It can be hard to pinpoint Gilles Peterson’s contributions to modern music because they’re so wide-ranging.
Since the 1980’s, he’s run three record labels (Acid Jazz, Talkin’ Loud, and currently Brownswood) and helped curate over 100 compilations; toured the world as a DJ; pioneered a musical movement (acid jazz, a term he comically coined, only for the tag to be widely misconstrued); and carved out a highly respected broadcasting career that includes a weekend spot on BBC (and, more recently, his own radio station, Worldwide FM).
Yet above all else, what seems to still drive him is an insatiable passion and curiosity for music yet discovered, and the subsequent responsibility to use his many platforms to help expose those sounds, whether they’re from rising talents or unsung legends. As he shared over coffee, “The art, if there is an art to it, is just never to allow it to become work.”
Given his 30-plus years behind the decks and the breadth of music he’s introduced audiences to on stage and over the airwaves, there’s truly no telling where this music obsessive and certified legend may take listeners on February 14, when he performs a DJ set inside the Continental for San Jose Jazz Winter Fest, co-presented by Universal Grammar.
There’s plenty to dive into with your relationship with jazz, but do you recall a first memory with the art form?
I think my entry point was certainly jazz funk. As a young boy growing up in South London, listening to pirate radio stations and catching whatever I could, it would have been coming from Brit Funk groups, jazz funk groups that were basically groups inspired by Earth, Wind and Fire and Cameo. There was a whole movement of groups like that in the UK, groups like Incognito and Light of the World.
The first time I heard a proper jazz track would’ve been [John Coltrane’s] “Giant Steps” in a club. That was at a soul weekender. You’d get a few thousand kids going to these holiday resorts that were empty in the non-summer months in England. The majority would be in the main room listening to Candido “Jingo” and Fatback Band “Do the Bus Stop.” But then around the back, there’d be a little room and there’d be DJs playing more complicated music.
It was in that room, at the age of 16, on the North Sea coastline, that I walked in and a DJ called Bob Jones was playing “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane on a loud sound system with maybe 15, 20 people dancing to it, battling.
Dancing to Coltrane?
Yeah. The back room would’ve been the jazz room, and that’s where the heavyweights would play to small amounts of people. That’s when I heard that music in an environment that struck with me. That’s how I got into proper jazz, when I heard it in that essence.
Suddenly, I found this scene where they were playing Latin jazz and heavy jazz and Afro-Cuban music and fusion, and there’d be these kids dancing, battling off to it. You’d have to go and travel to listen to [these DJs], so I’d go to places like Manchester or Nottingham or Birmingham.
People talk about Northern Soul as very much a British youth DJ culture. They talk of punks and mods and rockers, but one of the subcultures of Britain was the backroom jazz room, and that was something that didn’t happen anywhere [else] in the world. I went on to make that a part of my DNA as a DJ.
What did your five-year residency at Dingwalls in London in the late 80s and early 90s, where you helped pioneer what became known as acid jazz, teach you about DJing? Did it mean a lot to share the magic you found in jazz with others?
Of course. As somebody who was going through my own personal voyage of musical discovery, it was a phenomenal period of time.
I talk about it as a jazz thing, but equally, you wouldn’t be able to play a track like Roy Haynes “Dorian” without playing maybe a Rotary Connection or a track like “Destiny” by Rufus. It wasn’t about just jazz; it was about the light and the shade, and how you got from one place to another to get the most out of a song.
In an editorial for The Guardian, you said, referring to London, “for me as a DJ, it’s especially exciting to see the new connection being made between club culture and live jazz. It’s a link I’ve been trying to make for the last 30 years. Now more than ever, it feels as if that boundary’s finally being broken down.” Why are you as excited as you’ve ever been about that wall coming down?
Because it’s coming down. [Smiles] And it’s come down. It’s being realized, and people are appreciating it on all levels.
What’s really exciting for me is that the DJs are more interested in the live approach, and the live musicians are very aware of the DJs. Back then, I was forcing the jazz guys to listen to what we were playing. And the DJs were like “Oh god, not a band.”
So when you were programming these six hour shows, you would have DJs and live programming, but you’re trying to wrangle people from one space to the next? They didn’t fully co-exist in the exact same space?
Yeah. And even back then, at Dingwalls and the Wag Club, where I put a lot of live bands, we’d have all the British jazz musicians play there: Steve Williamson, Courtney Pine, Julian Joseph. There was a strong movement back in the late 80s and early 90s, but they were so in their art that they weren’t really listening to our point of view.
It was only really when I started working with Courtney on releasing his records that I introduced him to non-jazz music and how it could work. I put him in together with 4hero. I put him in together with Attica Blues, opening up his mind to the possibilities. Whereas this generation, it’s in their DNA. They go to a rave. They know what bassline is. They know what drill is. They know what grime is, and they can incorporate that into what they do as performers, which allows this to be a fresh music in a way, because there are contemporary reference points to draw from to create something which is special.
You’ve basically made a career, in many different forms, out of your incessant pursuit of discovering new music. I want to invert that concept for a second – are there any key musicians you still find yourself revisiting?
I think for me, the artist I always discover something new with is Sun Ra. I can always put on a Sun Ra record and hear something that’s going to make me go “Wow.” Records I never thought I would ever have got into before – some of his more open, free stuff, which would’ve been noisy back then – I’m finding that [now] I get it.
Throughout your many endeavors – Future Bubblers, Brownswood, Worldwide FM, Havana Cultura – there’s a through-line to the idea of exposure and mentorship. Why continually choose to help guide young creatives, whether it’s through music or broadcasting?
I think I come from a generation where it wasn’t so easy. Until my mid 20’s I still thought I was going to have to get a normal job, and it’s still a bit of a dream that I was able to somehow survive within music. I feel that I owe the new generation because I was given these opportunities by my mentors.
In the UK, we’re the first ones really to be able to go “Look, we did well out of this. This is the way. We now need to guide you.” I think the jazz world here has always had that. All the great jazz musicians, most of them became professors. That’s part of their responsibility, and I see it the same way. I’m very aware that with the BBC, it’s a platform to a world that wouldn’t know my music or the music I support.
The main thing for people like myself is: how do you find a window for normal people to get inside? How can you open the door for people who would never find that door to come in? That’s what any culture needs, and any art needs. Art needs the door openers, and I’m a door opener. Just like someone opened the door to me when I was 16 and they played me “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane very loud, and it had a very deep impact on me.
Musical evangelism, almost.
People say to me “Why do you play in Ibiza?” I’ll go and do that gig because in that 2000 people who are out on that dance floor, if I flip it out 25 minutes into my set, I might lose a lot of people, but some of them might have the most amazing moment.
It’s very easy for me to preach to the converted all day long. The difficult thing is finding yourself out of your comfort zone and in a situation where you can create some agitation, but out of that, some people will have discovered something. That’s what happened to me, and I continue to push that.
WORDS: Brandon Roos, for San Jose Jazz