Jazz and other four letter words

Jazz trumpeter and sometime pugilist Byron Wallen talks to Dave Woodhall.

The word I see that describes you most often is ‘innovative’. Is that a fair description?

“Aah, that’s lovely. I do things my own way. For me music is expression of the most intimate sort and I guess I like to be thorough and really diligent with it. Put all my heart and soul in it and if the results come out unique then that’s just the process of a life in music.”

And jazz really is innovative music.

“It is, it takes the essence of other music and puts it together in a way that’s from the soul. Jazz doesn’t borrow, it steals.”

People will say they don’t like jazz but they do like Jamie Cullum, or Louis Armstrong, or Jamiroquai at the other end of the spectrum. Far too many think that jazz is either a bunch of old white guys in straw boaters playing banjos, or else it’s something completely unlistenable.

“I know. The music is all of these things and what’s amazing is that it does encompass them, but when you think of the word jazz you don’t get enough of the definition. It doesn’t give you the kind of music it is, because jazz covers so many different types and periods of music depending on whose playing. They can play the same tune in many different ways, it’s all jazz even though it can be so different.

“Genre doesn’t really get you to the essence of what music is. You can say classical, but that can be Bach, Stravinsky, or a modern composer. I’m really into a Spanish composer, Frederico Mompou, his music is so different from even someone like Joaquin Rodrigo. They’re both from the same place and the same time, but even that’s not enough.”

The other word I’ve seen to describe you is ‘seminal’. Are you old enough to be seminal?

“Am I old enough? Wow. I’m 52 in July so is that old enough? I’ve been doing it a long time, I was involved back in the eighties with Jazz Warriors and I was in the jazz scene from that time, collaborating with artists from around the world. I love collaboration, I feel you get to the essence of what music is and you can learn so much from working in theatre, in film, all these things I find fascinating.”

Talking of collaborations, two names you’ve worked with that stand out are George Benson and Chaka Khan.

“People tend to bring them up. George Benson is an amazing artist. I recorded on one of his albums when I was working with Incognito and Chaka Khan was around the same time, 1995-96. She was doing a TV show with Lenny Henry.”

You’re a teacher, you make films, you write soundtracks…

“I’m on a film set, it’s a famous 1920s set so I’m having my hair done.”

You also teach at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire…

“Which is great because I’ll get a lot of my students coming to the Birmingham gig. I’ve not been able to see them during this pandemic and there are some great students there. I do the Trinity Conservatoire and the Guildhall School in London.”

So between all that do you find time to play?

“That’s true. I’ve found more time to play during the lockdown than before.”

We’ve all discovered new talents we enjoy during the past year.

“I’ve been gardening, I’ve built a shed and I’ve been working on fitness, biking everywhere, getting back into my boxing.”

You’re a boxer? That’s a bit different from the usual sort of hobby a jazz trumpeter might enjoy.

“I love boxing, I wouldn’t call myself a boxer but I’m into boxing training. Daniel Dubois’ brother is a teacher at one of the schools where I work.”

And I bet he sure as hell doesn’t get bullied. But you’re appearing soon at 1,000 Trades as part of the Birmingham Jazz festival.

“I’ve never been there. It’s a festival and there are loads of good gigs going on. Live music is a great thing.”

And I wouldn’t argue with that even if it wasn’t with a boxer. Byron Wallen plays the 1,000 Trades in the Jewellery Quarter on Sunday 13th June as part of the Birmingham Jazz festival. Tickets and further information can be found here.