The Thread of Jazz: Tracing the revolutionary and improvisational sound of Jazz in DJ culture

23rd July 2019

Words: Charles Vaughan

The raw physicality of Jazz can’t be ignored in today’s music climate. Thanks to its formidable resurgence, Jazz is ever prevalent in clubs across the world. But are the founding ethics of Jazz being represented by these DJs or is it just a statement of trend? I spoke to Total Refreshment Centre’s Alexis Blondel and the ever talented DJ Rebecca Vasmant to investigate.

Jazz was born out of exploring the depths of live improvisation. Jazz clubs became iconic cultural landmarks that forged a legacy of musicians. These live spaces soon developed to unify DJing and Jazz in a club context. The 90s Acid Jazz movement, spearheaded by Gilles Peterson, solidified this cross-cultural freedom within UK clubs. Alexis struggled to find this freedom at first: “It took finding a space and a few years of organising dances to be in front of a diverse and open minded crowd to start dropping Jazz in my sets!”

It was a struggle Rebecca Vasmant also felt. “Five years ago, I would never have been able to drop six Jazz records one after the other and hold a dance floor of young people, but now, it’s doable and that’s like some crazy amazing dream. Jazz is after all dance music, so it’s amazing to see it being heard how it should be again.” This freedom and passion was exemplified at spaces such as Plastic People and Total Refreshment Centre, and Alexis’ creative focus at TRC was always centered on the music; “The mentality of venues and promoters still seems to be that big names is the only way to sell tickets. There’s another way to do it, if you have a regular night with incredible music and if you make sure that the sound, the decor, the lighting and the staff is on point? Then you don’t actually need Mr Superstar on your line up, you don’t even need any name at all.”

When DJing Jazz, artists are developing new techniques to push the boundaries of expectation further. “I think that things have become really open in recent years” comments Rebecca. “A lot of clubs are encouraging DJs to play lots of different styles of music in their sets, and that’s a great thing. In every specialist scene, there is always going to be limitations on what can be played in certain clubs, and I guess that is what makes them special to be in.” But over many generations, DJs have pushed through these limitations to create new sounds through relentless experimentation. This is Jazz at heart; engaging with the instrument beyond what was thought possible to create new sonic explorations.

For Jazz DJs, their unique instrument is the soundsystem. Julian Henqirues researched the embodied experience of sound system culture in his book ‘Sonic Bodies’.

“The absence of a “live” performer concentrates attention on the qualities of sound itself… This also makes the crew’s re-performance techniques particularly important, especially as they are acousmatic, that is, largely invisible to the crowd”

The DJ’s re-performance is realised through the soundsystem, creating a symbiotic relationship of energy. Where DJs engage with the physical energy of a soundsystem, Jazz musicians create their energy through their synergy onstage. Joe Armon-Jones’ recent collaboration with the Unit 137 soundsystem crew is a perfect example of taking the physicality of both styles and blending them to create a new experience.

DJs also rely on stylistic creativity, birthed from their collections developed over years of digging. Without the right record the energy can’t flow. For Rebecca, her collection goes beyond a performance tool. “My record collection is an extension of my personality. Each record means something to me, and tells a story about something to me when I listen to it. Playing these records to people at clubs is really important to me and one of the things I am most grateful for.” Each record’s unique qualities can guide the energy and greater musical narrative. “Throwing an oddball in the mix is great because it resets the dancefloor, which allows you to then try and new direction” suggests Alexis. “At the end of the day, it really is about being excited about what you’re playing. I listen to all kinds of stuff so my sets to reflect that.” This idea is at the core of Jazz; the ability to thread countless orbiting influences and blend them together in unexpected ways. 

Hearing this freedom in a DJ set can stay with you for a lifetime. Alexis recalls watching Gilles Peterson play an intimate beach set. “These are always the best sets, the last tunes to the lucky few who still have legs to dance and ears to listen. That’s when the DJ feels free to play everything and anything. I felt very lucky witnessing that”. When a DJ accepts the responsibility of pushing the art form through experimentation, they have the ability to craft musical narratives that influence us for years to come. Rebecca recalls the impact of listening to Tom Middleton: “He was mixing all kinds of music together seamlessly, and the mix seemed to be telling a story starting on one thing, and ending on another. It was a very clear journey that took you with where he was at that time, and I think that was the most impactful thing I have ever heard from a DJ”.

Often, I feel that the issue lies in our perception of the DJ as a performer. Our expectations are that DJs embody a lesser form of liveness, which in most cases is simply not true. As an audience we should expect the unexpected and enjoy the twists and turns that any DJ might explore. When we do, we’ll be experiencing the same innovation that millions have before us, across Jazz and DJ culture.

“It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”  – Miles Davis.

Rebecca Vasmant writes a love letter to Glasgow’s Jazz scene

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