How Glastonbury 2019 got jazzy

More sax please, we're Glastonburians

“This is a one-off clash between two of the big current British jazz bands,” Paul from Bristol explains to NME. He’s standing at the back of the Wormhole, a dungeon-like room situated near the Park stage which holds maybe 100 people.

Like the rest, Paul is here to see a sound-clash between Sons of Kemet and Ezra Collective, two of the UK’s most exciting jazz acts, who each played their own sets this weekend.

There isn’t a body not dancing to the frenzied, pulsing freeform rhythms of the two bands on stage. “I’ve been coming to Glastonbury for 30 years,” Paul says, “I’ve worked on the West Holts stage for a long time so I’ve seen a lot of jazz and the related music over the years at Glastonbury, [but] not quite in the same way as this.”

The 2019 edition of Glastonbury features an incredible amount of jazz musicians. Though the focus may be on Kamasi Washington’s Sunday evening set at the West Holts stage, the line-up of UK artists should also be heralded.

The four-piece group Sons Of Kemet played at the Park Stage a day after rising South London collective Steam Down. Ezra Collective, the in-demand five-piece band, played to a crowd of thousands at the West Holts stage; a reflection of what three-piece cosmic jazz group Comet is Coming similarly achieved on the first day. Kokoroko, who are slowly starting to earn their own plaudits, round out the acts alongside underrated keys player Joe Armon Jones heading his own trio.

At the Wormhole

“People are starting to realise that jazz isn’t just music for sitting down and stroking your beard,” Shabaka Hutchings of the Comet is Coming and Sons of Hemet explains. “It’s something you can have a good time too but you can also listen to in a different way with different dimensions.”

“People are starting to realise that jazz isn’t just music for sitting down and stroking your beard”
– Shabaka Hutchings, The Comet is Coming

The crowds at each of the performances reflected the changing mindset of audiences to jazz in all its forms. Each afternoon performance had crowds previously laying down in the sun up on their feet dancing within minutes. This new generation of bands are breaking previous stereotypes of what was previously considered jazz.

“I think what’s happening today is diverting away from jazz in the traditional form,” Ahnanse, the bandleader of Steam Down explains. “I think a lot of us don’t even refer to what we do as jazz in the first place. It is music that doesn’t fit in a box that has some sort of improvisation or some sort of freeness to it.”

There has been a shift in the identity of jazz, particularly in the UK and represented here at Glastonbury. It may be evolving into something wholly new. “We’re at the crossroads of something else,” Ahnanse added. “I don’t know if jazz is even the right word or label for it right now.”

The marriage of improv and unique structures has given these bands a unique opportunity to collaborate to showcase their craft. And there’s no better place to do it than at Glastonbury. Each night down in the Wormhole from midnight to 2am, two of the six bands play a collaborative set as a sound-clash.

For Nathan, who’s in charge of the Wormhole, alongside Jackson and Jake – all from Bristol – the chance to have all these amazing artists on site presented a unique opportunity: “to do something proper unique, one-off like this. Glastonbury is the ideal breeding ground.”

“The soundclash was a matter of what happens when pure creativity comes about,” Shabaka Hutchings explains. Playing music of this intensity non-stop for two hours is no easy feat, yet these acts made it look like one, playing their own sets and then improvising to the more intimate crowds in the Wormhole late into the night. “It’s about a bunch of musicians making music and that’s all there is to it. We’re the musicians, we just feel the music,” he adds.

Crowds lined up for an hour to get inside the Wormhole. Matilda, from Huddersfield, who had been waiting for almost 45 minutes said, “It’s worth the wait, hundred percent.” Natasha, one of the lucky ones standing inside and dancing, agreed, “I’ve been to Glastonbury a few times. I’ve  never seen anything like this before. Absolutely love it.”

“I think it’s really beautiful that Glastonbury just champions good music,” Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective said. “And I think what’s happening in UK jazz is representative of good music.” For the young drummer, playing at Glastonbury hasn’t just been a dream come true, it’s been everything he’s been working towards. “If man was 10 years old and seen that set on telly, I would’ve been gassed as well. I hope that I can contribute to making it happen for more people.”

Even though he was an integral part of the soundclash, Femi was unsure of what to expect. He went into it believing and trusting that his fellow musicians would be up to the task. To double check, he texted Shabaka to ask “What’s the vibration with this sound clash ting?” Shabaka responded simply: “Anything to make the gas levels as high as possible.” Femi’s immediate thought when he read the text and thought about what this moment means in the larger context of audiences interpretation of jazz was one he couldn’t stop shaking: “Brethren, we’re playing for our lives tonight.”