Jazzing it up in Cambridge

Cambridge’s Folk Festival has become world renowned since it started in 1965 and I was surprised to learn that it nearly started life as a jazz festival because the organizer was a fan; but folk took priority.  Jazz, however, is now firmly on the Cambridge music scene agenda, thanks significantly to Ros Russell who has been leading and managing the Cambridge International Jazz Festival since 2014.  I met with Ros to find out how she got jazz back on the map in Cambridge.   

Ros moved to Cambridge 21 years ago from London, where, since her university days, she had been in a band called Starsky that explored jazz, funk and soul.  Starsky, although set up for fun – Ros was studying to be a medical parasitologist – was very good and in a battle of the bands competition, they came fourth (KT Tunstall won, so competition was hot).  Ros recalls that back then the music scene in Cambridge couldn’t satisfy her so she made regular visits to London to feed her appetite for jazz.

A very potted history

Ros is a font of knowledge when it comes to jazz.  I learn a little about how the changing sounds move with each decade, and of the impacts and influences that drove its evolution.  She particularly loved the early 90s, with the introduction of acid jazz: “There were some fantastic bands such as the Brand New Heavies and Incognito that took jazz to a different level and had a wider reach.  Even Herbie Hancock went very electronic.  This was such a welcome departure from the jazz of the 80s with the likes of Kenny G.”  My education continues and the enthusiasm of Ros is infectious; as a jazz fan but with no expertise I found it interesting to have bands, styles and artists put into context.  Ros continues: “Jazz goes up and down and really cuts across genres with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Robert Glasper.  There’s currently a revival of jazz, and even artists like David Bowie, with his album Black Star, was just full of the most amazing jazz musicians.”

Resolution 88

Science song and soul

Away from London and her band, career and family took over. A job in medical parasitology led to a computer science Masters followed by a PhD.  Now a computational biologist, her field of study covers gene sequencing and more recently mass spectrometry of proteins.  Ros also balances her work with a young family and in the earlier days, music had to take a back seat. So, what changed?

Throughout her PhD Ros was glued to her books all the time and didn’t take much notice of the nightlife in Cambridge: “I just wasn’t going out; but then someone heard that I was a good singer and every year would ask, ‘Come on Ros, when are you going to start singing again?’  So, I joined a small group with diverse backgrounds.  We met once a week, and we’d jam in the stairwell at the European Bioinformatics Institute at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton.” This experience and the challenge of combining various tastes to make a more soulful sound reignited her love of music.

Zoe Rahman

A hell of a lot of talent

With her children a little older, Ros could start singing for fun once again. So, after 10 years she started going to the jazz jams in Cambridge – a community event, where musicians and bands can perform and improvise live.  Her confidence grew, and she got to know other musicians, and lots of the other communities of jazz in Cambridge.  She realized that there was a hell of a lot of talent out there.  Ros said: “I noticed that the Cambridge jazz and music scene had changed a lot in the last 20 years ago.  There are some amazing, astonishing jazz musicians of all ages.” Despite lots of events, Ros became aware and increasingly frustrated that there was still nothing that hit the jazz cross-over that she loved.  Her lightbulb moment came when in 2014 her small jazz band were asked to perform at the first e-Luminate event in Cambridge.  Ros explains: “We had a great reception, everyone was loving the music so I simply said to my two band members, ‘Let’s start a jazz festival. Who’s with me?’ And they were in.”

Alex Hitchcock & band

CJF launched

In 2014, Ros and three others set up a community interest company, recruited a team of volunteers, enlisted the help of organisations such as Cambridge Modern Jazz and Jazz at John’s, and the Cambridge Jazz Festival was launched.  Their first run was a weekend event in the summer of 2014.  It was a success, even against the backdrop of a World Cup year.  Over the next two years the event grew to 10 days.  November became the chosen month – popular generally for UK jazz events, and better for schools and university participation – and now the festival is held over 15 days. Ros says: “It has really taken off, and that’s a glowing endorsement of the demand from the public and artists alike.  However, it’s important that we don’t grow too fast.  Our focus is to improve on quality.  Lots of artists want to be involved but we have to be realistic and selective.  This year will include live music from local musicians and some headline names, including interesting fringe and some free events.”

The Cambridge Jazz Festival has opened jazz to a new generation, who may in the past have seen this as something for the oldies.  Ros is determined to change this conception and her line up is vibrant, exciting and tempting for jazz aficionados but equally attractive to anyone new to the music.  Ros said: “Jazz is a genre which is constantly evolving, combining new ideas and working with contemporary sounds, fresh ideas.  Right now, it offers some of the most innovative sounds out there.  We have introduced workshops alongside the music to allow the opportunity to experiment and learn.  The art of improvisation is a fantastic skill to have, not just in music but in life in general and I’d love more young people to get involved.”

Dave Niskin

Show off Cambridge

A lot of people associate Cambridge with classical and folk music and never jazz, but the Cambridge Jazz Festival has earned the respect of jazz devotees and Cambridge has its fair share of home grown talent.  This includes people like Cambridge resident and drum teacher, Josh Blackmore, who has recently been acclaimed as one of the UK’s finest young jazz drummers.  Chanan Hanspal, is a phenomenal guitarist who has performed and recorded with many and he’s also a fantastic educationalist and lecturer in music at ARU.  Tom O’Grady a keyboard player and fast becoming a rising jazz funk star globally used to teach maths at The Perse a few years back.  Saxophonist and composer, Alex Hitchcock studied English at Cambridge University and was director of the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra; he is now a rising young star in the UK jazz scene and Jazzwise’s ‘One To Watch’.  The list goes on with Dave Niskin combining session guitar with teaching in Cambridge, and the very talented Misha Mullov-Abbado, a double bass player and Gonville & Caius graduate, recently selected for BBC’s New Generation Artists.

Chanan Hanspal

Getting the balance right

Ros has brought together a team of people committed to finding and booking exciting artists, organising venues, getting funding and identifying valuable supporters.  Her comprehensive spreadsheet shows that she is firmly in control of every element of the whole event which takes a year to plan.  I remind myself that she also holds down a job and family; she has multi-tasking down to a fine art.  Ros says, “Getting the balance right has been something I’ve been working on and I now focus three days on my science and Monday and Fridays ‘are the weekend’ when I do the festival.”

As we reach the end of our interview Ros is keen to mention some of the volunteers who help her, as she knows it really would be impossible to put on the Festival without them.  There are lots of musicians, David Gower and John Blandford who run Cambridge Modern Jazz.  Kevin Flanagan, a recently retired lecturer at ARU and a saxophonist, with his band Rip Rap, and Gavin Spence, a medic at Great Ormand Street, as well as a trumpet, violinist & pianist provide massive support.  This year they are thrilled to have a title sponsor, Brewer Dolphin, and also support from Cambridge BID, Cambridge LIVE, Cambridge Independent and Millers Music.

“Jazz in Cambridge – bring it on.”

To find out more about the Cambridge Jazz Festival and to book tickets for any events visit here

Ros was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly.  Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit scuseme