Music

How Manchester became the UK's jazz capital

Manchester has always been a powerhouse of musical innovation and its output remains unrivalled

The Tony Wilson mural may be gone but his influence on the city lives on Photo: Stu / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s no denying that London jazz is thriving. Heritage venues like Ronnie Scott’s along with cult nightspots like Vortex and EartH in East London play host to a rotation of talented players. London acts like Ezra Collective and Sons of Kemet are played on mainstream radio. Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz development programme at the Southbank Centre ensures emerging young talent is nurtured and brought to the fore.

But while London may seem like the epicentre, microcosmic jazz scenes are flourishing all over the UK. Glasgow, for example, has produced both the spaced out, futuristic fusion of Nimbus Sextet and the Celtic folk-flushed piano jazz of Fergus McCreadie. Newcastle has had its own jazz and improvised music festival since 2019, and is home to the renowned Hoochie Coochie bar. Liverpool has the Caledonia, and the Brazilian bossa nova four-piece Baiana.

Manchester, however, has proved to be particularly fertile ground when it comes to jazz innovation – unsurprising given the city’s cultural heritage which has placed it at the centre of countless musical movements. It was the nucleus of gruff, gritty Britpop and baggy indie in the Nineties, danceable post punk in the Eighties, Wigan Casino and the northern soul movement before that.

Elements of jazz can even be traced back to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records; among the dour indie and danceable pop acts came Kalima, a band that bopped between traditional vocal styles and euphonic jazz funk, and A Certain Ratio, whose anarchic approach to production and instrumentation helped to bridge the remote gap between jazz and indie. 

Current Manchester jazz has the same progressive thread running through it. Mancunian composer and trumpet player Matthew Halsall released the LP Salute to the Sun in 2020 on his own label Gondwana Records, juxtaposing spiritual elements and conventional instruments like harp and flute with bass notes of electronica. The album stood out for many, including myself, as a means of musical escape during the darkness of that winter’s lockdown. GoGo Penguin, Manchester natives who are also signed to Halsall’s label, describe themselves as “acoustic-electronica”. Their cinematic, enveloping sound feels as fitting in a festival tent as it does in your front room. It’s entirely modern, yet its improvisational aspects give a knowing nod to past masters.

Manchester is also at the forefront of the ‘new wave’ of Brit funk, most notably with Gilles Peterson’s recent signing Secret Night Gang, whose tour last year saw them bouncing around the UK like coiled springs once lockdown had lifted, with spirited performances backed up by Myke Wilson from Manc favourites Swing Out Sister on drums. High energy, horn-laden and bass-driven, their music is made with the dancefloor in mind. 

Matt Wilde, a pianist and producer whose accessible, chilled-out beats-y compositions go perfectly with the pace of the city itself, credits his home as a major influence on his music. “The scene is a fusion of different sounds and cultures which creates something that, to me, is uniquely Manchester,” he told me. “Manchester feels small, inter-connected and pioneering. It was the home of electronic dance music and indie rock with Factory Records, and it has such a rich musical history. As Tony Wilson famously said, ‘Manchester kids have the best record collections.’ There’s graffiti of that round the corner from where I grew up.”

Up until recently a huge mural of Tony Wilson loomed formidably near Manchester’s most celebrated jazz club, Matt and Phred’s. Founded by two jazz musicians in the Northern Quarter with a buzz to rival Ronnie’s on any given night, the venue plays host to three nightly live sets – everything from traditional New Orleans-style sounds to Brazilian to big band can be found here; it provides a stage, too, for the city’s more experimental players.

Matt and Phred’s is also a linchpin for Manchester Jazz Festival, which kicks off at the end of May, the city’s longest running music festival (first staged in 1996). Acts like the Jazz FM award-winning bassist Daniel Casimir and BBC’s 2018 Young Jazz Musician of the Year Xhosa Cole will pass through, and local bands like folk-soul seven piece Kara and the afro-inspired Nguvu will showcase the diversity of the city’s abundant scene. Wilde provides more insight into how Manchester has maintained its status as a nerve centre for musical innovation, touching on so many different genres.

“People in Manchester keep pushing things forward,” he told me, proudly. “We embrace each musical wave as it begins to ripple.”

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer. @djdebgrant

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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