Julian Joseph

Interview: Julian Joseph OBE

‘Music is a great way to engage with the world and enhances every aspect of life, whether you choose music as your way of life or not.’

  • 2 Dec 2020
  • min read

Widely regarded as one of the UK's finest jazz musicians, Julian Joseph OBE has devoted his long career to championing jazz across the British Isles and into the far corners of the globe. 

Last night (1 December), it was revealed that Joseph would be awarded with an Ivors Academy Fellowship, the Academy’s highest honour, in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to music in the UK. He joins a prestigious list which includes Kate Bush CBE, Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Following the news of the Fellowship, M caught up with Julian Joseph to discuss his achievements, his relationship with Chineke!, nurturing musical talent and the future of UK Music.

Congratulations on receiving an Ivors Academy Fellowship – an honour that recognises excellence and impact in the art and craft of music creation. How does it feel to be a Fellow of The Ivors Academy?

I’m still trying to get my head around it as I understand only 20 such recipients exist. It gives me immense joy to be recognised as an achieving and searching craftsman in music; it’s my purpose on this planet. I’m so proud to be part of such an illustrious group of music masters many of whom are favourites of mine. Sir Malcolm Arnold, Sir John Dankworth, Sir Paul McCarney, Sir Elton John, Joan Armatrading, Annie Lennox, Kate Bush are just a few artists I’m honoured to now join as a recipient of the Academy Fellowship.

You’re one of the UK’s best-known jazz musicians, but you’ve also spent much of your career educating and inspiring others through your patronage of a variety of educational programmes. How important do you think it is to nurture musical talent at an early age?

It’s extremely important to nurture talent at any age but if you can catch a musician at a young age the guidance, wisdom and community you can offer will help them build skills, technique and confidence of expression and get into a process that develops awareness and sensitivities for a creative life. Music is a great way to engage with the world and enhances every aspect of life whether you choose music as your way of life or not.

'It’s very important to challenge the status quo and acknowledge blaring inequalities and exclusions.'

That brings me on to the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy. Tell us a bit about it, how you see it developing and what the Academy’s greatest achievements have been so far?

In January 2021 JJJA will enter it’s eighth year. It’s based in Hackney and was set up to guide young musicians interested in Jazz to bolster and develop their love, appreciation, knowledge and skills. Also to offer a safe space and experience for those who wish to go further into the musical profession and know how the music operates, what’s expected of the jazz musician especially as they choose their conservatoires and differing pathways forward into the music scene. I’m proud of the team I have with my brother James Joseph, Trevor Watkis, Byron Wallen, Tony Kofi and Alex French. My proudest achievement is that many of our highest achieving musicians return during and after their college years because they know there is always something to learn. They share what they’ve acquired and still come to keep their skills sharp and stimulated. We have four scholarship students at the illustrious Berklee College of Music and many more strewn across the UK in Conservatoire programs and one of our former students just became BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020. We’re all very proud of Deschanel Gordon along with a whole host of our young musicians stepping into their own professional territory.

You’ve had a piece commissioned by Chineke! back in 2018 and Carry That Sound appeared on the critically acclaimed Spark Catcher. Can you tell us about that piece and how you came to work with the orchestra?

Even before Chineke! Chi Chi Nwanoku was making history every day for over 30 years as one of a handful of classical masters - who happen to be Black - performing and recording consistently in a major symphony orchestra. Over the last few years, she has risen like a phoenix as the inspirational founder, driving force and facilitator of the Chinike! Orchestra.

I had the great fortune of bumping into Chi Chi at the Barbican and we got into a conversation and she just asked whether I’d be interested in writing a piece for the Orchestra. Of course, I said yes, definitely! She asked that it have the jazz ingredient so I thought about trying to conjure both what I know has a jazz signature and an orchestral integrity with that sound and went to work. In the piece I draw from various influences across jazz and related sounds to hopefully draw out a depth of warmth and brightness that reflects the spark of this phenomenal journey Chi Chi is taking us all on.

Chineke!'s motto is: 'Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music'. How important do you think it is to champion diversity, and recognise the lack of it, within the classical sector?

It’s very important to challenge the status quo and acknowledge blaring inequalities and exclusions. Chi Chi is an example to us all that not only should we speak up about the issues we see but do something about it in whatever way we can positively contribute.

'When you start asking yourself the questions and know that the answers are contained in the sound of the music and your trust of yourself, it will give you the confidence and belief in your own developing process.'

People have said that young musicians are leading the ‘revival’ of jazz music - Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Yazz Ahmed – to name just a few. What do you put this modern resurgence of the genre down to? Would you argue that it’s always been here?

There is a wonderful movement of creative musicians for whom jazz is a smaller or greater ingredient to the many other qualities and musical styles they’re experimenting with. There’s definitely a lot of groove-oriented flavour in much of the music which is akin to the fusion era with many textural and rhythmic similarities. Each generation has always infused music that has currency to them as young people whether drawing from dance culture, R&B, hip-hop, funk, reggae, calypso, afrobeat, rock, alternative, electronica.

It’s probably not entirely accurate to call it a revival but it’s definitely a movement that has traction and commercial potential and can attract a large contingent to the dance floor or hip chill out gatherings. It’s a welcome movement which is part of a global trend and puts the power firmly in the hands of the musicians who are evolving their own culture. Some of the audience they’re building are interested in the core jazz sound but that depends on the artists and right now Jas Kayser, Nubya and Moses amongst others have the potential to do that!

Can you talk to us about your book, Music of Initiative? What you want readers to take away from it?

Music of Initiative is about getting into an area of trust and tackling the improvising spirit by trusting yourself. To know the music, you must listen intently and learn to hear the music and in turn the lessons of the masters. All the answers are in the sound and without being too prescriptive I try to bring the reader into the process, thought and philosophies of the jazz musician. When you start asking yourself the questions and know that the answers are contained in the sound of the music and your trust of yourself, it will give you the confidence and belief in your own developing process.

Do you have a certain philosophy or strategy when it comes to writing music?

I have to strategise if I’m writing a longer piece with large forces and think about what the piece is about and what I want it to say. Then technical aspects: the form, building vocabulary, and so on. But I can also just start writing continuously and stop when I feel that I’m finished. One can preplan a composition generating melodies and fashioning the skeleton of a form at the composition’s inception, but I always try to keep everything open. The form can change, the melodies reshuffled because as you progress you hear different things and the music tells you what it wants. It requires patience but I trust whether it takes shape quickly or takes a while to unfold. If this is a strategy at all, I try always to keep it simple, divide longer pieces into manageable micro lengths that will present macro lengths that can then be evolved into the composition because I have generated my raw material.

'I like the variety of sounds and approaches across many genres in the UK, it remains rich, varied and open and as long as that is the atmosphere here then great things can thrive and I’ll be there to take it all in.'

What does the future of UK jazz music look like to you?

The future of UK music looks very healthy. Certainly on the jazz side of things there is another contingent of even younger players coming through inspired to share their musical revelations with the world. Jazz is a global music and the UK is full of talented and exciting musicians of multiple generations taking their place on that world stage.

Django Bates is professor of jazz at the Bern University in Switzerland and his current recording in celebration of Charlie Parker’s Centenary is exploratory and unique to him and I’m looking forward to the concerts that will follow when we all return to the live stage.

Soweto Kinch collaborates with artists across the globe; I remember meeting the South African based pianist Bokani Dyer performing with Soweto. Gwylim Simcock has the piano chair in Pat Metheny’s current band that also has the Australian bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh. Kit Downes is recording for ECM, Jasper Hoiby is producing thoughtful provocative music.

Benet McLean the piano and violin virtuoso is a startling international talent as is pianist and composer Zoe Rahman. Many jazz artists continue to inspire and bring first class music to the fore and also mix with and create in other genres blurring the lines of category which enriches our whole contemporary music scene. I’m surrounded by musical potential especially at my academy and the World Heart Beat Music Academy.

In both places the faculty work hard to get the young musicians to reach for their highest dreams and musical ideals and are a great example of that in their own work. Trevor Watkis, Tony Kofi and Byron Wallen in both Academies all produce unique and stimulating global musical projects. World Heart Beat Music Academy are just about to open a new venue in Nine Elms in central London and their classical orchestra is conducted by the talented Film and Classical Music composer Michael Csanyi-Wills. Alok Verma teaches Indian Classical Tabla at the Academy also. Holocene and Anjelo Disons are new artists who have come through both Academies and talents who have projects to look out for in 2021.

I like the variety of sounds and approaches across many genres in the UK, it remains rich, varied and open and as long as that is the atmosphere here then great things can thrive and I’ll be there to take it all in.

Is there anything you’re working on at the moment that we should be looking out for?

I’m working on a ballet with the brilliant choreographer and artistic director for Ballet Soul, Ben Love. He has re-envisioned a classic Shakespeare Tragedy for a piece titled Othello 21. We’ve just done a short film as a preliminary for a full stage production of this story so we’re getting closer and closer to realising our ambitions for the piece.

I’m also working on a violin concerto for the brilliant UK violinist Harriet McKenzie. I’ve got some recordings with my trio featuring Mark Hodgson and Mark Mondesir in the pipeline too, so no time to idle. Head down and get to work but I love it. I’m a very fortunate and blessed man.

Keep up to date with Julian Joseph OBE via his website