A Guide to Scottish Jazz: Past, Present and Future

Stuart Nicholson
Monday, April 3, 2023

The huge contribution Scottish musicians have made to the richness of UK jazz over the years has long been underestimated. It is only now, believes Stuart Nicholson, that this historical wrong is being righted as a new generation of players, bandleaders, composers and educators take their deserved place in the spotlight

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

It seems to be a generational thing. Every nine or ten years, the media suddenly re-discovers jazz. It has been going on since the 1980s, when the likes of saxophonists Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, The Jazz Warriors plus Django Bates and Loose Tubes were featured in the arts pages of broadsheets, style magazines and even making it on to television. Currently, we are (still) in the midst of what the Observer newspaper in 2018 called ‘The British Jazz Explosion’ – yes, another one – generating much excitement at home and attracting international attention. And while the musicians featured in the Observer’s piece thoroughly deserved their recognition, only two of those mentioned were from outside London, a quirk of a London-centric media that often overlooks events beyond the M25 corridor.

“It isn’t just London enjoying a rebirth and remoulding of its jazz scene,” points out [October 2022] Scotland’s national newspaper, The Herald – there’s an equally exciting and dynamic 'Jazz Explosion' happening north of the border. “There’s so much amazing music coming out of the Scottish scene right now,” says Dave Stapleton, label boss of Edition Records, “It’s heartening to see the Scottish scene flourish and build international recognition for its creativity, individuality and authenticity.”

Fergus McCreadie

At the heart of events is pianist Fergus McCreadie, described by The Herald as “Scottish music’s man of the moment.” In October last year, he won the Scottish Album of the Year award, and a prize worth £20,000, for his album Cairn (Edition), making him the first-ever jazz musician to win the award. On its release, the album debuted at No.1 on the UK's Official Jazz & Blues Albums Chart Top 30. It’s no exaggeration to say McCreadie has become one of the hottest properties on the Scottish jazz scene – his latest album Forest Floor was nominated for a Mercury prize, and as Alan Morrison, Head of Music at Creative Scotland, says: “Fergus McCreadie’s acclaimed album Forest Floor sets a high benchmark, leading the charge of a generation of exceptionally talented young artists and drawing the eyes and ears of the world to what is happening here on home ground [in Scotland].”

Another key figure currently at the forefront of Scottish jazz is Matt Carmichael. His 2021 debut Where Will The River Flow (Porthole Music) couldn’t have got the tenor saxophonist to a more spectacular start, with high praise for the album across the European media, resulting in an invitation to guest solo with the Grammy Award winning WDR Big Band in Cologne, where his music was arranged by saxophonist/arranger, Bob Mintzer. Carmichael had been the first student on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland jazz course to win all three of the awards on offer at the end of an academic year. “It’s the first time this has happened,” said Professor Tommy Smith OBE, who has been Head of Jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland since 2009. “It’s obviously rare to find a student with such outstanding talent across all three disciplines. It also says a lot about Matt’s jazz capabilities.”

Saxophonist and educator Smith has played a key role in nurturing and mentoring young talent after establishing Scotland's first, and only, full time jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2009. McCreadie, himself a graduate of the RCS, acknowledges the 'huge' influence Smith has had on the Scottish jazz scene: “It’s hard to imagine what things were like in Scotland before the jazz course at RCS came along,” he says. “Without it, I can’t see the scene existing at all, at least not as we know it.”

Tommy Smith

It’s a jazz scene that has been gradually building since Smith first established the jazz course in 2009. He estimated at the outset it would take about 20 years for Glasgow’s jazz scene to evolve and grow, and he was right. “When the course started there was no jazz [venues] anywhere in Glasgow,” he says. “But through the students being there we started to have relationships with clubs and bars and now you can hear jazz every night of the week, from Monday nights through to Sunday nights, it’s all due to the students, it’s a very dynamic scene now. You go to any of these clubs, they’re so vibrant and the audience is young, which is great!”

It’s in stark contrast to the time when Scots jazz musicians had no option but to seek their fortunes south of the border. It is a history that goes way back to the 1920s and 1930s – for example, Tommy McQuater, who was born in Ayrshire in 1914, made his name as a 'hot' jazz trumpeter in the 1930s in the top big bands of the day, such as Jack Payne, Ambrose and Lew Stone. During the war years he was a member of the Squadronaires, the RAF big band, playing alongside George Chisholm (born in Edinburgh) who by the UK standards of the time was regarded as a virtuoso trombonist. Then there was trumpeter John McLevy, who played with Benny Goodman, Hank Jones and Slam Stewart; drummer Bobby Orr, born in Cambuslang, who was a member of Joe Harriott’s groups, toured with Benny Goodman, Tubby Hayes and others; and pianist Ian Armitt from Kirkaldy, who played with Humphrey Lyttelton, and Scotsmen Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather in the 1960s.

It’s often overlooked what an important contribution Scots jazz musicians have made to the richness of UK jazz over the years. Emerging from the Trad boom of the 1950s came instrumentalist/bandleaders Sandy Brown, Alex Welsh and Al Fairweather and bands such as the Crane River Jazzmen and the Clyde Valley Stompers, who all enjoyed national prominence. The 1960s saw a remarkable blossoming of Scottish jazz musicians on the national stage. Jimmy Deuchar from Dundee, was widely admired by his peers as the UK’s top modern jazz trumpet player, sharing the front line with Tubby Hayes in the Hayes quintet (for example, Late Spot at Scott’s and Down In The Village). He first emerged in British jazz in the early 1950s as a member of the Dankworth Seven: “Jimmy was the first British trumpet player to assimilate the musical departures introduced by the Dizzy Gillespie school who also had the instrumental technique and musical knowledge to make them work,” said John Dankworth.

Saxophonist Joe Temperly, a Lyttelton regular, later became a member of the Woody Herman and Wynton Marsalis big bands; guitarist Jim Mullen made his name with the Morrisey/Mullen band; pianist Stan Greig was a staple of the London scene while the tragic Archie Semple, played in fellow Scot Alex Welsh’s band from 1955 to 1963. Edinburgh-born Welsh’s band was widely admired by Trad, mainstream and modern fans alike for its neat, snappy version of mainstream jazz and quality soloists in Roy Crimmins, Roy Williams, Fred Hunt, John Barnes, bassist Ron Mathewson and Welsh himself. Mathewson was born in Lerwick and went on to record with the likes of Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Joan Armatrading, Ben Webster, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Glasgow-born Bobby Wellins wrote himself into the jazz history books with his sensitive, emotive saxophone playing on Stan Tracey’s epochal Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

“Players like Bobby Wellins had to leave without much Scottish work or infrastructure back then,” says Tommy Smith. “But Bobby did inspire me greatly, as I had all his recordings from an early age.”

During the jazz-rock fusion age of the 1970s-80s, The Average White Band were one of the most commercially successful groups – and now one of the most-sampled bands in history – yet to this day many people are surprised to learn they hailed from Scotland, originally based around the Dundee horns of Malcolm Duncan, Michael Rosen and Roger Ball.

Laura MacDonald

The problem for Scottish jazz, as Tommy Smith sees it, was that after all these Scots jazz musicians made their reputations south of the border, very few returned home to enrich the Scots jazz scene and inspire and mentor younger players. What is more, musicians seeking a Conservatoire/University level jazz education who travelled south to study, then build their careers in London, and tended to settle there. After Tommy Smith had toured extensively internationally with vibist Gary Burton’s group, and after landing a lucrative four album deal with the Blue Note record label, he made the decision to return to Scotland in 1993, a decade after he left. On returning, he immediately became aware of “a lack of leadership, jazz infrastructure and opportunity” there compared to many of the countries he had both performed in and taught masterclasses as a member of Gary Burton’s band.

“I would see all these musicians leave Scotland, a sort of brain drain, and I’d ask them, ‘Why aren’t you coming home?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to think of my future,’ I could see they had no reason to stay – or return – to Scotland,” says Smith. “I’d look at other countries in comparable size to Scotland – Denmark, they had this great tradition of bass players – Nils Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and so on – really inspiring the next generation, and in Norway, people like Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, they inspired generation after generation because they didn’t leave. But while there were people coming back to Scotland – Colin Smith, Martin Kershaw, Tom Bancroft, Paul Towndrow, Laura MacDonald came back, Steve Hamilton came back, Adam Jackson, a few others, but that was it. You could go through a huge list of those who didn’t come back and I wanted to do something about it.”

Smith saw jazz education as a key foundational step, from which other things might grow and evolve. In 1995 he founded the National Jazz Institute and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which he rehearsed in his home for a decade. But despite pleading for a full-time jazz course to the First Minister of Scotland and members of the government, none could (or would) help, despite jazz being taught at university level throughout Europe for sixty or more years. In 2002, he had a meeting with the new Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, John Wallace, a jazz lover, who reluctantly had to say, “Sorry, we’re not ready yet for jazz.” Meanwhile Smith established his Youth Jazz Orchestra, in 2004 he co-founded the Scottish Jazz Federation, which established the Young Scottish Musician of the Year award and the Scottish Jazz Awards.

Then in 2008, Smith had a call from John Wallace who said, “We’d like you to head up a full-time jazz course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.” Smith needed no second bidding. He had already prepared a full curriculum with the help of his mentor, Gary Burton, then the Principal at Berklee College of Music in Boston: “I had it in the can and ready to go, and that was it.”

“I got a good team of people together, and we were off," he continues. "We created a symbiotic relationship with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, we moved them from rehearsing in my house to the school, where students could come and sit watch and learn from people like Kurt Elling, Jazzmeia Horn, Branford Marsalis or Mike Stern – all of our guests as they rehearsed with the band – so it was that kind of relationship. Our first graduate was Pete Johnson, who won the Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year in 2013, got a Yamaha Scholarship; he’s one of the finest piano players in the country – he’s inspired Fergus McCreadie and many others.

As Smith’s RCS jazz course went from strength to strength, it played a central role in nurturing emerging Scottish talent; their current success is bassist Ewan Hastie, who won the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition in November 2022 during his final year at RCS.

“He was hands down the best performer in that competition,” says Smith. “He is unusually gifted, you don’t hear bass players like that every day... they don’t come along that often! I know he won the competition last November, but I have known him for four years, and when he first turned up, a left-handed bass player, he was better than most of the professionals, it was incredible what he could do. I had never heard anyone that young play with such mastery!”

But it’s not just Hastie who’s setting Scottish scene alight. As Dave Stapleton of Edition Records points out, “This new, creative wave is seeing genuine and authentic voices emerging from a regional scene that allows a safe place for artists to develop original voices.”

It’s a key point echoed by Tommy Smith, “People like the atmosphere in Glasgow, there’s more time to focus on your own music, you get more opportunities to play, it’s not a place where every musician is on top of each other, so they have space to develop their own approach, and then go on to inspire more young musicians, it just keeps on going.”

Georgia Cécile

Winner of the Best Album award at the 2021 Scottish Jazz Awards for her debut recording Only The Lover Sings, Glasgow-based vocalist Georgia Cécile is fast becoming one of Scotland’s most exciting rising stars. Growing up on the outskirts of Glasgow in a musical family, she says: “I was always playing piano or trying to sing like Billie Holiday.” A law student by day, she honed the art of jazz singing by night in the Glasgow clubs and after her debut album came out she found herself supporting Gregory Porter at the Royal Albert Hall.

Emerging vocalist Marianne McGregor, has received high praise for her powerful voice, improvising and original songs and was winner of the Rising Star and New Vocalist awards in the 2021 Scottish Jazz Awards. Broadcaster, DJ and producer Rebecca Vasmant’s With Love From Glasgow band, is a magnet for young musicians.

“Rebecca really helps our jazz students,” says Smith. “She's part of the Glasgow scene, there’s a fusion of lots of music, playing for young audiences, and Rebecca is at the forefront of getting these younger musicians in to play on her show, she’s really an advocate for getting a younger scene interested in the music.”

Saxophonist Norman Willmore, now a Glasgow resident, originally hails from Shetland. “He’s such a great player, very talented,” says Smith. “Like Fergus [McCreadie] he’s integrating Scottish folk songs, and to do it eloquently, he has really learned Scottish music.” Seonaid (pronounced Shaw-na) Aitken is the presenter of BBC Scotland’s Jazz Nights, a voice well known to musicians and fans alike north of border. “She’s a violinist, a singer with perfect pitch and she’s won a lot of awards, a really amazing musician,” continues Smith. “Her band, The Rose Room, is a great gypsy jazz band, really high-level playing, it's ridiculous! With her BBC radio show she’s done a great service to Scottish jazz as she’s highlighted young musicians coming up, helped them get up the ladder.”

It might seem incredible, but the one sour note of this remarkable Scottish success story was the news going to press that the BBC is axing Seonaid’s show, Jazz Nights, along with classical music’s Classics Unwrapped. The reason, cost cutting but more particularly the BBC’s eternal quest to woo the ‘yoof’ audience, “There is a value challenge with younger people in the audio space,” the BBC loftily proclaimed. Go figure.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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