RADIO VIBES, CLUB CULTURE, THE BIRTH OF ACID JAZZ AND MY FAVOURITE THINGS
Gilles Peterson needs no introduction, considered, by many, to be one of the DJs responsible for bringing jazz into the public domain and also resurrecting the careers of jazz artists. However, given his popularity, he has rarely been interviewed by the music press. I manage to catch up with this busy man in North London, armed with a voice recorder, nuff questions from the UK Vibe posse, and black coffee – we began. But first, he put me right about his nationality…
“I was born in France and my family came over here when I was young. My name isn’t Peterson, but when I started doing pirate radio I had to change my surname to something easily identifiable. I can’t exactly remember how I started, I remember as a teenager living in Croydon, I used to visit a friend’s house and he was into soul – he was a real soul boy. I got really into it and listening to all that music. Bobby Caldwell springs to mind. By the time I turned 15 I already had turntables, buying records, slipping into pubs and wine bars where DJs would be playing the latest jazz-funk – music, like Grover Washington Jnr. I was excited about the scene, the music, the lifestyle, the people, the vibe – at that time it was basically a casual.”
Between the ages of 15 and 19 Gilles broadcasted on a variety of pirate stations, where he gained experience and a reputation in playing jazz music. He elaborates…
“Around the early 80s I discovered Radio Invicta, which still doesn’t get the credit that it deserved, it was the first black pirate station that was playing soul and jazz with flair and doing it right. I used to listen to Andy Jackson who was their jazz DJ and also to Robbie Vincent who was on Radio London. My next door neighbour and myself set up a pirate station called Civic Radio and broadcasted three hours every Sunday, we would record the show in my house, broadcast it from Epsom Downs and take dedications from a local phone box. I used to think I was Robbie Vincent and play jazz and soul etc. and he thought he was John Peel and played all those indie tunes.
We then developed it further by getting a link system, which meant that we could broadcast live. It was around this time I met Chris Phillips (currently at Kiss FM), who we initially thought was the Home Office. I also met Jez Nelson at a similar period. Then a position at Invicta came up and I replaced Andy Jackson. I felt that I had made it; it was like I was on Radio One. After Invicta, came Horizon (which became Solar), I hooked up with Jez and did some really good shows – particular the all-nighters. Then Chris, Jez and myself developed KJazz.”
Listen to a short snippet of Gilles on Horizon back in 1984 here
Then Gilles got another break, a show on Radio London and the start of ‘Mad on Jazz’ began.
“When I did those shows, it was never something that we thought out, it was a time when jazz was changing, because the old generation who had controlled jazz in this country for so long, were freaked out and confused about this young voice. Talking over solos, inviting people to read poetry and mixing different genres of jazz music. To those people jazz meant something else and I was considered a threat to the ‘old guard’. That’s when I had my internal battles with the traditional mags and the Ronnie Scott’s of this world. They couldn’t understand that I was only presenting, and broadcasting, the energy from the jazz dance scene.”
Despite those groundbreaking shows when Radio London became GLR, Gilles became one of its casualties. However, he was soon approached by Dave Lee, who was setting up Jazz FM. Dave asked Gilles to join the board. Gilles continued:
“….I decided to accept Dave’s offer, I’d rather be involved and change things from within than be on the outside. Then came my repeated experience with the people from the other side of jazz. I was attending meetings with the likes of MPs and Lords, people who were into Bix Beiderbecke; and Glen Miller. I was brought along as the token youth. When Jazz FM finally got their license, being a board member, I tried to bring as many friends as possible – Jez, Chris, Tomeck. I was on Saturdays, noon ‘til four. I think that’s the show most people will remember me for. It was a time when everyone was buzzing, the clubs, the music, everything. The first record I played was ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy and from that point onwards, Jazz FM was fucked off with me. They didn’t understand Public Enemy and John Coltrane on the same show. They couldn’t hear that. That’s what I’m really about, I was always, and I’m still, into great music, into playing things off each other. That’s how I hear things and I think that’s how our generation hears things.”
The first hour of this breath-taking show was called ‘freestyle’ mostly a showcase for new jazz music, mainly hip-hop. The second was ‘Jazz with attitude’…
“…that’s when I would really modal out and play some deep shit” says Gilles.
The third was the ‘Jazz Alphabet’ and the final hour was the ‘Vibrazone’ (a term Gilles got from Gil Scott-Heron radio shows). “…that’s when I would smoke and go into one… You see, that whole period when Dingwalls was at its peak, doing the Fez and Cock Happy parties, to me that was Acid Jazz and hopefully this was being reflected on the show.”
However, the vibe didn’t last forever and the week before the Libya bombing in 1986, Gilles dedicated an hour to peace and mentioned attending the peace march in Hyde Park. Jazz FM deemed that political and suspended him. However, the station appeared to be unaware of the power of his show, which had the highest listening figures, and when the story broke into the national press, advertisers started to pull out. They immediately reinstated Gilles.
“I stupidly went back, but only for a short while, that’s why most people don’t remember me coming back. One of the reasons why I stayed was Chris and Jez, who were still at Jazz FM, who still wanted to make a go of it and asked me to come back. I broadcasted on Friday nights and I remember we started doing these ‘Herbie’ sessions – all night sessions of only one artist that started with Herbie Hancock (obviously) we did some classic ones. I remember the one we did about Donald Byrd and interviewed him at 5am at his home. We were really zoned out at that one. In another session Jez did Clinton, and I couldn’t handle it. I had to go home (laughter).”
After leaving Jazz FM Gilles was soon to be found broadcasting on Kiss100. I asked him about the direction of his current show (Sunday 11am-1pm) and why his playlist included ‘jungle’.
“I’m into a lot of music, for me to play three hours of Vanessa Rubin is part of it, but I’m always into new stuff. People who criticised me for playing jungle were the same type of people who criticise me for playing Gang Starr’s ‘Jazz Thing’, playing hip hop at Dingwalls and booing me. I remember playing 808 State, that’s what I’m into. There’s a lot of connection between Metal Heads, Larry Heard, Sun Ra – that’s where my head’s at! I think they are all connected.”
CLUB CULTURE and THE BIRTH OF ACID JAZZ
In the early 80s the jazz dance scene was gathering pace. The place to be was the Electric Ballroom, Camden. Enter a young (18) Gilles Peterson.
“I came to the Electric Ballroom to replace Paul Murphy, the scene was really heavy and a lot of people thought I couldn’t hold it. I was this new kid on the block, to them Paul was God, he was the one who discovered those bad fusion tunes and had a wicked collection. It was the dancers who backed and supported me, gave me their confidence and allowed me to express myself as a DJ.” [See our article with Dick Jewel for some images from The Electric Ballroom]
Gilles was there for three years, which paralleled the rise in jazz dance (and everything else that went with it), he became tightly associated with it.
“I suppose another reason why I became popular was because I was also doing out of London gigs, Blues and Soul gigs, the trendies at the Wag Club. You couldn’t say I was playing to a set crowd.”
Who were his inspirations around this time?
“A big help and inspiration was Chris Bangs, he put me in the right direction. I liked his approach; he had style, and a sense of humour to go with it. Bob Jones, Colin Curtis from Manchester, he would play Cool Notes next to Art Blakey. I was buzzed about that. Paul Murphy, who I learnt a lot from. To me, these were the guys I looked up to.”
The conversation continued about the club scene.
“I remember before the start of rave and the emergence of club culture as we know it, Paul Anderson, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and myself used to play together in one venue, but when rave happened, that lot discovered Acid and there became a split in the scene. Meanwhile at the Belvedere pub, considered the meeting place and where everyone used to go, the split was evident – you’d find half taking ecstasy and the other into jazz. But I wasn’t into the way the jazzheads were being boring and saying they were never going to take drugs and never listening to anything else. I just thought great there’s a lot of energy here and I liked the energy coming from the rave scene, so we did these parties called ‘Cock Happy’. Two rooms – in one room we’d play acid house; mad batucada tunes; avant-garde and jazz, and weird hip hop, whilst in the other room there would be a red light going on and off, everyone on acid and people reading poetry – it was fucking out there! and you would have people freaking out in the garden – it was totally 60s. It was basically taking the energy from the rave scene and putting it in our (jazz) context.
To me that whole period was acid jazz. It was when the jazz scene was going on but wasn’t becoming the Northern Soul scene. I was really worried that with the onset of acid house, jazz would become for the old bastards who would be boring and just talk about collecting records. I wanted people to have a good time, buzzing at every level – that’s what acid jazz was and hopefully represented on my shows at Jazz FM. At a club level, Dingwalls took all these elements and was incredibly successful.”
I asked him why Dingwalls was so successful.
“I suppose being at a market place, being on a Sunday, it had a wider audience unlike the Wag, which was on a Monday night and had a set crowd.”
From the club scene acid jazz became a record label, how did this begin?
“I was doing a club called Babylon on Thursday nights with Marco (Young Disciples) and Danny Rampling – what a wicked and varied night, right at the time when the club culture was happening – Rob Galliano would just rap freestyle and one night we wanted to make a record. So we called Eddie Piller, because he knew about these things, and the result was ‘Frederick Lies Still’, we then decided to call the label Acid Jazz. We recorded music from BNH, A Man Called Adam, Bucky Leo, Rob Galliano – all pretty varied stuff. It was great for a couple of years, but it got to a stage when I personally felt that the artists we were working with deserved the space to be able to work 100% on their music, rather than only in the evening. And so the opportunity came for me to set up a label with Phonogram, when this came up I thought this could be a way of taking the movement to the next level, so I took the job.”
What do you think of the scene now?
“Well it depends if you want to be elitist or open. I was in HMV, Oxford Circus last week and there was a massive Acid Jazz section – it was a weird feeling. I’m really proud we have been able to change something, to make a type of music. My vibe was, if there was any way of getting people closer to hearing Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, then I’m doing a good job. Critics say that Acid Jazz is compromising etc., it’s just a link between our generation anti-old music anti-tradition. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world and now in record shops there will be an Acid Jazz section. On the other side, inevitably with something like acid jazz you lose control of how people take acid jazz, they have their own definition and one thing I had to deal with over the last few years, acid jazz is whatever you want it to be. There’s some music that is called acid jazz that I wouldn’t go near, but I must not let that affect me. There’s a bunch of new record labels coming up all over the world, there’s a lot of young people who have a root to develop their own music which there wasn’t 10 years ago – in that respect, it’s great.”
Do you think you push out other DJ’s?
“I certainly hope not, I’ve had that criticism – that I don’t bring enough people in. There is only so much one can do and I hope that I’ve inspired people to do what they want to do and I’ve always tried to work with as many people as possible. As a result, I’m pleased to work with James Lavelle, who is an important element of the side of the scene we represented, and taken it into another area. I really respect what he’s doing. Similarly working with Joe Davis at ‘No Room for Squares’, who is another inspiration, and deserves a lot of props.”
And what do you think about bootlegs?
“I get frustrated sometimes, because some bootlegs are just copies of Patrick’s or my shows. They take music discovered by other people. They don’t add or give anything to the scene…. Although I think the Nuggets Vol. 1 and 2 are wicked! The people who are putting those together are thinking about them. Nevertheless, perhaps bootlegs are about getting more people into the music – it’s the ones putting nothing into and making a lot of money that irritate me. I first started doing compilations – Jazz Juice, BGP, Blue Note etc. because a lot of the music I was playing in clubs people didn’t always know how to get them, so doing them made a lot of sense. It’s educational and that’s why I still do them, but the reason I started to get into creating and making new music was because I felt there were new things coming out of our scene – I was really excited about setting up Acid Jazz and then Talkin’ Loud, hopefully representing a new British Jazz/hybrid sound.”
MY FAVOURITE THINGS
“Jazz is the ultimate music of the 20th century and everything comes from jazz. But to me I’m more interested in listening to Portishead than someone doing another standard of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, because to me, Portishead is very exciting music. Equally I get excited about getting hold of Elvin Jones and Wynton Marsalis’ version of ‘A Love Supreme’.
My favourite gig would be Joyce at the Fridge and the Jazz FM Weekender which had a line up which was ahead of its time: Pharoah Sanders, A Tribe Called Quest, BNH, Steve Williamson, Galliano, Incognito – it covered most areas. I remember staying up until mid-day and playing Sanders’ ‘Prince of Peace’ at 11am, it was great. It was the pinnacle. That whole period was exciting, I never saw it as anything else, it was all new, unpretentious, it seemed so natural.
Even though I love playing – nothing will beat Dingwalls. It’s difficult because when you’ve reached that peak and you know that you’ve reached it. It’s hard to find the next one. Although to a lot of the new kids Bar Rumba is the place. Talkin’ Loud at the Fridge – it was a time when acid jazz was becoming public. I get depressed when I go to gigs that are so-called Acid Jazz, and all I hear is rare groove. I go ‘fuck it’ I’d rather be in a techno club. That’s the side of acid jazz that I find really boring.
Oh the music side, that’s a tough one, there’s so much music. Let me think….Terri Callier’s ‘What Colour is Love’, Jon Lucien’s ‘Listen Love’, Herbie Hancock’s ‘Shiftless Shuffle’, Wayne Shorter’s album ‘Speak No Evil’ and Tribe’s ‘Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Path of Rhythm’. I’m still hearing and buying a lot of music. Looking back, I think I’ve been very fortunate.”