Gary Crosby is the band leader of Jazz Jamaica and various other Jazz-related projects. He runs his own production company, Dune Music, and has worked with young talented musicians a lot. Lest we forget, he is also Ernest Ranglin’s nephew.
With Jazz Jamaica he preceded the current wave of Big band ska projects by some fifteen years. Now he has taken this a step further and created an even bigger version of the band to recreate Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire album as Jazz Jamaica Allstars, a 31-piece orchestra which is augmented by different choirs at their live concerts.
After a fantastic and sold-out performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre, this time supported by the Southbank Centre’s powerful Voicelab choir, we managed to ask Gary Crosby a few questions.
REGGAE STEADY SKA: Wow, what a performance. You should record this!
Gary Crosby: Yeah, it was good fun, but to record it, it would have to be a live project and we would need somebody like the BBC to finance it.
RSS: I have seen Jazz Jamaica live a number of times and you usually play in smaller clubs where people can dance. How does it feel like to play this huge concert hall with 2000 people sitting?
GC: Well, we have played concert halls before and as you can see people get up and dance anyway. I play in jazz clubs a lot where people usually sit down and enjoy the music, so I prefer to leave it to the people.
RSS: Catch A Fire is an interesting choice, because there has been a lot of controversy over it. The Wailers had recorded it and then Chris Blackwell (of Island Records) put strings and rock guitars on it and released that version without even asking the band.
It wasn’t really a problem, but it took me a few years to really understand the album. I was about 18 when the album was released and listening to a lot of roots reggae at the time, stuff like Augustus Pablo. But then I understood what Catch a Fire had done, basically reggae went to university, it went to the middle classes. It helped widen reggae’s spread.
RSS: Which version of the album do you prefer, the Jamaican one or the Chris Blackwell version?
GC: They’re both good, but I listened to the Chris Blackwell version much more. The person who mixed Chris Blackwell’s version is Tony Platt, who has recorded all of the albums on our label, Dune Records since 2001. And I was completely attracted to the cover, to this projection of Bob Marley as the new Jimi Hendrix.
RSS: Why/how did you decide to have Brinsley Forde sing for the Catch a Fire project?
GC: Brinsley was an easy choice really, obviously because of his experience and knowledge of the music. But he also knew the Wailers personally from their first trips to London – this was a bonus and provided a helpful insight for me and the band. Also, he was a founding member of Aswad, one of the major reggae bands in England in the late-70s, and I have always liked his rhythm guitar playing. He was perfect for the job!
RSS: If I understand it correctly, you have different choirs at all the shows. The choir here in London was so powerful and it helped to involve the audience a lot. How did you rehearse that? It must be a massive task to coordinate 116 people on stage.
GC: The credit must go to the choir leaders and the choir members, for being so brilliant! They all worked really hard to perfect the songs. And, of course, everybody knows and loves The Wailers, and since we had chosen the most popular tracks for the choir, it was quite smooth and a lot of fun. The choir in London was our largest choir (85 voices) – incredibly powerful and very moving. But all of the choirs we worked with were special, all of them were awesome, and brought unique qualities to each of the shows.
RSS: Any thoughts on that project?
GC: I haven’t heard of this band but I listened to the clip and loved it. Over the past ten years or so, the ska bands in the US have sussed out what Mr Tommy McCook once told me: that they (the Skatalites) grew up listening to/playing swing music, i.e. Ellington, Basie, Louis Jordan, as well as Afro-Latin/Caribbean styles. It’s an integral part of your training if you want to get that sound. We also must not forget the Wareika Hill vibe. Western Standard Time are a great band with good soloists and a tight rhythm section. Also important is that they have good arrangements. Thanks for hipping me up to them!
RSS: You are Ernest Ranglin’s nephew. Can you tell us about his influence on you? How close were/are you? How do you assess his importance for the development of Ska and Reggae? I heard that one explanation for the term “Ska” is that he coined it to describe the sound of the offbeat guitar. Do you know if that’s true?
GC: My mother and father would always mention Ernest when jazz was on the radio, on TV or in the newspaper and I got it all the time, from family and friends, when ever they heard me practising, someone would pop their head around the door and mention Uncle Ernest. He was the benchmark they would set for me. I first got to know Ernest when he was living in London (circa 1960-1964). He was my first inspiration to play an instrument and, since then, his influence on me has been immeasurable. I honestly don’t know if I would even have started playing were it not for him.
When I formed Jazz Jamaica in the early 90s, we worked together touring Europe and Japan. We’ve worked together a few times since then – with Jazz Jamaica for Dune Music’s 10th Anniversary concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and again in 2009, at Ronnie Scott’s – we did a straight jazz set playing jazz standards and his originals, and the following night we did a Jazz Jamaica set. It’s always great working with him.
Who gave the name ‘Ska’ to the music? I don’t know as I was not there, but Uncle Ernest and Cluett Johnson were at the root of the music, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he had something to do with naming it.
RSS: In 2009, you received an OBE (Order of the British empire) from the Queen for your outstanding work. What does it mean to you?
GC: It was a big surprise, to be honoured with this very public award, but great for helping to raise the profile of the work we’ve been doing for the past twenty-odd years with young musicians on our Tomorrow’s Warriors programme. It gives us a voice in the arts world that we can use to raise awareness of the need for diversity within the jazz scene here in the UK, and shine a light on the poor representation of black people and women in jazz, both on the stage and in the audience. From a more personal perspective, I know it made my parents very, very proud. I still remember the look of pride on their faces!
RSS: What are your next steps musically?
GC: We’ll arrange a set of classic Studio One songs and perform it with this orchestra.
RSS: You haven’t published anything as Jazz Jamaica in quite a while…
GC: We might record something next year. We’re still touring in the UK occasionally.
RSS: What about other countries?
GC: Well, it’s diffcicult when you haven’t released a new product in a while, but if people are interested in booking us, get in touch.
The next performance of the the Catch A Fire show is scheduled on July 13th 2013 at the same venue in London. For current dates and details go here. Souljazz Records organized an after show party in the Central Bar of Royal Festival Hall.
Here’s also an affiliate link to the “Catch A Fire” album with two versions (one original Jamaican, the other with over dubs done in England.