Stingray DJAZZ's editor-in-chief Rokas Kučinskas sits down online with expatriate British jazz saxophonist and flautist Chip Wickham, who shares his well-informed perspective on topics as wide-ranging as the Spanish jazz scene, climate change, and the future role of the music industry.
Wickham's music is often categorized as spiritual jazz, yet his latest, atmospheric album Blue to Red is firmly grounded in the conviction that the here and now are the right time and place for humanity to stand up for our future.
In this first of three interview parts, Chip talks about making major life decisions, thriving on the Spanish jazz scene, and tackling the current live music lockdown – Wickham-style.
RK) Before I start asking you about your last album and everything that’s happening today, what’s your background? I read you’re from England and that you studied music. Can you tell me a bit more?
CW) Yeah, well… I’m a bit of a world traveller, really. I’m from Brighton, but I spent a lot of time in Manchester, up north. So I'm kind of from different parts of the UK. Some people call me a southerner, sometimes I’m a northerner, depending on who you talk to (laughs). And then I lived in Madrid. Well, Madrid is still home. My wife and I moved to Doha recently.
And did you study music at a conservatory?
I didn’t, no. I studied economics in university and while there I was having lessons with a saxophone player, Phil Chapman, who was also from Brighton, but happened to live in Manchester at the time I was studying there. It turned out he was the head saxophone tutor at Leeds College of Music, which is a big UK jazz school. So I lucked out, and I ended up spending all my time having lessons with him every week.
I was doing economics because I was quite academic at school and all the rest of it, so I was on that route, but I love music. My parents aren’t musicians so I think sometimes when you’re at that age, it’s very hard to see music as a career choice and it’s very easy to find yourself at school choosing sensible things and not music.
So do you do music full-time right now, or do you still work in the field of economics?
No, I never did that. I left university and went straight into music. I only really got the degree for my mum and dad to be honest, and I've never used it in life.
And from all types of music you chose jazz…
Well, it kinda chose me, really. I think that’s a safer way of putting it. With music, you know, you kinda find yourself, don’t you, in one home or another by default, like we all do. Playing saxophone, of course, you can’t avoid jazz – it’s such a jazz instrument.
I see. I wanted to remark that for a person who studied economics, jazz is not the most economical choice.
I saw some report that apparently economics graduates have the highest average earnings during their life out of all the graduates – and then there’s me: “No, no, I don’t want to do that - I want to play music, and I want to play jazz, as well”!
I had my chance in life, but I didn’t take it. Ever since then, it’s been a downward hill slope in the world of jazz (laughs).
When did you move to Spain after you graduated?
Not for a long time, really – I was in Manchester for a long time, 15 years or so, working and playing. That’s where I learned being a musician, really. I left Brighton as an eighteen or nineteen year old. So I hadn’t really got anywhere yet when I left Brighton. I didn’t know the scene, I wasn’t really gigging or anything. My musical growing up happened in Manchester, and I was there for a long time. I met my wife there, we had our kids there and the rest of it... I moved to Madrid in 2007.
How does the jazz scene in Spain compare to that of the UK?
The jazz scene in Spain is very interesting. I mean, it’s very different from the UK. To me, the British way of hearing jazz is very American-influenced, but it's also about looking for your own vibe within that.
The Spanish are very different; they are a very different flavour. There are lots of Cuban guys here that are amazing. You tend to find a lot of elite jazz musicians here that are Cuban, as Madrid is the main airport hub from South America into Europe, and of course it’s Spanish-language and all that; the same way Americans end up staying in London – because it’s a big place!
When I first got to Spain, I really liked Prestige and Blue Note, those kind of black jazz records. That heavy sort of ‘50s, ‘60s '70s CTI kind of sound. That was my education. When I got to Spain, there really wasn’t any sort of knowledge of that sort of music, because Spain didn’t really grow up in terms of that kind of music until the '80s, as they were very much under the shadow of Franco until mid ‘70s and they didn’t really have their democratic system. Their explosion of culture and music happened in the early '80s and it was a wonderful time for Spain. There’s a lot of kind of sentiment about that era.
So a lot of jazz musicians are older guys that come from the '80s. There’s a really weird sort of fusion scene from all these '80s-sounding guys that kinda control the scene. They’re very much into their fusion, with flamenco and six-string basses. All of which is fascinating, of course - older guys kinda going for it, do you know what I mean? Which wasn't really my scene, to be honest.
Your sound is quite different from what you’re telling me about Spain.
So how did you blend in? How did you find yourself in there?
Well, I kinda ended up sideling a little bit into the soul jazz really, which just sort of kicked off.
I mean, I didn’t really play that sort of straight jazz – I was there for a good 6 or 7 years before I started doing the straight up jazz stuff, as it were. I was doing lots of soul jazz, lots of rare groove and hard funk. Then there was a big soul explosion in Spain and lots of neo soul bands, like The Dap-Kings, with a singer and a horn section and all that. It kicked right off and I was very much into all that, really.
I brought over and worked with guys like The New Mastersounds, who are like kings of rare groove and funk in the UK. All those soul jazz bands in Spain couldn’t believe I knew them! I got up on stage to sit in with them when they came to Madrid the first year I was there, and that was it: the next day my phone didn’t stop ringing, because everybody from that scene had been at that gig.
I must say, it doesn’t sound too difficult...
If anything, it was too easy! I just got all the best bands, loads of horn section work, I did that kind of funk flute stuff that I do as well... I ended up in that little world for quite a few years when I first arrived. Happily, of course!
I did lots of good albums, worked with Eddie Roberts, was part of a really good jam session every Wednesday at a place called La Boca del Lobo, where everybody and the house band were the cream of the funk scene. We'd just play the roof off the place every Wednesday, and anybody who
was in town on that night would come and sit in with us. We had The Dap-Kings come and sit in, and Corinne Bailey Rae...
There are moments where as a musician you look back and think: “Oh, yeah, it was really happening!" We had loads of bands, we made loads of records, we were really busy writing and being creative, and we were all making good money. There were lots of gigs, you know.
And I was right at the top, I was plugged straight in with all the good guys. It just seemed to explode around me. I was just lucky – I brought my contacts, but it was already happening. Still, it was nice to help and make them feel they can compare to other countries in Europe, because Spain is not known for that kind of music.
I wonder then, how did the whole pandemic affect your music and everything?
Well, it’s just ground to a halt, isn’t it, really? We’d already made the last album, Blue to Red, last April. I had recorded the previous two albums in Spain, but this one was done in the UK. My albums started to sell really well in the UK, and then there’s touring, and of course being British I’ve got all my contacts there – so it was easy just to work with guys from the UK.
So the album was done by April 2019, but the record company, being the record company, said: “Let’s release it in December 2019”. That became February 2020, which became a disaster, because obviously we got swept away by the tsunami of the pandemic arrival. By then we had a choice to either do the release or sit on it.
The label, who are quality people that care about my music, and I agreed to put it out; see what happens and not worry about things we can’t do at the moment. I had the full promo tour booked including the headline Saturday night gig at Ronnie Scott’s, which is the hardest gig to get in the UK. I mean, it is the place, really, but in the end I couldn’t go and do it (laughs).
So yeah, we decided to release it anyway just thinking that the world needs music right now and that’s what we do. There’s no point sitting on it, because there's no guarantee there's gonna be a quick in-and-out of this thing. And then we were right, because it is still a mess, do you know what I mean? Those gigs that were booked for April 2020 were moved to October 2020, and now they were rebooked for April 2021 (laughs). [At time of publishing, they have been rebooked for late November 2021, red.]
Everything is being rebooked. Everything is moved to the future. Is that how everything looks for you right now?
Yes, but it’s fine. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s worth worrying about, because the world will go back to normal at some point and we’ll get on with it, do you know what I mean? I’ve been using the time. I've been writing loads of new music and I’ve taken the time to practise. It’s always time versus money in the world, isn’t it? But, really, sometimes time is more important than money. As long as you're can financially do that, of course.
We’ve been hearing about how much musicians struggle at the moment, financially. Yet you seem to be very calm about the situation.
Well, I live in a bit of a bubble. The reason I left the UK was because it was getting very difficult to make a living as a musician. Over the last 20 years I’ve seen our industry crumble around us anyway regardless of this. I think a lot of musicians at any point in their live have to make a serious decision about how committed they are – how they’re prepared to live their life and still be creative, or how to make it all work if you have a family and kids and all that.
Even before the pandemic, there’d been a very slow crisis going on, where I’ve watched a lot of my friends walk away. I went to Madrid because I wasn’t doing enough work in the UK. I thought:
“OK, my wife is Spanish, we’ll go there and see.” It was an option for me, so we took the gamble and we went. And it was fine there as well for a while. But then the economic crisis happened in 2009, when we had to bail out the banks, of course, God bless them, and then we all had to pay for that… no comment.
Yeah, do you know what I mean? (laughs). Everyone’s forgotten about that now. We’re paying loads of money to support jobs and blah blah blah, but we paid nearly the same amount to private banks for their own corrupt ineptitude, and nobody batted an eyelid. It just sort of went: “Let’s just give them a billion” (laughs).
Yeah, that’s what we have to do, yeah… (laughs).
It’s crazy, isn’t it? The world is crazy, and I think it’s a shame, in a way, that these things happen.
But we left Spain to come here (Doha, auth.). I’m OK because I’m in a bubble and my wife’s got a really good job here. Here we’re OK, we’re protected. I’m not like your average musician at home, you know? I don’t have much work here now. A few gigs are sort of coming back, and I can do a little bit of part-time teaching just to pay the bills. The big stuff - I’ll just have to wait.
I’ve accepted the fact that no one's gonna die, I’m OK, and I’m not gonna worry about that. I’m not gonna complain about it, because there are people, friends of mine that have got nothing. Literally. No work. No means. Everybody’s suddenly delivering food on the back of a bike, or something.
It sounds like you were fortunate not to have to make major adjustments to your life due to the pandemic.
No – but then I’ve made those adjustments already twice. I've moved two countries to find myself here. So I’ve already taken some massive risks and gambles to find myself in a lucky spot at the right time.
I mean, as a family we were already trying to make our way in the world – and my life isn’t just me, do you know what I mean? And that’s normal, that’s normal life, isn’t it? We’re all normal people. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re a jazz musician or whatever you are. I'm a dad as well as a husband, as well as a rock-star, you know what I mean? (laughs). I’ve got to keep all these things real, haven’t I? So yeah, we’re OK.
I’ve just taken it more as a chance for me to go: “I’m OK, I can ride this one out from here”. So, rather than sitting and watching the back end of Netflix, I sort of got on with it. I’ve been writing lots of music, and I’ve been studying, and I’ve been doing all the things that we should be doing: eating better and exercising, and just enjoying the time. This is it, you need to go with a flow sometimes.
For me that’s been OK but I know unfortunately that’s not the story for everyone. Lots of my friends are just… They’re OK now, and they’re surviving on what little support they get from the government, and they’re surviving on what money they had, and they’re surviving on family, like we all do, you know?
There've been plenty of times in my life where even as a grown man with children, I had to ring my mum and dad and ask for some money because my car is broken and I can’t afford to fix it. That’s life, isn’t it? Music is worse – you're paid so little and you live hand to mouth, don’t you? It’s kind of flood and famine: you get paid lots in summer or whenever you have festivals, and then suddenly get nothing.
Next on Discover: in the second of three parts, Rokas Kučinskas invites interviewee Chip Wickham to talk about his latest album, Blue to Red. Wickham explains how his ideas on climate change shaped his musical perspective and discusses the role of the individual in countering global crises.