Through SXSW Jazz re:freshed Outernational Brought "The Dope Black British Jazz Landscape" to the World
Organizer Adam Moses and showcase veteran Daniel Casimir discuss the roots of SXSW's groundbreaking jazz showcase
By Michael Toland, Fri., March 18, 2022
Back in 2017, yours truly attended a new South by Southwest showcase produced by an organization of which I’d never heard. The Jazz re:freshed Outernational night filled the tiny stage at the Main II (the inside room at the original Emo’s) with enough talent from the then-underground UK jazz scene to turn the heads of the average DownBeat critic ... if any of them had been present. The punters who were there – and there were plenty of them, filling that room nearly to the brim – had no idea we were witnessing not only a pantheon of future jazz stars, including free-thinking drummer Moses Boyd, minimalist piano trio GoGo Penguin, and newly minted sax giant Shabaka Hutchings, but also the birth of a new institution – one which became my favorite South By experience ever.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Jazz re:freshed co-founder and project director Adam Moses from London. “It was our first time in the States, first SXSW, first UK jazz showcase at South By. So we just thought, we’ll go over there and present it the way we present it. Hopefully people will turn up. To see that kind of turnout was mind-blowing for me.”
The success of that first showcase led to the 2018 happening, at SXSW’s request. That year included bassist Daniel Casimir, who acted as a sideman for pianist Ashley Henry; singer Zara McFarlane; and rising sax star Nubya Garcia.
“They really made me earn my keep,” Casimir chuckles.
The showcase returned for one more packed house in 2019 before going on hold during the pandemic. With the world reopened and the UK scene now part of the mainstream jazz conversation, Jazz re:freshed returns to SXSW as part of the panel the Dope Black British Jazz Landscape, and at its new home Sellers. The showcase features the best of the new wave: Casimir, eclectic band Brown Penny, drummer Jas Kayser, singer Cherise, Latin jazz combo Colectiva, and tunes spun by DJ Adam Rock, aka Moses.
Supporting ambitious, open-minded players who integrate hip-hop, Afrobeat, electronica, Caribbean music, and more into the jazz tradition, Jazz re:freshed began in 2003 as a weekly event put on by soundsystem veterans Moses and Justin McKenzie at the now-shuttered Mau Mau Bar.
“Around that time we’d also go to a lot of jazz events in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and they just felt like they weren’t representative of the city that we’re in,” notes Moses. “We’re going to see some of the greats, and it was a combination of us feeling like, ‘Yo, we’re the only Black guys in here,’ and also we’re the only young folk in there ... by years. We were feeling like there’s a way to bridge the gap, to make it more accessible to people.”
That meant stretching the definition of jazz itself.
“We were very much at that time [into] the new jazz scene coming out of London, which was broken beat, electronic mixing music – people like Mark de Clive-Lowe, Kaidi Tatham, Bugz in the Attic. They were all making stuff that was genre-fluid in a way, where it was jazz, it was a bit of house, it was syncopated rhythms, plus all of the kinds of things you’d expect to have in jazz – beautiful chord structures and melodies. But also it’s dance floor music.”
The blend of booty-shaking accessibility with jazz complexity favored by this generation of UK jazzers reconnects to jazz’s roots in the swing and pre-bebop eras.
“I think there are elements of jazz that are universal,” says Moses. “Dance is one of the cornerstones. If you look at the events in the London scene right now, you go into them and it’s young people dancing to live music played by young people, and I think that energy is important.”
Casimir agrees, with validation from an elder statesman to back it up.
“During my time at Birmingham Conservatoire, the great Mulgrew Miller came to do a master class there,” he explains. “He was saying this music is 90% listening. He said he wasn’t sure about the last 10%, but he reckons it’s dancing. If Mulgrew Miller tells you that this music is a little bit about dancing, you have to respect the man.”
Casimir first encountered Moses while backing saxophonist Camilla George at the weekly residency. Though the bassist was a sideman at the time, Moses immediately pushed him to do more. “Adam has this thing about going up to new musicians and asking, ‘Where’s your album? Where’s your EP?’” says Casimir. “At the time the thought of releasing my own music didn’t really cross my mind. So he planted the seeds.”
After an EP and a duet album with singer Tess Hirst, Casimir conceived double LP Boxed In – an orchestral magnum opus that surely could have found a home on a bigger label. But he remains loyal to the mothership. “During the pandemic, Adam and other people from the team reached out just to be sure that I’m OK,” he explains. “I can’t imagine another CEO of a label just making sure that their artist is OK. So I have a sense of attachment with Jazz re:freshed, and I really appreciate the support that they have given me.”
Equally integral to the scene and Jazz re:freshed’s mission is the mentoring program Tomorrow’s Warriors, where a large chunk of Jazz re:freshed’s musicians got their education. Following graduation from the Conservatoire, Casimir joined on the recommendation of his teachers.
“I instantly found a home there,” says Casimir. “I met a lot of the musicians that I’ve gone on to play with, or am still playing with now.”
The program helped form the community Moses joined when he first started getting into jazz as a record collector.
“I always say there would be no Jazz re:freshed without Tomorrow’s Warriors,” he states.
In its way, the annual Jazz re:freshed party fulfills the ideals of SXSW’s original mission, leading to record deals, booking agents, and international press for this most vibrant of music scenes.
“That first showcase, when Shabaka blew the place away, that was the beginning of his Universal deal,” says Moses. “I can’t tell you any UK act from the newer scene that managed to do the U.S. before the showcase.”
Not only Hutchings, but Garcia, Henry, and Afrobeat fusion acts Ezra Collective and Kokoroko have also advanced their careers after their appearances.
“It’s brought it to an international stage,” says Casimir. “Not just to Texas, but people all around the world seeing what we do in the UK.”
Though its appearances at SXSW have been subsidized through international showcase funding via both the PRS Foundation and Arts Council England, that source of financing ends with the 2022 show, putting future exhibitions outside of the UK at risk without new sponsorship. The idea that something as simple but fundamental as lack of money might prevent an event that’s become a colossal inspiration to both jazz nerds like me and fans who simply want to dance feels particularly galling.
“But that’s jazz, isn’t it?” notes Moses sardonically. “As Ronnie Scott [legendary British saxophonist and co-founder of the eponymous jazz club in London] once said, the best way to make a million pounds out of jazz is to start with 3 million.”
Jazz re:freshed Outernational showcase
Thu 17, 8pm, Sellers, featuring Brown Penny, Jas Kayser, Cherise, Daniel Casimir, Colectiva, DJ Adam Rock