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Pastimes: Ros Urwin gets into jazz with Lord Kerslake

4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Lord Kerslake shares his love of jazz

For Lord Kerslake, the magic of jazz lies in the knowledge that you’ll “never hear the same tune played the same way twice”. The crossbench peer, 67, who was head of the civil service for nearly three years until September 2014, has almost a life-long passion for the genre, yet finds at live performances that it is always fresh. “You hear something uniquely at that moment – that’s why it isn’t matched by any other musical form,” he says. “Great jazz improvisers are transcendental – they change the way you feel.”  

My son started in hip hop and has now moved towards jazz, and I started in jazz and am gravitating towards hip hop

Kerslake, who plays the guitar himself, first came across jazz as a teenager, but it was a lonely hobby. “I remember buying vinyl – Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain – which I absolutely adored,” he recalls. “My parents hated it and they didn’t ever want me to put it on. So it wasn’t a family thing – my father was more into brass bands and my mother into Irish dancing – it was something that came to me.” Most of his school and university friends, meanwhile, were into rock: “They made fun of me. Jazz, to them, was for old men.”

He has been happy to find this has changed in recent years. “The jazz scene has come back into fashion and there are young, exciting musicians coming up,” he says. “It’s not all old fogies like me – there are lots of young people at venues. Jazz reinvents itself, and with that it brings new audiences.” 

In London, his favourite haunts include Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, the 606 Club in Chelsea and the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, which hosts “the more edgy, avant garde” performers. “I love to be able to get up close to the performers,” he says. “I don’t like a club where you’re miles away.” If he could go anywhere from jazz history, though, it would be the clubs of Harlem, New York, “where you could see new forms of music being created before your very eyes”. His favourite performers of all time include Davis, the saxophonist John Coltrane and British artists Mike Westbrook and Keith Tippett. 

He likes too that jazz is political and progressive: performers, particularly in America, have often linked their work to political and social causes, such as the civil rights movement.
“It brought together Black and white communities, promoting [the possibility] of a different world, and challenging segregation,” he says. “There are also very powerful jazz tunes – like Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday – that are political in their message, and that were part of the civil rights movement as anthems.”
As he has aged, his love of music has widened – running the gamut now from classical (Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5 is a favourite) to hip hop, of which he admits he makes an unlikely fan. “Hip hop was a development of jazz – they sampled jazz music and its idioms – and the fluency and literacy of the people who write the music is extraordinary,” he says. “With rap, though, I think it quickly moves into a rather misogynistic and macho world – so it’s definitely not all rap music.” 

He has passed his passion down to his son, 30, who is a hip hop DJ and producer. The pair buy each other records and go to gigs together, including seeing The Roots at the Royal Festival Hall. “My son started in hip hop and has now moved towards jazz, and I started in jazz and am gravitating towards hip hop,” says Kerslake. “Although I’m not sure he’d like to acknowledge that I had that much influence!” 

Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with the Sunday Times

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Read the most recent article written by Rosamund Urwin - Pastimes: To the theatre with Margaret Hodge

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