Billy Jenkins’ suburban blues

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Billy Jenkins, guitarist and chronicler of London life, was just 16 when he went on the road with the art-rock band Burlesque in 1972. It was the first step in a career that spans free jazz and stand-up comedy, gutsy rhythm and blues and the landmark House of God jazz collective – religion, or lack of it, is a core Jenkins theme. Now the seasoned session musician and prolific composer, with more than 350 works to his credit, is to have a retrospective at the London Jazz Festival.

It is not so much a turning point in Jenkins’ career as a returning point. In 2007, the life-and-death questions that have informed his music became all too real. Both his father-in-law and his own father became ill; Jenkins undertook the duties of a carer up to each man’s death, and music took a distant second place. The experience was so profound that he decided to train as a humanist officiant, able to conduct non-religious funerals.

This year has seen two new albums and the digital reissue of three classic recordings. For the London Jazz Festival, his first set on November 21 will feature Jenkins’ Trio Blues Suburbia and guests. At its core will be the rhythm and blues, vaudevillian anarchy and professional gloss of his new album Born Again (and the Religion is the Blues), an intensely personal document.

The earlier CD release makes direct reference to place. Featuring ultra-sharp saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, it was called I Am the Man from Lewisham, and it is at his home in that south London borough that I meet Jenkins.

His conversation brims with ideas that come laden with subclauses, tangents and self-deprecating twists. A legacy from his father has enabled him to “catch up” on musical ideas and to start recording again. Self-financing was necessary, he says, because record companies are reeling from people’s “insistence [on] downloading and not paying for any music”. But, he adds, why not? “There’s enough recorded music to last another thousand years.”

Jenkins gets both stability and satisfaction from his new career as an officiant. That’s not to say his eyes don’t sparkle when he describes what happens when you put six musicians in a room.

“Whatever happens it’s six people making love. That is the joy.” What does sadden him is when jazz musicians are too aloof or rest on their laurels, “repeating themselves over the once-exciting compositions of 15 years ago”.

Jenkins has a history of getting the best out of the musicians he works with and the three Uncommerciality Sessions, recorded between 1986 and 1991, are now regarded as classics, and are now available as digital downloads. Three compositions from the series will form the basis of his second LJF set next Sunday, with the BBC Big Band, which has commissioned saxophonist Iain Ballamy – who played on the original recordings – to write new arrangements.

Jenkins’ idea of fun is to add a stinging attack and crunchy chord work to the powerhouse riffs of electric blues. Add in his showmanship, penchant for gentle mockery and habit of using sport as a framework for performance and it’s easy to see why some underestimate his seriousness. In 1998, for example, he marked the World Cup football match between Iran and the US by lining up opposing teams of jazz musicians to perform while the game was being played.

For years Jenkins has also cocked a snook at jazz’s more po-faced aficionados by promoting gigs under the logo “Big Fights” – evenings structured like a boxing tournament, with each set, or bout, lasting exactly 10 minutes. “It makes the music come out of that structure,” he says. “You take three musicians against three musicians, all playing against each other. How they develop throughout the evening gives a symphonic form.”

Yet Jenkins’ overarching concern is a search for authenticity. “There are two strands to my music,” he says. “Aural landscapes, or where we come from. And out of that aural landscape comes the singing of the blues.” It is a clear vision that holds his diverse musical projects together.

Jenkins was born in a south London suburb in 1956. His music chronicles his life in south-east London, though draws on African-American traditions of jazz and blues. “In popular music we all look to the west and America,” he says. But, he adds, “I’m from suburbia, my dad worked as a chartered secretary. It seems right and proper to write about things that are in front of your nose.”

Jenkins sprinkles his life-story with local figures, starting with Michael Bailey, choirmaster at Bromley parish church. “We’d start Tuesday and Thursday singing rehearsals with rock and roll and then we’d go on to do the anthem and stuff.” His first gigs were with the choir. “We’d do four or five weddings on Saturday afternoons, speeding up the music to make sure we kept on time.” Then there was Burt Stephens, who taught him a few chords when he got his first guitar aged 12, and Bob Graves, who a few years later introduced him to jazz through the Sonny Rollins album East Broadway Rundown. Local connections stretch from his best friend at school, Billy Broad – better known as Billy Idol – to the pianists who later introduced him to regular studio work for the likes of the Alabama 3.

The years on the road and recent family duties have taken their toll, and he finds even the idea of performing exhausting. The London Jazz Festival gig is an exception. “I just wanted to work with the BBC Big Band. I couldn’t think of a finer project.” And, being at London’s Purcell Room, it is just south of the river.

London Jazz Festival runs until November 21. www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk

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