Over the past few years – until everything stopped – London had become a playground for young jazz artists, with concert halls, bars, clubs and tiny back rooms in pubs vibing to instrumentalists with chops and attitude.
Here, tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, blowing fire in a jam with trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and alto sax player Cassie Kinoshi, erstwhile members of Afrobeat eight-piece Kokoroko and the Mercury-nominated SEED Ensemble. There, pianist Joe Armon-Jones of party-starters Ezra Collective – whose drummer Femi Koleoso plays with Jorja Smith. Or tuba player Theon Cross, whose jouncing tune ‘Brockley’, an ode to his southeast London birthplace, comes infused with grime, Caribbean rhythms and dramatic hip-hop style drops.
Everywhere, in hundreds of gigs, London’s jazz renaissance made itself felt. Inclusive and diverse – variously informed by DIY culture, a club aesthetic and the diasporic backgrounds (Ghana, Jamaica, Nigeria) of its players – it was the stuff of global hype and local pride. And while many of these artist are alumni of our capital’s fine music conservatoires, the overwhelming majority have another, stronger link: Tomorrow’s Warriors, the pioneering jazz music and artist development organisation currently celebrating its 30th anniversary year.
“The importance of Tomorrow’s Warriors can’t be overstated,” says award-winning reedsman Shabaka Hutchings, 37, of super groups including Sons of Kemet. “Their method of showcasing young musicians alongside established players in jam sessions really formed the community. I remember coming down from Birmingham at 17 for their jam at the Jazz Café in Camden, and jumping onstage to solo with the band Empirical. For the first time I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this’.”
Co-founded in 1991 by double-bassist and bandleader Gary Crosby OBE – a member of seminal all-black Eighties collective Jazz Warriors – and agent-manager Janine Irons MBE, Tomorrow’s Warriors provides young people, particularly young people of colour and girls, with musical training free of charge, regardless of economic background. Or indeed, learning ability: “We support talented kids who might have got lost in the system,” says Crosby, who in 2018 became the first jazz musician to be awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music. “We’ve found people at genius level.”
Community organisations have long been key in shaping the careers of artists from marginalised backgrounds. But the non-profit Tomorrow’s Warriors, which has partnerships across the UK and each year fundraises half of its annual £200,000 running costs through private donations, is the most visible and – with over sixty awards and a wealth of feted graduates – the most successful.
“In three decades, Tomorrow’s Warriors has helped over 10,000 young musicians aged between eleven to 25,” says Irons, seated next to Crosby in the company’s offices in Harrow, northwest London. “We’re a black-led organisation but we don’t just champion black excellence. We address under-representation in the industry by diversifying who is onstage and who is coming to see them.”
Tomorrow’s Warriors provides musical training free of charge
What started out as a weekly jam session at the Jazz Café expanded into bigger venues and a programme of master classes, workshops, collaborations, performances and a summer school, all of which take place at the Southbank Centre, where Tomorrow’s Warriors have been weekend resident since 2010.
Their company’s illustrious locale has helped revolutionise attitudes, says the council estate-raised Crosby, the son of Jamaican immigrants. “Some youngsters don’t know these places exist, or else they find them too imposing to enter. It’s the same with conservatoires; we guide people to Trinity Laban if they want to follow that route. We’re about demystifying, showing what’s possible.”
Warriors are encouraged to feel the fear and solo anyway. They get to deputise in Crosby’s established jazz/reggae outfit Jazz Jamaica, or join flagship Warrior ensembles such as StringTing, Female Frontline and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra – which in 2019, under the musical direction of pianist Peter Edwards, performed Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music at the Royal Albert Hall as part of BBC Proms. They form their own bands, and play in each other’s.
“I heard there was an open master class and went down with [trombonist] Rosie Turton,” says Garcia, 28, who featured in the March issue of British Vogue as one of 12 British creatives to watch – and like so many ex-Warriors has been cited by publications from the New York Times to the Weekend Australian as a major force in London jazz.
“Gary was so welcoming, and adamant that we should come back. It was a safe space, like a youth club, where young people became very good friends and wanted to learn about a genre that people say is very niche and hard to get into.”
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Along with dozens of ex-Warriors, including guitarist Shirley Tetteh, drummer Moses Boyd and saxophonist Binker Golding, Garcia proceeded to turn this alleged niche inside out, in the process reinforcing the notion of jazz as a living music able to renew itself by absorbing new traits. They served as reminders that, while jazz is music of black origin, UK jazz had lost its black audience. They set about redressing the balance.
“People who look like me and like clubs, grime and hip-hop are seeing musicians onstage who are the same as them,” says the Mercury-nominated Boyd. “It’s just people doing what they do.”
From the early 2010s these musicians were referencing everything from electronica and broken beat to calypso and highlife, and playing to rowdy crowds at hard-to-find venues such as Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston and jazz nights including Steam Down in Deptford and Jazz re:freshed in Notting Hill.
“We’ve helped the jazz ecosystem,” says Irons. “The more young people got into jazz, the more young promoters there were and the more venues, residencies, pop-ups, record labels and music releases.”
Tomorrow’s Warriors has never taught marketing or promotion. But with an ‘each one, teach one’ philosophy that sees alumni returning to give back to a programme that has supported them well into their professional careers, knowledge of the biz and how to navigate it is passed down and/or absorbed.
“Our learning programme is more than just musical education,” continues Irons. “It’s an apprenticeship; a support structure. A community.”
That this current generation of alumni do more than simply play is hardly surprising. They put on their own events (many are also DJs), use social media to pull crowds and promote music. They accept sponsorship if it fits (Koleoso featured in ads for BT Sport UEFA Champions League).
Resilience seems woven into the fabric of Tomorrow’s Warriors. Immediately after the first lockdown the organisation moved online, allowing over 200 students to access a learning hub where music leaders facilitated sessions, and young musicians continued to hone their performance chops.
“The pandemic is not going to stop us,” says Crosby. “I always say, ‘Embrace the chaos’. These kids have passion. They’ve got good grades, entrepreneurial spirit, confidence. They’re free to make up their own world.”
The more successful the Tomorrow’s Warriors graduates, the more the organisation and its waiting list has grown.
“Which is wonderful, but daunting,” says Irons. “Meeting that demand will be a challenge. More than ever we need people to get behind us. It is vital the programme remains free and inclusive. We can’t afford for talent to go undiscovered.”
He smiles. “If they don’t get that opportunity, then who will be the musicians of tomorrow?”