“I believe music can tame the beast in man”

Gary Crosby OBE speaks to The Voice about his Queen’s Medal of Music, overcoming his stroke and the re-emergence of jazz

PICTURED: Gary Crosby

GARY CROSBY is a musical legend. The double bassist, composer and educator has been a staple in British jazz music for years and has been inspiring the next generation with Tomorrow’s Warriors –  a jazz music education and artist development organisation that he founded in 1991 alongside Janine Irons MBE FRSA.

His career and life thus far has been a success that many would love to emulate, but he has also faced some challenges. In 2019, Crosby was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music – the first black artist to do so – one year after battling   brain hemorrhage and a stroke which left him unable to play the double bass.

Despite the health issues, Crosby continues to persevere, and in particular, to inspire the next generation. He recently announced the launch of the Reggae Ticket – an innovative, grassroots music and culture outreach programme produced by Tomorrow’s Warriors.

Supported by Arts Council England, The Reggae Ticket will take to the road across seven UK cities alongside Crosby’s popular heritage reggae tour, The Trojan Story performed by his 22-piece Jazz Jamaica All Stars.

Ahead of the tour, which begins October 25, we spoke to the Godfather of Jazz about his love of music, musical influences and much more.

Q: Where did your love of music begins?

Gary Crosby: My parents are both Jamaican and are from Trenchtown specifically. I remember waking up one morning, and seeing this big red thing [bass guitar] downstairs in the basement and that’s where my love for music started – seeing this thing that was bigger than me and wanted to become more familiar with it.

Q: Who were your musical influences growing up? 

GC: It was all types of music. Growing up in a West Indian family in the 1960s-1970s, you weren’t listening to just ska and rocksteady, you were listening to Ace Cannon,Curtis Mayfield and a range of black music. Whatever made us dance was being played in the house – Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and some jazz of course.

Q: Did this range of music and knowledge make you realise that you wanted to teach music education?

GC: Yes not necessarily music, but the concept of each one teach one was implanted in me in the mid 70s at a youth club I used to go to. It started out as a club where you would get free lessons in basic education, some sports,karate, football and music lessons and that mentality to share and learn and teach really impacted me early on.

Q: Your music and the work you’ve done for jazz is legendary, and we’re seeing this resurgence in interest in jazz music. What do you feel has caused this?

GC: There’s a definite increase in interest but this music has never stopped and never gone backwards. Jazz has always been under the surface compared to more popular approaches. But what I will say is there’s a particular intelligence around it now with new jazz musicians. Beyond the skills there’s a particular awareness on a societal level of what you need to do to succeed as a jazz musician today. The younger artists have all the media and marketing skills as they’ve grown up with technology so they know how to utilise it.

I was at the original jazz expo in the 80s a part of the courtney pine brand and we were so happy at that time. We could talk about positive things in our community, we didn’t have to dwell on the negatives. It was a short time in the sun but it made us happy and i’m happy to see the younger generation engage in positive stuff and making a name for themselves around the world as opposed to something negative.

Q: There’s also a certain level of authenticity in jazz that is hard to replicate or formulate compared to other genres.

GC: On an individual level yes because it requires you to do something that modern music doesn’t so much. It requires you to practice,spend your own time working on your craft and being quite honest about yourself – can I play this cord change? is my tone right? etc. I’m not saying other music doesn’t have this same level of care but jazz is 100 years old now and the technical elements have improved over the years. There’s a backlog of history but also the technical skills it requires. Its an incredible resource from Ella Fitzgerald to Charles Parker, Duke Ellington and I could go on.

Q: As well as your extremely successful past, you recently received a Queen’s medal for music – what was that experience like?

GC: It was one of the greatest days of my life. But I remember the lead up to it, I felt a bit embarrassed by it. I’m not an active musician at this present moment and I haven’t been able to practice in a year and a half, due to a brain hemorrhage and stroke I had last year, which meant I was no longer able to play my wonderful instrument, the double bass. But in my eyes, I received this medal for my work with Tomorrow’s Warriors and that means a lot.

Q: You were the first black artist to receive the honour, are you surprised to still be breaking barriers like this at this stage in your career?

GC: Not really, I’m not surprised just glad these barriers are being broken each time. These things happen when it’s necessary. The Queen’s medal in the past had been given based on music the queen and her master of music enjoyed which has been a lot of classical music and aimed at that direction. It’s great to see they have opened up to jazz. But for us, we play this music because it’s some sort of calling – there’s no money in it, no one acknowledges you and it’s hard work. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate getting a Queen’s medal but if I didn’t have it i’d still do what I do because I believe music can tame the beast in man in a way that it has helped me avoid some of the negativity surrounding our community. Jazz helped me avoid that.

What are your plans for Tomorrow’s Warriors going forward?

GC: I’ve been engaged in tomorrow’s warriors for around 31 years and there’s still things id like to explore with that and develop some projects on Curtis Mayfield and other musicians who paved the way. I see it as my duty to make other people aware of the greatness that is capable from us.

Gary Crosby’s Nu Civilisation Orchestra will perform with String Ting and Misha Mullov Abbado at the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 23 at Queen Elizabeth Hall https://efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk/events/bbcco-jazz-generation

Comments Form

2 Comments

  1. | Mark Lemieux

    An incredible man and spouse what have done so much for so many. A HUGE reason for the current resurgence of jazz in the UK. These amazing young artists are attracting their own age groups to “jazz” concerts. A young audience that would ever otherwise come to a “jazz” concert – if their life depended on it!

    Reply

  2. | John Howarth

    When are you coming to Manchester? I’ve travelled to Newcastle (when you included Andy Shepherd, Denys Baptiste etc) and to Hull for the Trojan Horse event but it’s an awful long time since I saw the All Stars in Manchester

    Reply

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