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Issue 1084

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Norman Jay: Let The Good Times Roll

Norman Jay @bluesandsoul.com
Norman Jay @bluesandsoul.com Norman Jay @bluesandsoul.com Norman Jay @bluesandsoul.com Norman Jay @bluesandsoul.com

The timing of my phone call couldnât be worse. The long dialing tone gives way to blasts of what sounds like hurricane wind, and then an extremely stressed Norman Jay. Itâs quickly made clear that heâs pulled his car onto a motorway hard shoulder having smelt fuel; now heâs spotted a leak. Not good. I can barely hear Jay above the sound of booming traffic but he needs to sort his transport out. I let him get on; I think weâve rescheduled for the following afternoon.

Things are significantly more relaxed when we do speak again â yes, the following afternoon. âI managed to sort it⦠the carâ Jay laughingly opens. âCouldnât do without that. Yesterday was a nightmare but everythingâs OK now, I managed to fix it. Iâve got wheels again.â

If ever you wanted the âskinnyâ on Norman Jayâs illustrious music career then his car is a pretty good starting point. For it is Jay, very much, who sits behind the wheel, and who steadfastly refuses to let obstacles prevent him getting from A to B. In an age when young producers and starlet performers are embracing âdigitalâ as an all-encompassing channel through which to manage their own careers, Jay is one of the original DIY dance personalities.

âIâm an old bastardâ he immediately qualifies. Joking aside, Jayâs self-instructed rise to the top has been pretty impressive. Top means a steady stream of high-profile international DJ bookings, 30 years of the Good Times soundsystem â today, a major musical brand and cultural reference point â and, of course, the adulation of thousands and thousands of fans. Not forgetting the award of an MBE for âservices to dance musicâ or something impressively similar. Those three letters perhaps do more than anything else to highlight just how far Jay has pushed himself, and dance music, into the mainstream spotlight.

It makes total sense, then, that heâs playing Vintage At Goodwood, a brand new music and fashion-led festival celebrating âcreative British coolâ from the 1940s right the way through to the 1980s. The Goodwood estateâs Lord March and influential Red Or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway have instigated what should in time become a major addition to the festival calendar; an entirely authoritative chronicle of Britainâs rich musical heritage. Of course, Jay was initially asked to curate.

âIt was about a year ago; Wayne asked me. I was extremely flattered but, really, had no time to do itâ he confesses. âI have a lot of international DJ commitments; places I play regularly. Being a curator is a huge job and I didnât really want to cancel on lots of friends and fans. But Iâve retained my input into Vintage as a DJ; thatâs important to me. I think Vintage will be a truly unique and exciting spectacle.â

Jay plays one of two 1970s âSoul Casinoâ stages curated by acid jazz veteran Eddie Piller, covering everything from sweet soul and reggae to Northern and funk. Later on during the weekend, he plays rare groove and early dance tracks in The Warehouse, an 80s dedicated arena dressed chaotically (and impressively) as an abandoned, industrial-style warehouse. âI canât wait to see what theyâre going to build; I mean, itâs going to be in the middle of the South Downs [Hampshire]. All of the arenas the organisers are planning will tell such a story, maybe more so than any festival in the UK has done before. We have an important musical legacy; take a look at the house and rave generations that grew up in the 80s and 90s; today, theyâre running our fashion stores, record labels⦠our galleries and performing arts; such influence.â

It is influence Norman Jay fought long and hard for during the early days of his energetic and often maverick music career. His looming Vintage assignment inevitably brings it all back. âI was an angry young lad growing up; the Thatcher government was in, there was recession and social oppression, a lot of heavy Victorian-style legislation,â he recalls. âI channeled my feelings into the music. I was a child of New York, Iâd stayed there with family and seen Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage⦠been to loads of loft parties, if not [David] Mancusoâs original; for that you had to be seriously connected. It made me realise the UK club scene was way behind; it was too narrow-minded, afraid to take risks.â

Inevitably, Jay returned home and set about changing things. âAll my mates in London were first generation punks,â he explains. âI was from that school. We take it for granted in clubs today but I introduced variety to DJ set-lists. Iâd spin soul, rock ânâ roll, reggae, everything. I played without fear; I was one of first to play house in the UK.â

It was the mid-80s. Jay had built the Good Times Sound System with brother Joey, aimed squarely at Notting Hill Carnivalâs significant crowds, set up pirate radio station Kiss with DJ friend Gordon Mac, and started running club nights with another friend, law student Judge Jules. Jay provided the âjudgeâ tag and coined a phrase for the funky underground dance music they were playing - ârare grooveâ.

âYou wouldnât believe the opposition I faced back then. Kiss had constant trouble from the authorities; the same draconian authorities made it difficult to promote nights. Everything was unlicensed, we broke into closed-up warehouses in order to play the new sounds that we were getting excited about.â

Jay continues: âThe level of racial and physical abuse I received was phenomenal. I was a black DJ playing records by white people; of the black records I played, many were from the emerging house scene in New York and therefore records for gay people. The abuse was awful but I kept on believing in what I was about and that things would change.â

Fast forward to 2010 and Jay is a universally loved super-jock â he plays everything from trend-setting East London basements to Hollywood parties. Not only that, but Good Times is an amazing 30 years old this summer. The carnival sound system started out in Cambridge Street before moving to the corner of Southern Row and West Row in 1991. âThe anniversary means such a lot. Good Times has always been a platform for creative risk, for breaking records and ideas; itâs a fundamental part of my life. Iâve got to thank Blues & Soul too; you guys were supporting me right at the beginning when others were afraid to. That support gave me a lot of confidence to carry on when, perhaps, those early crowds would rather Iâd have buggered off.â

And can Jay tell us whatâs lined up this August? âNot really, itâs a secretâ he teases. âThere will be the usual mix of new records and old classics, but itâs an anniversary year so itâs going to be extra special, I promise. Iâm also planning a Teddy Pendergrass tribute [Pendergrass died in January] â he was an amazing talent, he deserves something more than a few newspaper obituaries.â

Punters can also expect roadblocks and huge, huge crowds. âAbsolutelyâ Jay jumps in. âIâd advise people to get to the Good Times corner super early. Weâre in a police controlled zone; arrive after 3pm and youâve had it. Itâs amazing to think how popular the stage is now; Iâd never have fully believed it when we started.â

Beyond Carnival itâs all about those overseas bookings. Jay isnât fussed about the studio; he fears that it might hamper the momentum he builds up when out on the road: âIâve done the odd production but I love playing to great crowds too much. Thatâs what I enjoy doing and, frankly, I wouldnât have it any other way. Iâm busier, in that respect, than ever.â

Clearly, however, heâs had time to consider his wardrobe for those upcoming Vintage shows. âI looked through my wardrobe the other day and found pretty much all of the clothes I used to DJ in during the 70s and 80s; theyâre tight but they still fitâ he confesses. âIâm tempted to climb back in to them for Goodwood; you know, properly embrace the spirit of the thing.â

Norman, that might be one musical experiment too farâ¦

A new Good Times album is due for release mid-August.
Words BEN LOVETT

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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