on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There’s the Ropetackle Jazz Workshop run by Mark Bassey, Claire’s vocal workshop and my workshop with Sue Richardson and Trudy Kerr, where I’m going to bring schools into the Ropetackle. We’re going to go to schools already with my pieces – one particular piece we’ll do at the weekend and I’ll do that with Mark Bassey’s workshop as well so they’ll get to crossover and work together at some point as well. And Claire’s vocalists as well are going to ‘cross-fertilise’ with the jam session.
We’ve also got a film about Bobby Wellins made by Gary Barber, that’s on the Sunday morning. And then we’ve got the music programme in the evenings – two bands per night. We felt that we couldn’t just put on one band and have a support band. We felt that we needed to give equal billing to two bands per night and that they do an hour to an hour and a quarter – just because the listeners will get tired. If you’re in a festival like an open green field site you can wander between marquees and eat and drink and be merry and wander in and out of marquees and soak up the vibe and then maybe if you’re getting saturated you can just retire to your picnic blanket, which you can’t really do in an arts centre. Once you go in to the auditorium and the band is playing, you’re going to be fairly caught into that music. So we felt an hour with an encore, maybe an hour and 10-15 minutes per set and two sets per night. And the Ropetackle Arts Centre have been really adaptable and helpful about achieving that, plus the daytime stuff – the film, the talk, the jam session, the Sunday lunchtime gig, the workshops.
So we’ve basically managed to put a programme together which is £50,000 worth of programming for what it’s going to cost us if we sell out plus our Arts Council funding. So it’s coming in at just about half of what it should cost us, with everyone working for very basic MU rates. So really if you think about what people are getting paid, they’re still not getting paid as much as they should be getting paid, for their one set of material. Even given all that, we still have to fill all the seats. At the moment where it stands, nearly a sell-out on the Friday night, which is an incredible line-up of three top UK vocalists, and Claire Martin will probably sit in with them. They are, all of them, very connected to the South Coast. Ian Shaw has got a pad down here that he’s always used and lived in, even since Claire moved down here, 25 years ago. And obviously we all know and love Liane from Hastings and Joe does all his work down here, recording his album and using a lot of musicians from down here.
That wasn’t going to be a rule of ours but it was a guiding principle: that the main part of the musicians on those stages should be from down here, hence the South Coast Jazz Festival. Gareth Williams lives in Petworth and he hasn’t found it easy because we’re spoilt for great pianists: John Donaldson, Mark Edwards, Joss Peach, Simon Robinson, Wayne McConnell, Tom Phelan, Terry Seabrook, Al Scott and I’m sure I’ve missed a few out. Just naming those pianists it seems incredible that we’ve got that incredible wealth of talent down here. We’ve begun to get a lot more bass players and Simon Thorpe comes down to Hastings all the time. Dave Whitford was down here for a year. Unfortunately it was a year when he had so much work in Holland that he couldn’t take advantage of being in Brighton, which is a real tragedy because I could have done with him staying down here for my band that I ran with him before he moved down here. And in 2004/05 I recorded some tracks with Mark Edwards and Dave Trigwell. We toured everywhere else except we didn’t play in Brighton with that band. Again, there wasn’t a touring circuit arts centre to play a touring band in. With Brighton Jazz Club booking a year ahead and being unable to promise to be available in the Komedia at the time because of refurbishment. You hit this situation where one of the great bass players of this country, Dave Whitford, found that he couldn’t be here. Just that year!
It’s always been really important to me that Brighton is there, at the top of the tree in terms of its domicile jazz musicians, living in Brighton. Everywhere else in the country, the likes of Bobby Wellins and Geoff Simkins are playing in big arts centres but there isn’t one in Brighton. They can come and play at The Verdict or Brighton Jazz Club, which has been absolutely brilliant – they’ve supported us and we’ve supported them, mutually over the years. It’s been fantastic. But ultimately you do need a bigger arts funded programme to get your jazz music to a bigger audience, and a new audience. And that is something that we haven’t really achieved in the sort of numbers that we really want to achieve at, in this area.
So the South Coast Jazz Festival represents an opportunity to do that. To put on bands of professionals, resident in this general geographical area, in the southern counties, south of London and get them on a bigger stage, to a bigger audience that we reach through different marketing strategies. And funnily enough, ironically, Love Supreme has helped, I think, with that. It has helped the local scene. To see a jazz festival locally that they didn’t really go to in the first year. It was mainly South Londoners who came to the Love Supreme Festival because they advertised through the railway network and they’ve got an arrangement with Southern Rail, to put posters up in Clapham Junction and Victoria and all the way down through Haywards Heath and Glynde station and then down to Southern Rail stations as far as Portsmouth and Southampton. It was like a 1930s poster saying that you can go to sunny Surrey and back in a nice clean train. It was like John Betjeman’s Metro-Land. But it was a sunny, green field jazz festival site that you could get to by train and you didn’t have to take a car.
And I think Brighton kind of got caught napping. I think the audience in Brighton got caught napping in as much as they’re really not very good at leaving Brighton and they don’t really take the train much. They tend to get in their cars and they’re a little bit complacent, I would say. I’m guilty of that – that was me, I’m talking about. And I suddenly realised: wow, this is an incredible festival and there’s all these people coming by train, there’s no reason why there has to be a Brighton Jazz Festival. There could be South Coast Jazz Festival. And Claire and I got the train down to Shoreham and we thought ‘you know what, it’s only actually 15 minutes from the centre of Brighton to the centre of Shoreham. Fifteen minutes! And Shoreham is a lovely, lovely place. If people are going to come by car from place where there aren’t stations, they can park for free on the other side of the little bridge across from the Ropetackle Arts Centre. You can’t do that in Brighton. Bless it! And we will be doing some promotions in Brighton. Brighton is making an attempt to reduce its own traffic. We’ve come quite far with that. But I think to promote the idea that the Brighton jazz community is part of a bigger South Coast jazz community is very important. Now that the Brighton jazz community has found its feet through Love Supreme, through The Verdict, through Brighton Jazz Club. We’ve managed to find our feet and cohesiveness. And, I also have to say, through misfortunate circumstances, to do with two really meaningful artists (part of our scene) passing away this last year: Simon D’souza and Ian Price. It’s touched its heart, somewhat. We’ve had a community there in different, smaller communities. In Hove, the Brunswick with Brighton Jazz School, Paul Richards and the jam session there and then in Kemptown with the Bristol Bar and the Casablanca scene. And if you think of all these different scenes as gigging communities that are quite geographically limited in their locale, to some degree. But who are all top professionals, going out and playing elsewhere but when they’re in Brighton being in a bit of a small scene. All of that got dissolved into one bigger community, I think, in the last couple of years in Brighton.
Coming back to my point about the tragedy of those two lovely artists passing away, Simon and Ian. And how they were part of the fabric, of the ongoing dialogue that we all have. But also part of the fabric of community music making. Obviously, Simon put more of his emphasis more on education in that respect whereas Ian put his emphasis more on professionalising and how he went about being a musician, through learning about arranging, writing arrangements for people, learning about composing. And always on his own case about doing some practice and upping his game. And being a ‘genre tart’ like me, in every genre: playing rock ’n’ roll with Elvis impersonators and playing the French Hot Club style with Jonny Hepbir and Jason Henson. That real genre-hopping ability. And playing in latin bands as well. I know Ian was really big on this, and in fact we played together in a lot of different ensembles, one of which was a salsa group.
A bigger stage
That’s been one of the really great aspects of the Brighton scene and the Brighton jazz community generally and across the South Coast. And me and Claire have just thought ‘you know what – we really can be proud of ourselves’. We’ve done so much together and everyone has worked so well together. And we really just wanted to just not do anything to that. I think that over-organising or trying to own anything (or try and make it out to be something that it isn’t) is a mistake. To have a light touch and to say ‘look, we’ve proved that we can come together as a community – let’s try and professionalise the stage that we get on’. Yes, it’s great to go and do Love Supreme for new artists coming through. Yes, we’re incredibly lucky to have these brilliant smaller clubs here. They’re fantastic. They are the bedrock of the situation that we’re in and without them the scene would die, without a doubt. Yes to playing at pubs. Yes to playing at The Verdict. Yes to playing at The Brunswick. But we’ve still got to fight for a bigger stage somewhere. A more arts-oriented bigger stage where we can pull in arts funding and roll out programmes over a longer, sustainable period of time. Where that arts centre provides recording space, rehearsal space, workshop and educational space, practice rooms. That’s what I really, really want to try and achieve in the next five years – to pressurise the council for an arts centre. And I think the South Coast Jazz Festival has got that as a long-term partnership objective. And those partners are obviously going to be people like Jack and Eddie, Lynne, The Verdict, Brighton Jazz Club. All of those partners that I’ve mentioned before. All of those smaller communities, all of those artists. All of those towns and smaller towns and satellite towns along the South Coast could benefit from a larger organisation. Not run by anybody but home-run in our communities. Not led by anybody but co-led within a debate that’s going on amongst all of us. Obviously the Sussex Jazz Magazine plays a part in all of this because it’s such a good communicator. It needs to be a hub of communication for all of us to chip in. I’d like to see the letters page develop several conversations.
Maybe we do need an organisation in Brighton that we can all identify with and sign up to, whatever sort of genre that you’re in. Obviously there are limits to that – you can’t obviously represent commercial musics – we are trying to represent something that has got certain genre characteristics that are spread across all of the sub-genres that I mentioned before. And try and get a little bit of a wave of consensus about what we’re looking for in terms of a festival and a venue. South Coast Jazz Festival wants to roll out promotions in other venues. I don’t think Anne Hodgson at The Ropetackle would be at all surprised about that. We will always want to work with The Ropetackle and other towns and satellite towns as well. And we want to be able to go and help facilitate festivals in different areas at different times. So the South Coast Jazz Festival that happens at the end of January might always be in Shoreham. And one that could happen in the autumn in Brighton or in June. It might not compete with the Brighton Festival but might adjunct or add-on to the Brighton Festival, in early June perhaps. It could happen across different venues – we could look at The Old Market, The Dome, The Verdict, The Brunswick and The Emporium all being involved in an umbrella festival at that time. And promote it to new audiences using local telly and getting the Argus on board, getting a poster campaign around Brighton and Hove.
How many times have your heard this, and I know I’ve heard it a billion times – brand new off-the-street audiences coming to jazz gigs in the pubs, and clubs like the Verdict, completely stumbling across a night of jazz and at the end of it saying: ‘you know what, I had no idea that jazz happened (a) in this town (b) in this building, or in any other building in this town (c) at this incredible level that I’ve witnessed tonight. And I can’t believe that I’ve been missing it all these years. I didn’t even know this is what jazz was. I thought jazz was all squeaky-bonk weirdo stuff that I couldn’t understand. What I’ve seen tonight is so accessible’. (I’m not saying that I’m anti-squeaky-bonk; I do enough of that myself. Free jazz is part of it all.)
Across all the genres, we’ve got an incredible base of entertainment and arts provision for jazz. We can entertain and we can provide artistic development for artists and we can be a sustainable community where people can live down here, work in this area and not have to move to London. Look at this new, young lot. We don’t want to lose them. We’ve got Peter Adam Hill on drums and he’s a sensational young drummer. We’ve George Trebar on bass. We need to show them that we appreciate the fact that they’re sustaining some sort of playing career down here, and we need to hang on to that. We need to work hard and fast and can’t be complacent about getting more, better, bigger audiences and bigger provision. These clubs, like The Verdict, play a vital role in that. I think what the South Coast Jazz Festival wants to do, it wants to put the professional scene on a professional platform. That’s our aim. Pay musicians as much as we can and get people coming in for as cheap as possible. We’re only charging £20 a day out at The Ropetackle. To see incredibly high-level musicians from this region. And I’m hoping that we make that the norm, a regular occurrence, that we don’t just do it once or twice a year, we do it every two months or every month. And then if we get some sort of Jazz Centre perhaps then we can make it a really regular thing with bigger audiences, younger audiences and just a greater spread of different types of people. We’ve all put a lot of work in. It’s not just a selfish pursuit. All of the artists would agree – they all want to reach broader audiences. I’m hoping that the South Coast Jazz Festival achieves that in a small way, on its first outing and that we roll it out into a longer, bigger jazz future for the region.
This interview appeared in the January 2015 issue of SJM, available here.