Getting behind the groove with . . .
"Jazz is the teacher, funk is the preacher..."
"Jazz is the teacher, funk is the preacher..."
PREAMBLE: With more than 30 Years of service to the music industry and still with skin in the game, Russ Dewbury is held in high regard as a key influencer and shaper of the UK's independent music scene over the last 30 years. Russ's accolades include conforming to an ongoing international DJ schedule, label owner/manager, artist manager, seasoned compilation compiler, producer, festival organiser, radio broadcaster... oh, and founder/promoter of one of the longest running club nights on the planet... Suffice to say then, that when I got the chance to spend some time with the man himself, we had a little bit to talk about. . .
BTG: Russ Dewbury, welcome along! . . . 30 Years plus with skin in the game and still going strong, take us back to the beginning. . . Take us back to pre 87 (the dawning of the Jazz Rooms) and tell us a bit about the root of your passion for funk, soul, afro beat and everything else in between. . . where it all begin for you?
RD: I was brought up in an non musical house, my dad was a potter and mum was an art teacher, artists but not musical. So it was more top of the pops in the beginning, but I got into music when I was about 8 years old and I entered in to the right kind of music, David Bowie 7” and that sort of thing. That led me into a real passion for music and I started take in Punk, I loved the energy of it and thought it was just great, but towards the end of the 70’s I started to pay attention to the re emergence of the Mod scene that was developing at that time. I’d always been into fashion and I found the whole scene of how the scooters and the cloths looked, really interesting and so ended up getting really involved in that.
BTG: Where were you at this point?
RD: In a tiny little village just north of Bedford, not too much going on there but there was a Mod scene, and it was through that scene that I started to get involved n Soul music. I stated to go along to the all nighters and I got very much in to the soul scene around sort of 1983/84. I got more and more in to the mod ethic, hand made clothes, going to Saville Row in London and blowing my week’s wages on suits and all that.
What was really important to Mods at that time was Jazz music, but for me, Jazz was just something that your dad was into, intellectual kind stuff, y’know… why would you be in to Jazz…? But I wanted to be into Jazz because of the whole Mod thing, there was hip value in being into Jazz, but it's fair to say, I hadn’t really heard the right Jazz music at this point.
So around 1986, one of my mod friends in Bedford says ‘there’s this DJ in London called Paul Murphy playing Jazz in a night club format, as dance music at this club...
BTG: Electric Ballroom?
RD: . . . yes thats it, he also had another club he played called ‘Sol Y Sombra', always dodgy kinda celer bars and such. So we went along thinking this is it… and that night at the Electric ball Room just completely changed my life!
I walked in the place in my suit, all dressed up, only to hear ‘Jazz’ coming through a massive sound system, and surrounded by this this diverse group of people dancing to the music, it just blew me away…
I went and met Paul (Murphy) that night and asked him about the music and so on, and I recall, he pulled out Art Blakey - A night in Tunisia, with that classic 60’s beautiful, Reed miles artwork, and also I remember hearing Grant Green and for me, that was it, I was literally hooked over night.
What was also great about discovering this Jazz club scene, was that the whole Mod scene was pretty male dominated, but the Jazz scene was much more mixed which was great.
Form then on I’d be going to London on a weekly basis and going to the Wag club, Electric ball room, and ‘Sol Y Sombra’ which was a great little venue in the basement of a Cuban restaurant just off of Warren Street. I Got to know Paul Murphy really well through this period.
Some time around the end of 1986, 2 of my other friends were DJ’s at the Wag club, (Andy McConnel and Baz Fe Jazz. Baz), and they had a Christmas party coming up. Baz was making his first trip to Japan to sell the whole 'Jazz club' thing over there, and so he says to me, ‘have you got any records then?’ So I say 'yeah I have a few', and he asks me to come play the Christmas party... as you can imagine I was really up for it.
He gave me half hour to play and at that time I only had around 6 records!
So I turned up at the Wag club and he put me on.... and I’m playing through my records, 2 or 3 in, and this Italian guy comes over to me and says, ‘I love your music, I want to take you to Italy’ , can you imagine! I was a complete rookie DJ at this point. So I gave him my number and the guys say to me. . . yeah probably nothing will come of it, that happens all there time. . . and Lowe and behold I get a call the next day from the Italian guy asking me to come and play in Milan and Bologne….! So my DJ experience went from a few pubs in Bedford, to a half hour slot in the Wag club, to Italy a month later playing 2 gigs!
BTG: Wow that's pretty amazing. . .and where were you living at this point?
RD: At this time I was living in Bedford and working for the Electricity Board. My sister had moved to Brighton and I felt like I needed a change. I was enjoying the DJ’ing gigs I was getting and considered London, but I went to stay with my sister at Brighton University Halls, went for a night out in Brighton and thought, this could be the place to start a night... By this point my passion was all about the music, I lived and breathed it, spent all my time blowing my wages collecting records, it took over my life and I knew I wanted to do a club night.
So I moved down to Brighton and within a month I was looking at venues to do a night. A friend of mine tipped me onto the Churhill Palace Hotel (which is now Casablanca), a seedy basement… at this point I didn’t really know what I was doing... I’d gone from about 10 records to 100 records.
BTG: Where did you buy your records back then?
RD: Record dealers form England would go out to the US and find all these records really cheap and ship them back to the UK. Then they'd create hard copy paper records lists, Soul Bowl was one, Hot Biscuit was another and I’d be buying off these lists.
So i'd started to really collect records and we settled on Churchill Palace Hotel. A friend of mine hooked me up with some quirky artwork and we launched the first Jazz Rooms night February 28th 1987… My sister worked the door and my mate DJ’d with me and we launched the night, and it was packed!"
I was playing straight up Jazz and Latin like Paul Murphy was doing in London, and it worked! What was amazing was, in that one night doing the party, i’d earned more money then i’d earn in a week doing my job! From then we were packed out the whole time.
BTG: So when did the 'Jazz Place' venue in ship street come into the picture?
RD: Back then Brighton was great place for celar venues, and I always felt like going down underground into a club was a positive.
BTG: Something in the subconscious about the nature of underground music culture right?
RD: Yep, the only thing about that was that they were invariably always owned by dodgy, semi Gangster type characters, which was always pretty interesting.
We were at Churchill Palace Hotel for about 2 years before moving to another similar venue called Nash’s, before moving again to the Asylum on Dyke Road. I found that everywhere we went we’d pack out the venue, but inevitably, the management would always end up getting greedy for rent and charges, so the venues were always quite short lived. We had 4 venues before we ended up at Jazz Place in Ship street. It was called the cavern at that point and it was just used as a store room before we took it on. We ended up with our first night there being July 1991 and we ran every Saturday for 17 years…
BTG: 17 years! it’s regarded to be one of the longest running club nights in UK history right?
RD: Well, we did use the tag line that it was the ‘longest running club night in the world’ for some time. From a consecutive night stand point, it ran for that long. We started out doing Friday’s then moved to Saturday’s. It was the only night running in there at first, but after some time a guy called Robert Luis, who later went on to form Tru Thoughts Records started a night there too on a Wednesday.
BTG: I remember the guy on the door down there, big guy, always looked really intimidating but was was actually supper friendly??
RD: That was Bash, I always thought it was a fantastic name for a doorman, he was a sweet guy but if you ever needed him, he could take care of things y’know! … he actually did the door at my wedding believe it or not!
BTG: Let’s talk about the music policy at the Jazz Rooms nights, an incredible music spectrum was always on offer, and though it went left of centre and explored a plethora of Afro Latin, Funk, Soul ++, it always seemed to come back around to amazing danceable grooves… it really felt like you had a unique way of threading all these musical styles totgether… tell us a bit about that?
RD: Well I stared out playing straight Jazz really, Bluenote Records, Prestige Records, that kind of thing. I’d also play latin music, afro Cuban stuff, quite hard, and a bit of soul as well. Then I got more into the funk thing, and through that I came to see that the funk was the 'dance' element y’know, ‘Jazz is the teacher, Funk is the preacher’…
As I earned more money from the success of the party I bought more records. I was lucky, I had some friends in London who were specialst record dealers, and they’d go out and discover all these old obscure rare records that no one had heard before. So they were effectively like new records to us. They’d tip me on to these records, so I’d be buying and playing really unique stuff down there and would be working out how to put it all together. By about 1995 I was really pulling a lot of different elements together including electronic music...
RD: Over time we started to get bigger and bigger names, I remember people like Rob da Bank coming down to play, Phil Asher, Pete Herbert, so many great names. I had a collection of 6 or so other DJ’s that were lesser known but still incredible and they would guest a lot too.
BTG: And the live percussionist element, when did the likes of Tim 'Bongos' Mercer come into the picture??
RD: Well the percussion thing, just went with the music really really well, and so yeah we’d have percussionists regularly. One of the longest standing ones was Dal Robertson. He used to come every Friday and Saturday with out fail. He’d bring his drums, we’d get him a few drinks and he’d play all night.
I recall he was going through some tough times in his personal life at the time and I remember him saying, ‘For me to be able to come down here and play this music, it's just the best remedy’, and for him it was a great way to get through that time. Through that run at the Jazz place there were people that would come every week, every single Friday and Saturday, all the time, it was incredible.
BTG: I recall how easy a night out it was... easy vibe, easy going people, super casual and laid back all the time. When you think of the epic nature of club culture these days, it was NONE of that, it was just intimate and easy… how did you nurture such a vibe?
RD: I think a lot of it was that there was no compromise on the music, ever. I was never gonna take it in a commercial direction, it was always going to be interesting music that would turn people on to stuff they’d never heard before and there was no compromise on that. But the reason I was able to not compromise on it was due to the size of the venue. The legal capacity was about 120, 140 with guests, but because it was so small, that meant that I could do what I wanted musically. If it would have been 2 or 3 times bigger, if it was 200 or 300 people, it may have been different. But I never ever compromised on the music, it was always tough, hard, new, exciting, up lifting…
BTG: I was always amazed at the spectrum of music you played, I was DJ’ing 4 to the floor deep and soulful house at that time and I recall learning about music from highly regarded producers and artists that I would claim to have all the knowledge on... and there you were weaving tracks like Masters at Work - Brazilian Beat , Saint Germain - Rose Rouge into your afro and latin set… I was like... Whaaaaa?
RD: I was incredibly lucky in that I had this really strong base in original black music, Jazz, Funk, Soul etc. From the time around where Acid Jazz started to come about, Galliano, James Taylor Quartet, that sort of stuff, it introduced a new style that I could mix in with my core music and it gave it a real fresh new element. Then you had Hip Hop coming in with groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and that golden era of Hip Hop, and then on to dance music, Drum & Bass and House music. I used to shop at Atlas Records in London and Pete Herbert used to be behind the counter, so he’d put me on to all the right kind of stuff, house and tribal etc, and so I was able to introduce that into my sets as well.
BTG: So let’s talk about Jazz Bop… In parallel to the success you were having with Jazz Rooms weekly event, you embarked upon a larger scale approach to organising music events, tell us a bit about how Jazz Bop came to be?
RD: Yes, we’d established Jazz Rooms at Churchill Palace Hotel and I was working with Baz fe Jazz who promoted some quite big concerts at the time. A year or so into the Jazz Rooms night, he says to me ‘I’ve heard that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are coming over to the UK, we should do something with them…’ to show that it wasn't just a tiny scene of 150 people. So we met with Brighton Jazz club who were very old-skool, and we sold them this idea of taking over the top suite, which was 2500 capacity, and proposed doing Art Blakey, mixing it with Jazz dance elements like IDJ, who were the best Jazz dancers at that time, along with us DJ’ing.
They weren’t particularly up for it and we were like come on.. this is Art Blakey, he’s the most famous Jazz drummer in the world! They were really worried it was gonna loose money but they let us do it. So we took over the promotion, poster design and put the package together and we sold out 1800 tickets in advance, completely sold out. People came form all over for it, it was fantastic! It’s pretty well known in music folk law that gig, as IDJ actually got up on stage and danced with Art Blakey!
BTG: Love it! What stands out to me is how you pulled together an almost festival-esq agenda with live acts, dancing, DJ’s etc at a time when festivals weren’t really common place…
RD: Absolutely, after we did the Art Blakey show, Baz and I had decided we didn’t really like working with the Jazz Club too much, so we decided to do our own show. We knew what worked, we knew people will travel for it, so in October 1988 we did. We had the Tommy Chase quartet, who were just the hippest Jazz group on the London scene, and James Taylor Quartet who had just released ‘Starski & Hutch’. We also brought in a Brighton funk band...
...We tried it out as an experiment and called it Brighton Jazz Bop and started promoting it. The tickets started slowly at first and we thought... oh my god…. But by 2 days before the gig, it was sold out. I went into the Brighton Dome box office and they told me there was a constant stream of people coming in asking for tickets. People were touting them outside the gig, and we just knew that this formula was gonna be fantastic.
The night was a huge success and we were really pleased that we’d established this fantastic blend of having a few bands and DJ’s in one night spanning Afro, Latin, Jazz, Funk acts and it was great.
. . .So I went New York on the proceeds of the gig and out there I bumped into ‘Big’ John Patten' who was a legend to me. He was a Bluenote Hammond organist, and I saw him playing in a wine bar in New York. I thought, I wonder if we could bring him over to the UK to do a show, he’d never been to the UK before. So I persuaded Baz and we brought him over. I think we mixed him with The Brand New Heavies and a couple of other acts and it was massive again, and we sold it out. Bringing over someone like John from playing in a wine bar, to a UK gig with 2000 people made it quite emotional, it felt pretty deep and it really worked.
From that point on that was the formula, I’d go out to America, find a Jazz or funk legend that had never been to the UK before, we’d bring them over and mix them with the current flavour of the moment and we’d put them together…
BTG: Ha! that’s the formula right there right!?…
RD: Well, yea. . .
That led me on to working with loads of legends, Charles Earl, Jon Lucien, Bernard Purdie, Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Eddie Russ, Weldon Irvine, Marleena Shaw, Fat Freddys Drop, Alice Russell & Quantic Soul Orchestra, Mulatu. We brought them all over, and it was this deep emotional thing, it was a bit like through the 60’s where all the Blues artists came over. They were not recognised really in America as the scene was really nothing much, but over here they were received by this sort of Beatle’s , Rolling Stones esq crowd, it was similar to that.
All said, we did about 30 Jazz Bop’s at various venues from London Grand, to the Corn Exchange, we had some great acts, very early on. One of the things I would also do back then was look out for interesting electronic acts and see if they were interested in playing live. one of those was ‘The Cinematic Orchestra’ I recall they had there first release out and I was playing it on the radio and loved it. So I called Jason Swinscoe (The Cinematic Orchestra) and said I had a Jazz Bop coming that May and asked, would he be interested in doing a Cinematic Orchestra live show? So Cinematic Orchestra ended up having their live debut with us which was amazing.
BTG: Wow... so many ground breaking memories huh!
Well this year is actually the 30th anniversary of the first Jazz Bop and I’m toying with the idea of maybe doing something later in the year... so watch this space...!
Check out Russ's Totally radio show for some serious audio vitiamins...
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the Mitchell and Dewbury Band and much much more...