Gilles Peterson - A man of the world

Gilles Peterson travels all over the globe as a DJ and a festival organiser. But, reports Ian Burrell, one city remains at the heart of his passion for music
Click to follow

The role of Cultural Attaché has long been stigmatised by Sir Les Patterson, the salivating freeloader created by Barry Humphries as a globe-trotting advocate of Australia's creative achievements. Gilles Peterson is similarly named, though more deserving of a knighthood, equally well-travelled and considerably more effective as a cultural ambassador.

The founder of the Talkin' Loud record label and a fixture in the BBC Radio 1 schedule for the past decade, Peterson has been a pivotal figure in the British music scene for a generation, helping to export the country's cutting-edge acts while simultaneously encouraging foreign artists to perform here. He is just as comfortable championing Swedish folk or Japanese jazz, if the quality merits it. Worldwide, the appropriately named eclectic music festival he runs each year outside Montpelier has spawned a smaller satellite event in Singapore, from which he returned early this week.

But London will always be home. "Having travelled constantly for 20-odd years, it's still the place I need to go back to in order to get the unique mélange of the cultures you get here which comes into the music," he says. "Musically speaking, it's still the most active place on earth, and that's because of the way the youth culture develops, this mad taste for entertainment, for technology and pirate radio. There's nothing like it and wherever you go people are always fascinated by it."

The build-up to the London Olympics, he believes, represents an opportunity for Britain to cement its position as a musical hub. "With the Olympics coming it's going to be a great period of spotlight for us here in London," he says. "For me as a music person it's always been a place I've championed. When I travel all over the world, part of me is being an ambassador for London and everything it stands for. In a way, that's half what [foreign promoters] like about me, I bring a bit of London with me."

To mark the 10th birthday of his Worldwide brand, Peterson is hosting a series of concerts in the capital, the most recent of which will be a performance by the Ethiopian jazz star Mulatu Astatke, backed by the Heliocentrics, on Wednesday night.

But there is another anniversary that is of equal importance to him, with the Soho jazz venue Ronnie Scott's chalking up 50 years later this summer. As part of the celebrations, Peterson will be curating four nights of music in September. Because it's a club that provided much of his musical education, it is a task that he is taking very seriously. "My whole thing will be to really celebrate the club – I saw some fantastic people there and I want to recreate that energy."

He has drawn up a wish list of some 20 artists, among which is Amy Winehouse, whose appearance at the 220-seater venue would no doubt bring frenzy to Frith Street. Winehouse might just be persuaded, given that her mother once dated Ronnie Scott, the late and legendary club owner and accomplished saxophonist.

"I want to do one night of vocal jazz because I saw a lot of great vocal artists in there, including [American jazz singer] Carmen Lundy. It would be great to do Amy Winehouse," says Peterson, musing on his curator's role. "The other thing about Ronnie Scott's – and this might sound stupid – is that they've got a really good piano in there. Amazingly, most British clubs have got crap pianos, or crap acoustics. The one thing I've always thought was good at Ronnie Scott's was the sound, even though the audience might be chatting away."

Peterson is also anxious to use the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of British jazz, something he previously did when releasing Impressed, a series of records featuring little-known British musicians that led to a BBC4 television programme, Jazz Britannia. "Ronnie Scott himself became more renowned for having a club than actually being a really great jazz musician who was successful internationally. There were quite a few British musicians who were successful internationally but haven't received the recognition – they are under-appreciated," he says. "I'd like to get [the octet] Nostalgia 77 to perform with [pianist and composer] Keith Tippett, that would be really touching, two generations of the Ronnie Scott's era."

Then he'd like to organise something a bit different. "I was also keen to do something more avant-garde because I have seen some pretty twisted, leftfield things at Ronnie Scott's. It was never really renowned for that but I saw people like [tenor saxophonist] Chico Freeman in there and the person I saw the most in Ronnie Scott's was [unorthodox jazz composer] Sun Ra. I want to do a tribute to Sun Ra night." He agrees that Jerry Dammers, founder of The Specials and now leader of a Sun Ra tribute group, The Spatial AKA Orchestra, fits the bill. "He'd be killer, actually."

As well as jazz, Peterson is associated with the globe-straddling genre sometimes lazily titled "World Music". He prefers the term "Global Beats", and says that vast musical arena is changing fast. "People like Damon Albarn have really helped, you have amazing artists in that field of music and people are open to it, whether it is [Mali duo] Amadou and Mariam, or Mulatu working with the Heliocentrics or [Nigerians] Seun Kuti and Tony Allen. Dance music has fused everything together, whether it's the Cumbia coming from Colombia and what people like [Colombian-based British musician] Quantic are doing, putting that music into an environment people can feel comfortable in.

"They don't feel like they're in a wibbly wobbly alternative tent at a hippie festival, because that music is being dropped at peak time in [Ibiza superclub] Space," he says. "That music has sunk into people's consciousness a lot easier over the last few years and people are less frightened of it. Terms like World Music are a little bit old-fashioned – it's about just rebranding it to a little degree."

As a cultural attaché for the music of Planet Earth, Gilles Peterson can help with that.