To bop or not to bop

It may not be in an idiom Ronnie Scott would recognise, but the future of British jazz has never sounded better.

Standing at the bar, smoking a cigarette, staring into space... Whether the venue was a hotel in Havana during the jazz festival he and his partner Pete King helped to organise there; in clubs, pubs and concert halls throughout Britain on tours with his quintet, or, most famously, at his own club in Soho, the late Ronnie Scott did a lot of staring into space. Caught in repose, his hawk-like profile wreathed in clouds of smoke, the contemplative moment provided by a fag break seemed to extend, on a chain of tobacco, into infinity.

It's tempting, however fanciful, to imagine that the space Scott was staring into was also something to do with the future of jazz, and his own place in it. A terrific tenor saxophonist in his prime, whose Jazz Couriers group with Tubby Hayes (who died in 1973) was the highpoint of British bop in the late Fifties, Scott nevertheless suffered from insecurity about the value of his playing, often refusing offers to sit in with the American stars he had booked to play at his club, who admired him unreservedly. Even the tetchy Charles Mingus gave praise: "Of all the white boys, Ronnie Scott gets closer to the negro blues feeling," he said in 1961. This, of course, was part of the problem. Jazz musicians of Scott's generation dedicated themselves to an idiom whose cultural roots lay largely in another continent and another racial identity, and they tended to measure their own art accordingly, becoming hypersensitive about their imagined shortcomings.

Although there has been a vital European jazz tradition since the 1920s and Django Reinhardt, it's only comparatively recently that it has seemed to offer British musicians a credible alternative to aspire to. At present, European jazz has never been stronger, with British artists the strongest of all if we accept the measurement offered by the annual Danish Jazzpar Prize (a cash reward of $34,000, and an overall budget of $250,000 for performances, broadcasts and recordings). This year's winner is Django Bates from Beckenham, the pianist, composer and bandleader (of Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice). Three years ago, the winner was Canterbury's Tony Coe, the saxophonist and clarinettist, and these two represent the only non-Americans to have won the award - the nearest jazz gets to a Nobel - since it was established eight years ago. Significantly, both Bates and Coe abjure the bop tradition in favour of an eclecticism that draws from earlier and later forms of jazz, as well as from classical and folk music. For young British jazz musicians today, the range of influences has never been broader, though what for Scott would have been the great tradition - the lineage of bop from Charlie Parker to the Marsalis brothers - can be a burden as much as an inspiration.

For the saxophonist Julian Arguelles - whose Scapes album of last year was one of the most striking, and strikingly different, of all British jazz albums - the bop tradition is a perplexing inheritance. "I don't know how I deal with it," he says. "I go through phases. Sometimes I feel really happy playing saxophone and then sometimes I find it quite frustrating or even depressing, especially because there is a real tradition with the sax, a tradition I came up through, of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. It really is hard to not sound like that; it's in the nature of the instrument to sound very, well, jazzy. I listen to Coltrane and Rollins and just think that that's what the instrument does best."

Arguelles finds alternative models in classical and folk music, but recognises the importance of a European jazz tradition too, citing the examples of the Norwegian Jan ("Officium") Garbarek, the British John Surman and the Brazilians Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti.

At 23, the pianist Nikki Yeoh is perhaps the most exciting British jazz musician of her generation. Yet to make a record, she came to prominence after sitting in on a jam session at the Jazz Cafe as an amateur, where she impressed Courtney Pine sufficiently for him to pick her for his band there and then. She has since toured with Neneh Cherry, formed her own trio, Infinitum, begun a series of solo performances and written for the contemporary classical keyboard sextet Piano Circus, who programmed her piece alongside works by John Cage. "I don't see myself as fitting in with either the European or American traditions", she says. "There isn't so much pressure these days to fit in with any category. People are starting to get their influences from all sorts of different places."

Yeoh does, however, recognise national differences in the way jazz is passed on from one generation to the next. "In the US, there's a tradition of bandleaders as teachers. With someone like Dizzy Gillespie, or Wynton Marsalis now, they wouldn't just get you out of bed and say, `Right, G flat minor, ninth chord!' They'd explain how it works, and pass their knowledge on to members of the band. That sort of thing isn't woven into the fabric of the cloth here."

Yeoh is currently working on a commission for this year's Bath Festival which involves harmonising the sound of the spoken word from readings in different languages of one of her own poems, for a composition for 14 musicians and a video projection.

Video projections? Compositions for six pianos? John Cage? You can almost see Ronnie Scott shaking his head with disdain and reaching for the packet of fags. He would, however, surely love Yeoh's improvisation on Coltrane's "Giant Steps", and thrill to Arguelles' tender reading of "Too Young to Go Steady", the corny standard Coltrane transfigured into rare art. Staring into such a space, perhaps the future of British jazz wouldn't look too glum, even to Ronnie?

Julian Arguelles Quartet 8pm today, Julian / Steve Arguelles Duo 3pm tomorrow, at Blackheath Concert Halls, 23 Lee Rd, London SE3 (0181-463 0100)

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral