With the festival I wanted to offer an argument to these negative perceptions, and promote and diversify the distinctly European jazz style.
Following the success of the inaugural event in 2022, the Gypsy Jazz Festival of London returns this Spring with four nights of performances at some of the capital’s favourite live music venues, between the 4-7 May.
Supported by a generous grant from Arts Council England, GJFL is the brainchild of violinist and producer Tobie Medland and takes place this year at The Vortex Jazz Club, LSO St Lukes, The Jago Dalston, and Crazy Coq’s Soho with a line-up of internationally renowned musicians from Europe and New York.
We caught up with the mastermind behind the event for a short interview…
Can you tell us a little but about how the idea for the Gypsy Jazz Festival of London came about, and what inspired you to start it?
I’ve been an active Gypsy Jazz musician since I was a kid. It’s such a unique, compelling style of jazz with some mind-bogglingly skilled musicians. Within the wider jazz scene theres sometimes a stigma against it: I guess partly because of its close association with just one pioneering past musician (Django Reinhardt), and because of its informality (often jam sessions involve sitting round a table in a pub playing tunes).
With the festival I wanted to offer an argument to these negative perceptions, and promote and diversify the distinctly European jazz style. As a lover of “modern” music I also wanted to help the genre develop aesthetically.
When booking bands I look for innovative approaches, a modern sound, people who write their own tunes or do something different – as well as of course the heavyweights of the genre. It’s been important to programme it in prestigious venues to prove that this style of music more than earns its place at the table amongst music formalists as well as those who love it for the friendly attitude.
The festival team is myself, guitarist Andrea Vergani, our friends and musical colleagues who help out, and a poole of freelancers.
Can you tell us about some of the musicians performing at this year’s festival, and what makes them special?
The headliner is Fapy Lafertin Quartet. Fapy is a legendary Belgian-Dutch gypsy. His style is just beautiful. Tasteful. Every note has a purpose. He’s on at LSO St Lukes, the home of London Symphony Orchestra, supported by the Shirley Smart Trio. Shirley’s one of the top improvisers here in the UK and she comes up with some fantastic Middle Eastern tinged music.
We have violinist Tim Kliphuis at Crazy Coq’s in Soho. Tim is a Sony Classical recording artist. He’s an exceptional violinist who is doing great things for the global “jazz-violin-nerd” community.
Tim’s playing with Cornelius Corkery’s Trio. Olli Soikkeli is in quartet with Julien Cattiaux, Marcus Penrose and myself at Vortex Jazz Club. Olli is super modern and plays American jazz at Blue Note, Birdland and the Lincoln Centre with people like Cyrille Aimee and Pasquale Grosso!
Julien Cattiaux is a master of Rhythm Guitar, from Paris. Anyone curious about ‘La Pompe’ style of rhythm guitar needs to see this guy. On Saturday night theres a knees up at The Jago featuring RAKA Balkan band, Coloriage – steaming modern jazz quartet led by Mike Guy on accordion – and a late-night jam session hosted by Sol Grimshaw.
There’s also the DJ duo ‘Fly Away Hearts’ who play everything from Disco to Jungle. Will be way fun!
We tried to keep it as varied as possible. Within Gypsy Jazz it represents the traditional (Fapy Lafertin, Tim Kliphuis) the modern (Olli Soikkeli, Cornelius Corkery etc), as well as the musical styles that run adjacent like straight ahead jazz and traditional Balkan music.
I hope this rich diversity in musical styles will come together into an exciting few days!
You mentioned that the festival aims to pay tribute to the vibrant UK Gypsy Jazz scene. Can you tell us more about this scene and what distinguishes it from other jazz scenes in the UK?
One of the best things about the GJ scene here is just how friendly it is. Everyone is welcome! This is partly because of the informality of it all – for many of the jam sessions you just rock up to the pub and play with people from all walks of life. There are plenty of more formal jams too.
I think for audiences who aren’t necessarily well-versed in listening to jazz theres a lot in Gypsy Jazz they can enjoy without having to dive deep into the theory of it all. But when you do dive deep you realise these guys swing hard!!
The UK has some of the absolute best in the world. I won’t list the current crop in case I miss anyone out, but the players here have innovative, creative, cutting-edge approaches to the style, and really hold their own on the international scene. Some great composers too.
The UK has been vital in the development of GJ: with Ian Cruickshank, Gary Potter, John Etheridge, and Martin Taylor (amongst many others) forging the way for the international scene.
As a member of the LGBT community, can you talk about the importance of diversifying the Gypsy Jazz and wider Jazz scene in the UK?
Everyone knows jazz is a boys club. There have been some positive moves recently for female representation, but I think most people just assume that its ok to be a member of the LGBT community in jazz now.
Its “been fixed already”. But at the same time the machismo and laddy-ness still remains and there aren’t the safe-spaces for queers that there are for women.
I know that for people who fit squarely into the scene and don’t have to think twice about how they look, what they wear or how they behave, it can even be a bit annoying that theres such an emphasis on “diversity”.
I have many friends who would be devastated to think that someone felt uncomfortable at one of their jams for any reason. The truth is, however, this discomfort does exist.
The negative reception of diverse people is mostly subconscious and only solved, in my opinion, through exposure to more people. Exposure is only possible by growing the scene and getting more people from all walks of life involved!
There’s some astonishing female musicians playing Gypsy Jazz, but nowhere near enough. It’s an innately ethnically diverse genre (Romany wise, at least).
The festival has a nice line up featuring queers, females, ethnically diverse and musically diverse musicians – I’d like it for more and more people to become attracted to playing and enjoying the genre, and representation is one of the key ways to achieve that.
Gypsy Jazz is a rich musical tradition that has been around for a century – how do you feel the genre has grown and evolved over time to stay exciting and relevant today?
Gypsy Jazz is interesting because of its aesthetic association with one guy: Django Reinhardt pioneered it all. This means that the innovations have been necessitated by limitation.
Today the innovation comes from approaches to the rhythm guitar playing, as well as composition and crossover with American jazz. Django himself was a modernist.
There was a resurgence of the genre in the 80’s (thanks largely to festival headliner Fapy Lafertin) but many of today’s artists are developing this amazing, cutting-edge sound – a kind of fusion of boppy modern jazz, Balkan music, traditional gypsy jazz and this crazy machine-gun style of soloing, – as well as some completely unique takes on the genre (RP Quartet, Antoine Boyer and Gonzalo Bergara come to mind).
In the past there have been a small handful of artists playing super modern stuff, my faves are Boulou and Elios Ferre.
But today there’s tonnes of people pioneering the new sound. As well as this you still have the more traditional players closely inspired by Django as well as American-lineage jazz musicians getting roped in. This means new elements are being brought to the table.
Can you tell us about your experience as a violinist, composer, and producer in the jazz world, and how this informs your work with the festival?
I started by teaching myself jazz piano. I wanted to be Bill Evans. I also loved the music of Django and played it with my dear friend Arjun.
One day he reminded me that I could actually play the violin (I learnt when I was a kid)… so I started busking…for a few years I took my little red Roland Street Cube amp from town to town up north and used earnings to pay my way. Now days I play on the scene and my originals band ‘The Aviary’ is releasing our second album at Vortex in July!
I run fledgling record label “Future Fable Records.” In 2020 I produced a big album featuring loads of musicians from across Europe to raise funds and awareness for venues during Covid.
I produce a video series of local musicians (we’re onto episode 13 now). Last year I programmed the ‘Festival of French Jazz’ at The Actors’ Church Covent Garden and later this year ‘Covent Garden Jazz Festival’ will pop up.
I’m a lover of classical composers like Bartok, Xenakis and Morton Feldman, which has infiltrated my jazz-writing. I’m also currently touring a show called “Django Reinhardt Songbook”.
So I guess these two loves (ultra-modern atonal stuff, and ultra-swingin’ gypsy jazz) have created a desire to promote a festival that forges the way for modern Gypsy Jazz!
GJFL has received support from Arts Council England. How has this support helped shape the festival?
Woo! Basically it means I can do this without going bankrupt! Arts Council’s support has meant that we can book amazing musicians, pay everyone fairly, sell a good number of tickets and keep them affordable, and promote the scene as much as possible.
They seem to agree that this is an important project for the UK’s cultural landscape and that the skilled musicians within the genre could do with a little help.
They also agreed that the UK is a considerable player on the world stage and that GJFL is capable of taking Gypsy Jazz to the next level! I’m honoured really. Personally, I put absolutely everything into promoting the scene. It’s my vocation and my curse. So I’m chuffed that they would help me out with it really.
What can audiences expect from the future of GJFL, and how do you see the festival evolving and growing over time?
As time goes on we will get programming at bigger and more prestigious venues (we’re doing well on that front already though) and the line up’s will expand.
Over the years we will gradually start incorporating more and more local players in, as that’s a big element of it all – promoting the UK scene alongside the international heavy hitters.
For the next edition we have already confirmed a large stand-alone concert a few months before the main body of the fest. We have a well-defined plan on our diversity pledge: It takes time…Gypsy Jazz is still a bit niche so we have to be measured…patient…but the strategy is well underway.
Andrea is looking into how we can incorporate workshops and social meet ups into the organisation: the opportunity for people to learn from the best in the world. Other than that, you’ll have to wait and see what happens in 2024 and beyond 😉 But it’s all very exciting!