In 1996, when I was 11, I stayed up late to watch the Mercury Music Prize ceremony. Pulp, Oasis, and Manic Street Preachers were nominated, alongside the War Child Help compilation, which featured both Oasis and Manic Street Preachers and was obligatory to every CD shelf of the era.
Back then scruffy, stand-offish guitar music was king, but the Mercurys always reserved one nomination for what the music press would term the ‘token jazz album’. I remember Pulp’s Different Class, which I had on cassette and adored, being named the winner. However, any memory I have of the band receiving their gong is clouded out by Courtney Pine’s performance of the 37th Chamber, from his album Modern Day Jazz Stories, the ‘token jazz’ selection that year. I can look back and pinpoint the plastic of my pre-teen brain being stretched and remoulded watching Courtney blow his horn. His magnetism and the track’s mesmeric catchiness made me question why guitars always seemed to come first. Modern Day Jazz Stories replaced Pulp in my Walkman. When Courtney came to the Mean Fiddler in Dublin the following year, I begged my mum to take me. We waited hours, he eventually strolled on stage just after midnight, appearing like a beacon under the smoke and blue lights. I was awestruck. My first late-night jazz gig.
UK jazz has been edging in from the peripheries for many years now. We hear Ezra Collective and Sons of Kemet soundtracking mainstream TV. We see Nubya Garcia in the pages of Vogue. Scruffy indie bands have taken a back seat to swing and syncopation on festival line-ups and radio playlists, and the notion of jazz tokenism now seems distant and ludicrous.
Various cultural factors account for this steady infiltration, but much of it can be traced back to one source – a musical training ground and educational institution called Tomorrow’s Warriors. Founded by bassist Gary Crosby OBE and pianist and vocalist Janine Irons MBE, Tomorrow’s Warriors have been running development programmes for young jazz musicians, free of charge, for the past 30 years.
From the start, Crosby and Irons were determined to create the kind of atmosphere that allowed young artists to express themselves fearlessly on their instruments, solo and in collaboration. They think of it as a musical youth club, where equality is a given, humility is essential and egos are kept in check.
Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross and Courtney Pine himself have all passed through their doors, among countless others who have been fundamental in bringing this music to its current state of prominence. According to Crosby, amplifying the genre’s commercial appeal was all part of the vision.
“Audience development (in UK jazz) had been secondary to artist development and somehow we had to balance these two things out,” he says. “The music has to have a social function. We brought these two together.”
Irons adds: “It’s not just about diversifying who’s on stage, but the audience, too. As we developed one side, we kept an eye on who might engage, who might be buying tickets.”
The organisation has several principles that it sticks to faithfully, one of them being ‘each one teach one’- meaning Tomorrow’s Warriors, no matter how successful they become, regularly return to workshops and masterclasses.
Rising ticket prices post-Covid will make jazz less accessible to the young people they hope will be inspired to pick up instruments
In doing so they’ve managed to create clear musical lineage, which was perhaps missing in UK jazz before their intervention; the next wave of homegrown superstars can jam with the generation that came before, and get a visceral sense of their own potential.
Tomorrow’s Warriors is a registered charity, partly funded by ticket sales (playing in front of an audience is a foundational part of the learning experience for their artists in training). Lockdown inhibited their income, but for them an even greater concern is that rising ticket prices post-Covid will make jazz less accessible to the young people they hope will be inspired to pick up instruments and continue the Warrior’s bloodline.
Now that their original vision of making the UK scene a more inclusive place for both players and audience has come to pass, their focus for the next 30 years is on continuing to build diversity within the genre, to make sure. That way they will ensure excellence and innovation is within reach regardless of race, class or gender, so that future young listeners may be galvanised.
Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM