wax Poetics
Unapologetic Expression

Unapologetic Expression

"Part oral history, part social/political commentary, my book Unapologetic Expression is a homage to the new generation of UK musicians - most of Caribbean and African descent - who have reclaimed jazz as an urban youth music." - André Marmot 

published online
By André Marmot

When I was growing up in the 1990s, TV programmes like The Fast Show were deriding jazz as a laughable form of music, loved by out-of-touch, out-of-shape white men with deeply questionable taste. By 2019, the new wave of jazz had had so much coverage and was now so self-evidently cool that Shoreditch hipster magazine Vice ran a wry profile of ‘the Nu Jazz Lad’ who pretends to be into jazz in order to impress girls, holding ‘long, coked-up conversations about how jazz is the new punk’. For all its mockery and swagger, the piece actually defines the new scene and its appeal quite well, noting that this ‘isn’t the jazz your parents put on when they’re trying to reignite their waning sex lives . . .there is a youthful jazz resurgence happening in south-east London’. It highlights a dynamic energy originating in new venues and unusual spaces; a different audience from fans of ‘Actual Jazz’ who ‘wear porkpie hats and a general air of condescension and involuntary celibacy’; a collaborative atmosphere among young players; support from tastemaker DJs; and crossover with some of the DIY aesthetic of punk and grime.

Femi Koleoso (Ezra Collective)

I wanted to be associated with Max Roach and I dressed like him and I thought he was cool as hell. But I also wanted to be associated with Skepta and I still dress like him and think he’s cool as hell. The difference is I never saw jazz as a compromise for wanting to be like Skepta. I think that way of thinking is unique to the jazz that my generation is producing, where we were looking at grime MCs and garage, dub, reggae, drum and bass, and we weren’t looking at jazz as this different, separate world. We made jazz sound like London. You know what I’m saying, fam?

Gilles Peterson (broadcaster)

There’s a swagger and self-confidence about this movement. There’s a respect for the elders, but not too much respect for the elders. There’s an understanding that by being young and not being just promoted by the institutions, creating their own spots, whether it’s Steez or TRC, they’re creating a movement and an audience that wants to be part of it. And once you’ve got that, then that just expands and becomes word of mouth and then everybody wants to be part of it. That’s why it’s so, so good at the moment. I mean, when people see a bunch of young people on stage playing fucking great music they’ve never heard live before, they’re gonna go mad for it. It’s super exciting.

How did UK jazz change from the ‘dry and unsexy’ music of ‘your dad’, ‘my dad’ and ‘your grandma’ to the vital, politically charged, inclusive sound of modern London? This book is a homage to the remarkable generation that made jazz cool again, putting their achievement in the context of wider social, cultural and political issues. You’ll hear about Britain as the centre of empire, the Caribbean and African migrations that powered this wave of jazz, and the other London musics with which jazz intersected to give this wave its unique identity. I’ll tell the story of the Jazz Warriors generation whose support, examples and horror stories helped the new cohort avoid many of the same mistakes, and examine the changes in the music industry and the growth of social media that allowed them to claim their independence. I’ll look at the new narratives around race and gender which spoke to an increasingly politicised generation in a background of savagely right-wing domestic politics and a growth of extremism worldwide, rejuvenating jazz’s original purpose as a music of spiritual freedom, the unapologetic expression of an oppressed people. And I’ll explore the forty-year career of DJ Gilles Peterson to tell the story of the UK’s unique lineage of jazz for the dancefloor.

But the first question immediately invites a follow-up: how did jazz ever come to be seen as uncool, stale, white, elitist, ‘classical’ in the first place? This is a story that is impossible to tell without telling a wider story of capitalism, slavery, migration, racism and tension between (mostly black) jazz innovators and a (mostly white) industry that has accompanied the music at every stage in its development.

The passage below is from ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’, the second chapter, where I’ve gone right back to the origin of the word to try to frame this tension…. hope you enjoy! - Andre 

Niloufar Haidari, ‘Introducing: The Nu Jazz Lad’, Vice, 25 Jan. 2019


Jizz on a summer’s day

The origins of the term ‘jazz’ remain hotly disputed, so much so that the American Dialect Society named it the ‘Word of the Twentieth Century’ in 2000. It has been variously claimed to have African origin; to have derived from the jasmine-scented perfume worn by prostitutes in New Orleans’ red light district; from the biblical ‘jezebel’ (giving the term jazzbelle – also a prostitute); and from the semi-mythical figure of itinerant blues musician Jazbo Brown, who appears in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The above etymologies have been largely denounced as false, with most scholars agreeing that the word derives from ‘jasm’, a variant of ‘jism’ (spirit/energy/spunk): a slang term for semen still in use today. To appreciate the meandering distance of jazz’s journey from its condemnation as a ‘gully-low’ music, played and listened to by the seediest sorts of people in the brothels and barrel-houses of New Orleans, to ‘black classical music’, appreciated in the velvet seats of acoustically treated concert halls all over the world, I invite you to consider: how would you feel sitting down with your aunt to watch the seminal film about the 1961 Newport Jizz Festival, Jizz on a Summer’s Day?

How about taking her to Wynton Marsalis’ long-running ‘Jizz at Lincoln Center’ series, made possible only after a hard-fought campaign to have jizz appreciated as an all-American art form? Or inviting a new date to see ‘the cream of the new London jizz scene’ at Camden’s Jizz Cafe?

These somewhat facetious examples illustrate just what an astounding distance jazz has travelled from the defiant music of an oppressed people to the anaemic way it was portrayed and understood by many in the mid-1990s. Thelonious Monk was so under- appreciated in his own time that even Alfred Lion of Blue Note (one of the few label heads who actually liked his music and had been willing to sign him) dropped him in 1952 after five years of losing money on his releases. By the early 2000s his version of Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ was the background tune for Marketplace, American public radio station NPR’s morning stock market report.

While notions that ‘jazz’ has an African etymological origin have not been proven, the term was certainly popular among African American communities in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. In this regard, jazz as a musical genre named after a lascivious word popular in the black community is in extremely good company: boogie-woogie (syphilis), rock ’n’ roll (sex), funk (the smell of sex), reggae (from ‘streggae’, meaning prostitute). Even jazz’s self-proclaimed originator, Jelly Roll Morton, is named after a . . . never mind.

The process of vocabulary and even syntax (man is listening now) originating in marginalised communities and spilling into the mainstream is a very old one, with black communities having a disproportional influence on the language of every country in which they dwell in significant numbers, and many in which they don’t. This is attributable largely to the cultural capital acquired through music, from jazz, R & B, funk and disco right through to hip- hop, grime and trap. Words like ‘cool’, ‘hip’ and even ‘bro’ as a term of address have become so much a part of the fabric of the English language that most people are not even aware that their roots lie in African American communities.

Every language expands and changes as its users absorb their favourite parts of the speech of those with whom they interact. But this process is rarely neutral: language is a living archaeological excavation site that bears witness to successive colonisations, wars, trade routes and allegiances. The English language itself owes its West Germanic elements to the Anglo-Saxon ‘settlers’ (read ‘invaders’) of the fifth century, its Norse to the Viking invasions of the eighth and ninth centuries, and its Latin and French to the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. It has continued to be shaped by its interaction with other cultures, absorbing vocabulary from every territory in the British Empire even as that empire’s dominance dictated that its colonies should speak English. The fact that black Americans speak English at all is a product of this exact process.

Words like ‘cool’ and ‘hipster’ originated in the ‘jive talk’ of black communities in the Harlem renaissance, a deliberately secret language whose function was not only an opportunity to display verbal dexterity but also a protection from being understood by ‘squares’ i.e. mainstream white society. This type of speech has long held a fascination for people outside the community. Way back in 1938, black bandleader Cab Calloway capitalised on this interest with the publication of Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: A Hepster’s Dictionary, helping transmit Harlem slang into the linguistic bloodstream of white America. The book’s success was followed the next year with Professor Cab Calloway’s Swingformation Bureau, which instructed readers on the correct way to use words from his dictionary. The 1946 autobiography of Jewish clarinettist and proto-‘white negro’ Mezz Mezzrow (who claimed to be the first person to bring Mexican ‘gauge’ into Harlem) recounts a series of conversations held with ‘vipers’ coming to dig his ‘hard-cuttin’ mezz’, helpfully providing a translation of the entire nine pages of jive in his book’s appendix. Jive is, to him, ‘not only a strange linguistic mixture of dream and deed; it’s a whole new attitude towards life’. Francis Newton (the jazz-loving alter ego of revered Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm) sees parallels between jive talk’s quickfire extemporisation and that of jazz itself, calling jive ‘a continuous, ever-renewed virtuoso improvisation which depends on talent, on speed, on imagination, and a sort of primitive verbal bravura . . . a set of variations on themes and rhythms unstated, because assumed’.

The appropriation of Ebonics has often been met with disgust within the black community. A friend told me recently that she has been added to the local ‘Cool parents’ WhatsApp group. Like the ‘cool jazz’ of the 1950s, this is a world away from the term’s original meaning, as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) explained incredulously in 1963:

To be cool was, in its most accessible meaning, to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose. As a term used by Negroes, the horror, etc., might be simply the deadeningly predictable mind of white America . . . The term was never meant to connote the tepid new popular music of the white middle-brow middle class. On the contrary, it was exactly this America that one was supposed to ‘be cool’ in the face of.

If entire ways of speaking can be appropriated by mainstream culture, it is no surprise that maintaining ownership over an art form has been even more difficult in a society that is rigged against the very group that created it, with virtually every means of disseminating the music owned outside of the community. This is not an unfortunate historical accident: this inequality is a central part of the context from which jazz emerged.

Shabaka Hutchings

We’re talking about America. So it’s only shocking if you don’t really appreciate what America is. That’s literally what it is: it’s the land where naked white supremacy has been there since the founding of it. At the point where jazz was started, black people weren’t even equal in the law, couldn’t sit in the same places on the bus. So of course, the music is set up with one party thinking the people that are making the music isn’t equal to them. So all the structure of the industry is made with that basic assumption. That though these people can entertain us, they’re not our equals and we can take their money. Or rather, we can take their ideas and make money from it.

6See Norman Mailer’s famous essay ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’ (Dissent magazine, New York, 1957).
7Milton ‘Mezz’ Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (Random House, 1946), p. 235.
8 Francis Newton (Eric Hobsbawm), The Jazz Scene (Penguin, 1959), p. 210.
9LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People (Harper Perennial, 1963, repr. 2002), p. 213

The book 'Unapologetic Expression: The Inside Story of the UK Jazz Explosion' is available to buy here

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