In Conversation with Steve Crocker: Jazz Leeds

Steve Crocker is the driving force behind Jazz Leeds.  Leeds Living’s Debbie Rolls wanted to find out more about the man and his motivation.

How did it all start?

The Jazz Leeds story began back in 2007 when a group of jazz fans, including Steve, began a voluntary organisation to promote jazz in the City. It is still completely run by volunteers and is a registered charity. Steve regularly links up with other voluntary promoters across the UK for mutual support, to share experiences and find ways to keep jazz music live. 

Over the years, Jazz Leeds has used many venues but concerts are now usually held at Seven Arts or the Inkwell in Chapel Allerton. Leeds is very fortunate to have a great music college, or Leeds Conservatoire, as it has recently been renamed. The college has become the base of an annual jazz festival promoted by Jazz Leeds. One of the trustees of Jazz Leeds is Jamil Sheriff, who leads the programme at the college.

How has the organisation coped with COVID-19?

Lockdown meant that concerts had to be cancelled, but most of the performers have agreed to rebook for later in the year. The Leeds Jazz Festival could not take place, but we have been busy planning next year’s offering. 

We were determined that we would keep jazz available in some form. We have posted videos and I have collaborated with James Fernie at Chapel FM. Since April there has been a monthly ‘Jazz Unlocked’ radio broadcast. You can listen to the live show or catch up with previous broadcasts on the Chapel FM website https://www.chapelfm.co.uk/elfm-player/shows/list/jazz-unlocked-from-jazz-leeds/

As lock down eased we introduced outdoor live music. This was in response to feedback from our audience, who felt unready to attend indoor events. We have used the courtyard of Seven Arts, who have been exceptionally supportive, to hold small, intimate gigs. The twice weekly events, Wednesday 6pm and Sunday 1.30pm, have been ‘pay what you feel’. We have been encouraged by how generous people have been. There is a real appetite to bring back live music.

Normally, we would host a jazz day on the Sunday of the Chapel Allerton Festival on Regent Street in September. The festival was cancelled, but we felt there was no reason the music shouldn’t go on. Clearly we needed a lot more space. One of our volunteers lives near Gledhow Sports and Social Club and suggested their field as a venue. The club have been brilliant, helping us to plan a totally safe, family friendly event. The ‘Flying High Jazz Picnic’ went really well. It had the atmosphere of a village fete and enabled talented jazz musicians to share their music. Some were playing in public for the first time since March.

The outdoor events have been a real joy. They may well become regular features in years to come.

How are you supporting jazz musicians in this difficult time?

When we do hold events we make sure that we pay every musician as much, or more, than we would have done previously. This has been an exceptionally difficult time for musicians. We want to give them the opportunity, not just to share their music, but also to make money. 

We are planning more outside events in September but have an arrangement to be able to go inside in a socially distanced way if the weather is uncooperative. The main programme, with some great acts who should have played earlier in the year, will then move back inside. Audience sizes will be reduced but we are looking at other ways to share jazz music through videos of events. Lockdown has really brought voluntary promoters, small venues and musicians together and taught us how to collaborate and support each other.

Jazz is sometimes seen as white, male and old. How are you challenging this perception?

We intentionally make our programme as diverse as possible. Our main concerts always have a support act formed of young musicians, just starting out in their musical journey. Last autumn we ran a whole season entitled ‘Women in Jazz’. A dozen bands led by women proved that this is no longer a male domain. 

Our last jazz festival focussed upon Afro-Caribbean talent. For the next festival, planned for July 2021, we have already booked Idris Rahman and are looking for other talented Asian musicians to join the line up. 

We are pleased to see that our audience is gradually becoming more diverse. Jazz is a diverse music; it has many forms and links to other genres, such as blues and soul. We believe that everyone can connect with jazz in some way.

Has Steve made you curious? To find out more, visit the Jazz Leeds website https://www.jazzleeds.org.uk/

To read more about the Flying High Jazz Picnic read my review here.

Feature photograph by Jon Chamberlain.

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