Breathe Deep, and the fusion of Oscar Jerome’s many sides

Breathe Deep, and the fusion of Oscar Jerome’s many sides

Oscar Jerome is as well-read as he is talented, and his far-reaching influences, steeped in diversity, have helped make him one of the jazz scenes most exciting arrivals.

Header image by Denisha Anderson. In-article images by Conor Herbert, unless otherwise noted.

November 27, 2019. The sun is warm and the air is clear when Oscar Jerome steps into a Flinders Lane café. He’s in a blank shirt, a pair of cream pants and a pair of unassuming kicks. A small hoop hangs from his left lobe. Two rings grace his right hand, as to not impede his fret-ready fingers. He wears his hair in a bun, his jaw lined by soft facial hair and face set by a similar ‘stache. If jazz really is pretentious, then Oscar didn’t get the memo.

“Music's always been my focus of what I want to do, ever since I've been about eight years old,” he tells me, well within his element even as a fresh-faced then-27-year-old. That’s not to say he’s always comfortable – this is the first time Jerome’s been to Australia since he was a kid, and with tours taking him further and wider than ever before, he’s thrown into new cultures every other week. Even amongst all this, it’s the local haunts that prove the scariest shows: “it’s always stressful, the homecoming gig, because lots of people you know are going to be there, and I feel like you always build it up in your mind quite a lot.” 

“If I'm honest, I was a bit anxious about it, but also very excited,” he explains of his then-recent headliner at Heaven in London. “When it came to it, it was great. It was packed out and I felt like, because it was the last show and we've been on tour for about a month before that, we were playing really well and the band was sounding tight.” It’s easy to understand – it’s bad enough to gig for friends and family, but a local show for Jerome involved taking to the stage in front of his artistic community, internationally lauded as one of the world’s most vibrant jazz scenes. “It’s quite surreal, to be honest. Do a show like that and I realize, ‘yeah, lots of people like my music.’ I'm still at that point where I'm just a bit like, ‘wow, you actually want to come see me?’”

What’s surprising to Oscar is all but obvious to the fervent audience who clamour to hear his impassioned songs, propped up by intricate licks, sociopolitical takes and instrumental prowess. His fierce advocacy and acerbic introspection comes to a head on Breathe Deep, his debut album, honed by years of poetics, practice, and performance. It’s in the barbed lyrics of Give Back What U Stole From Me, an unambiguous attack on colonialism; the harrowing imagery of Your Saint, a Styxian vision of asylum-seeking; the urgency of Sun for Someone, an environmentalist creed that decries our “belligerence”; and the affection of Timeless, a soft, slow-building dedication to his father. 

A debut that’s been a long time coming, Breathe Deep crystallizes Oscar’s jazz-tinged expression, all the while channelling a social consciousness that borders on restless. Jerome’s songs are steeped in a want for understanding, whether anchored by his perspective on the world, underlined by his strong cross-cultural relationships, or prompted by his quest to map a realm often left uncharted: the self.

If the passion started in Oscar’s youth, it took on another life when he moved from Norwich to London to study at Trinity Laban. “I was very passionate about jazz, and that was… a great way a doorway into lots of different styles of music, because it's a very complex style of music, and it draws from so many different types of music from different cultures.” Formal education in jazz proved indispensable, but Oscar’s passion lay in a versatility – “while I was at uni I was doing my own project already,” he admits – that wasn’t as appreciated by the institution. “It wasn't necessarily that supported by the tutors and stuff... it's a bit weird, there's a tendency in a lot of the jazz world to kind of call anything that doesn't sound like jazz ‘pop music,’ which I find is a very closed-minded way of looking at music in general.” 

Beyond the walls of King Charles Court, however, London was less concerned with the yoke of tradition. The lessons Oscar received within sharpened his guitar skills and deepened his theory, but the teachings deprived his irrepressible curiosity for style and substance. “I feel like the people that have been able to look outside of that are now the people that are really getting a lot more international success,” he notes, a fact that even Trinity itself accepts.

“I've just always been so interested in all kinds of music,” he explains, a fact that’s become increasingly evident since graduation. “I used to play so many gigs, I used to perform like about five times a week around London, playing a lot of straight-ahead jazz stuff, and Afrobeat stuff… like all sorts, and that's kind of shaped what I do really.” It’s the residence as much as the musical range, with London a conduit for all manner of self-expression. “It also comes from just living in a society that's rich in different cultures,” he says of his breadth, cultivated in one of Europe’s most diverse and artistically potent scenes. “I've been living in South London for like 10 years now, and I think when you move somewhere, it's important to become involved in the communities that you have moved into.”

“You have that a lot in South London, there's a lot of people that want to move there and they're completely disconnected from everything that's going on and all the people that are already living there. It's quite a weird tension in a way, a change that is negative for the people that are already there.” It’s an astute observation that goes beyond the issue of gentrification – still as pertinent as ever – and cuts to the essence of belonging, the preservation of cultural bonds and the importance of community. “I think it's important, especially as a musician, to make an effort to both pay respect and be like... trying to immerse yourself into the cultures of the music that you are interested in playing.”

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Image by Denisha Anderson.

Over a coffee, Oscar traces a line from “the first immigration of Carribeans to London” to dancehall and dub, styles which in turn influenced the development of “garage and jungle and the rave culture and dubstep and grime.” It’s a complicated mosaic, but one which he’s given a lot of thought, itself testament to his immersion in the cultures and communities of his city. It’s that involvement that saw Oscar join KOKOROKO, a seven-piece Afrobeat act, in 2014. KOKOROKO, in their own lyrical words, “channel the greats of West Africa through a jazz-rooted approach, building on the foundations laid by Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and Ebo Taylor,” fusing influences into “a soul-shaking, horn-fueled sound” derived from “the music they grew up with, the echoes of Afrobeat and highlife heard in melodies, drum patterns and harmonised vocals.” 

KOKOROKO’s sound – a distinct evolution, not a simple pastiche – is as endemic to London as it is to West Africa, with forebearers such as Ambrose Campbell, Fela Kuti and Tony Allen spending their formative years studying and playing amongst London’s African community. In the early-’60s, Ebo Taylor studied at the Eric Gilder School Of Music, and Fela at Trinity College, though they too savoured the lessons that nightlife imparted. In Soho and Notting Hill, then yet-to-be gentrified, the pair frequented jazz bars, learning from both the audience and the stage. KOKOROKO, like their revered forebears, cut their teeth on London’s live circuit, pooling five years of tour experience before the release of their debut EP. It’s in such settings that Oscar cut his teeth with West African art, learning to play Malian, Gambian and Senegalese traditions live, tackling covers, fusing sensibilities, dissecting song structures and proliferating musical traditions to increasingly receptive audiences. 

Successes many and acclaim ever-accumulating, Oscar’s still conscious of his place as the sole “white artist” in the Afrobeat act. “It's something that I've thought about a lot because I'm someone that has gained a lot from playing black music,” he explains, passionate. “I think… it's just important to try and involve yourself and be open and with the community that you're getting influence from.” He’s assured in all his answers, more than willing to talk, but these words fall with precision that only contemplation allows.  “If you want to learn that music from somewhere, go there and pay people for lessons, you know? Give those people something, don't just take from it and then just make a lot of money out of it, and they'll be like, ‘what am I getting here?’ It's a difficult thing. It can seem like a novelty because in the UK, it's like ‘oh this white artist is playing this kind of music,’ but then there are loads of incredible musicians from West Africa in London, who are scraping a living.” Appropriation and fetishization of aesthetic are issues often shirked, but Oscar’s critical engagement with those ideas – ones that he himself must grapple with – befits his complex musical identity.

Oscar never claims to have the answer. Instead, he’s adopted a kind of vigilance, one by which he constantly reevaluates his place in that community and the ways he approaches those artforms. “This is a… yeah… it's an interesting one,” he peters out, the answer more a lived approach than a print-ready soundbite. “I definitely feel that I need to do [it] again,” he says of a recent trip to Africa. “I would really like to go to Ghana to try and learn some highlife guitar.”

Cultural appropriation is a consideration that bleeds into his work with SumoChief, a live hip-hop band steeped in the work of the Soulquarians, The Roots and J Dilla. “That that band was really, really seminal in helping get me into a lot of that music,” he says, explaining how his fan familiarity didn’t prepare him for the experience itself. “I knew a lot of Dilla stuff,” he reassures me, but “because all those guys like Jack, Olly and Joe Armon-Jones, the keyboard player, were so into J Dilla beats, we just kind of went through the whole back catalogue.”

“I just learned so much from those guys doing that, like I didn't really know how to play with that kind of… wonky chk-chk-chk.” He imitates the sound of the hits, his hands rattling sticks on an invisible kit. That Dilla drag hits like the drumming of “a drunk 3-year-old,” and if the realisation startled Questlove in the late ‘90s, it’s now become a part of Jay Dee’s hefty legacy. “Joe is such an incredible musician,” he says of the SumoChief drummer and Ezra Collective member, “the way that he could play around with those beats and add in different harmonies and stuff, it was always very challenging to me… I learned a lot from doing that.” 

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It’s these challenging experiences – studying at Trinity, gigging with KOKOROKO, playing with SumoChief – that have shaped Jerome’s own solo career, one which kicked off in 2016 with the release of his self-titled EP. That’s not to discount the influences of his youth, steeped in both the familial favourites of old and the exciting musical exploration of adolescence. He finds inspiration in John Martyn, the British folk legend shaping his songwriting with his beautiful melancholy that “can bring [him] to tears.” Special even amongst his catalogue is Bless The Weather, a cut which harks back to his Norwich upbringing. “My family are super outdoorsy people, and I've always felt like I have a very kind of deep connection to more natural spaces, especially in the UK… I always feel like John Martyn kind of takes me back to that.” Then there’s Baden Powell, the Brazilian classical guitarist with a prodigious talent for intricate Venezualan fingerpicking. “I felt like I'd been influenced by him, even before I listened to his music,” he says, quizzical look in tow. “Does that even make sense?”

Do You Really takes on that musicality but sheds the pastoral gaze, confronting the self with intensity, exploring the chasm between knowledge and conviction. It plays as a one-man interrogation, testing his resolve with a key question: “say what's right, do what's right, but do you really feel it?” All this knowledge of the self, all these tenets of new-age masculinity, are they novel facts or codified beliefs? It’s a battle-torn straight from Oscar’s own life. “In the last couple years, I just feel like I've gone through a lot of questioning myself and how I go about my relationships, just how my actions reflect on other people… I've just found that I’ve become a much happier person by being a lot more conscious of my actions.” 

A keener awareness of his inner machinations came from friends and family, their headstrong resolve and nuanced selves challenging his own self-conception. “I learned a lot from some relationships that I have a couple of very, very interesting and politically driven women, and also my brother's a drag artist, and since he came out, seeing how he's grown as a person through that has really changed my outlook on a lot of stuff.”

It’s our insidious preconceptions that shape our lives in damaging ways, as Oscar puts it, and none are more ingrained or damaging as those surrounding masculinity. “I know a lot of men are very unhappy, and people around them that are unhappy, because of the way that they act,” he elaborates, “and this theme of this masculine insecurity and ego, it ruins people's relationships and ruins people's lives.” The repressive yoke of masculinity, so often instilled in vague strokes of stoicism, strength and self-reliance, can balloon into rage, abuse, and cases of domestic violence – a scourge in England and Australia alike. It also turns inward, repressing emotional expression, impeding calls for help, engendering depression and marooning men for fear of weakness. “The fact that a lot of men can't really talk about their issues and recognize their flaws, and be like ‘I'm a flawed individual and I need to talk to someone about that and get their help with that’.” 

Give Back What You Stole From Me – the fan-favourite that opened his first effort – is similarly upfront, tackling similar ideas of power, colonialism and the institutions that stand to benefit from it. The more explicitly anti-capitalist creed casts Oscar as a firebrand armed with a Gibson, as musically talented as he is politically astute. Those two tenets come to a head in the dextrous final verse, which opens:

So fuck wealth, fuck property
Fuck the power-hungry people stopping you and me from being what we wanna be…

The ultimate refrain – “we should stand up and say no!” – derives power from simplicity, a punchy call to arms for the oppressed and weary. His critiques are aimed squarely at institutionalised societal tenets, never conflated with a single face or persona. Jerome’s mission is real change, and in pairing sociopolitical consciousness with jazz guitar, he cloaks his lessons in compelling grooves. He revisits the idea of internal division on 2 Sides, lyrics fixed to a slow and mournful melody; pays tribute to London’s broken beat scene, a staple of his youth, on Gravitate, an ode to self-realisation mired in cosmic shades; and interrogates the competitive spirit engendered by a ruthlessly consumerist world on single Lizard Street.

It’s fitting that, with those two EPs under his belt, Jerome would spotlight his live repertoire on Live in Amsterdam. “I feel like the live situation is such a big part of what we do, I respect and learn from the musicians that I play with a lot.” His tours alongside KOKOROKO “prepared [him] for the tour life in a way, and made [him] realize the ways to keep the band positive,” teaching him that “there's a lot of different things that you have to take into account with touring, not just the music.” There’s the logistical; the practical; the spiritual; but perhaps most pressing is the emotional. “That's the most difficult thing about touring,” he tells me, “being away from your family and loved ones and all of that.” 

The lessons learned rear their head not only in live performance, but all across Jerome’s catalogue, the freeing on-stage jams an insight into his musical education. “I feel like with any music – well, especially when you're playing live – there's always a level of improvisation. You’ve gotta play with as many people as possible. I think that that's so key to helping me be able to keep making fresh, fresh stuff.” If it’s knowledge he’s been able to pivot into a studio environment, it’s at its most natural in a live setting, where rapport shines through. “I just wanted to put across that live experience that people will get.” 

That’s not to say the man is console-averse, still eager to shift from his tour mindset to studio mode. “I do love being in the studio. I'm really looking forward to having a period of time just concentrating on working on [a record]. It’s really enjoyable, especially when you've got the right people around you to help you do it, which I feel like I finally have now.” It’s no surprise that Breathe Deep features a score of onetime bandmates and friends including Ezra Collective members Joe Armon-Jones and Dylan Jones, KOKOROKO trombonist Richie Seivwright, and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, each as integral in shaping his vision as they are in realising it.

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In the end, it all comes back to community. Oscar’s musical inklings, personal values and political beliefs have been shaped by one of the world’s most lauded musical scenes, teeming with diversity, creativity and no small amount of vision. If the success itself doesn’t make you happy, it’s the process – newfound friends, inspired collaborators, moments of ingenuity and strong creative bonds – that bring the most joy, each element of his ever-evolving artistic tack. “I just want to focus on making sure that the music is something that is always changing, always growing, and that the playing experience is something that’s very fulfilling.” On his return to London, he’ll find himself immersed in it once more, both inside the studio and out in the city. 

If “jazz,” that sharp syllable, betrays the scope of the music within, then perhaps “Oscar Jerome” is too terse a title: a mere four beats in which to distill Norwich countryside and London city streets; John Martyn and Baden Powell; institutional jazz and inspired fusion; Afrobeat and hip-hop. It encapsulates the communities in which he’s mired, diverse and distinct, as well as the friends he’s made in each, whether they were emcees backed in SumoChief, peers from KOKOROKO, jazz school friends or simple musical happenstances. 

Much has been made of the death of genre – the body is still warm – but the liberation from such constraints represents a bold new era of unbridled creativity. “A lot of these people that are making this music have kind of grown-up listening to a lot of different types of music,” he waxes, “and London has its own musical identity – which has been there for a long time – but it's taken quite a long time for it to break out of just a UK thing.” The information age has us awash with music, eschewing issues of accessibility and shaping a more musically literate world. The world of jazz has been subject to many a definitional debate, but Oscar doesn’t want to hear it: he’s too busy exploring the next thing, the shackles of tradition little more than an afterthought. His music, like his taste, is a striking fusion of space, time, place and culture, drawing from the past but embroiled in the hyper-political present.  

It’s been a whirlwind journey, one as unlikely as it is understated. “You never really expect things to happen in the way they do,” he poses, contemplative. “I'm happy with how it worked out, and I probably could foresee myself doing these things, but also, I think you sugarcoat stuff in your head a lot more… I remember when I was younger, my aim was to be playing in front of a massive crowd of people, to be able to travel the world and play to people. Now I'm doing that. I love it, it's great, and it’s amazing when you realize that the things that make you happy actually aren’t as tangible as that.” It’s a sage admission, even from the ever-introspective artist.

Our visions of the future may be rose-tinted, littered with best-laid plans and passing passions, but Oscar Jerome isn’t afraid to confront the injustice that mars our present. On Breathe Deep, he continues to coalesce his art, influences, politics and philosophies, taking stock of the now if only to imagine something altogether better. 

It all starts with the self. 

Oscar Jerome's debut album Breathe Deep is out now via Caroline Australia.

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