Gilles Peterson: The Jazz Tastemaker

A conversation with the jazz-crazy, groove-loving, globally minded impresario Gilles Peterson

Photo of Gilles Peterson

Even at 52, Gilles Peterson still exudes childlike glee when he plays records. Watching him host his weekly program at BBC Radio 6 Music in early August was inspiring and infectious. Each time the French-born, London-based impresario spun a song, his eyes brightened as if he were hearing the most transformative music for the very first time. As he offered tidbits about the tracks and artists, his voice reflected that excitement.

Supported by a small team handling broadcast directions, his website and his social-media platforms, Peterson also brought an improvisational zest to his programming. He paid tribute to the recently departed record executive and producer Joe Fields via a Kenny Barron cut, and presented music by such emerging U.K. artists as Vibration Black Finger, Zara McFarlane and Ezra Collective. Also filtering through the set was Eddie Palmieri’s “Life,” Arthur Blythe’s “Autumn in New York” and Kamasi Washington’s “Truth,” topped off with a special nod to Jules Buckley, co-founder of the East Sussex-based Heritage Orchestra.

Later that evening, Peterson would fly off to the Jazz in Marciac festival, where he’d collaborate with Cuban pianist and composer Roberto Fonseca. We caught up with him during his BBC set, to chat about his expansive career as a radio and club DJ, label owner and festival producer.
JOHN MURPH

JazzTimes: With such a demanding career, how do you maintain your stamina?

Gilles Peterson: Being a big music fan and having this role in which I can shout out stuff and not feel compromised by what I’m playing—[because] most DJs do—I’ve got the best gig in the world. As a DJ I can do what I want. People want me to do what I want. So I’ve found myself in the same place as, say, people like Steve Coleman or Herbie Hancock.

I also get a chance to find artists and give them a break. So while I might not be the artist, I can be the background guy. And that’s quite nice, because I think if I was just the artist or just the DJ then I would only get one side of the music industry. I think what I’m doing keeps me a little bit more solid and my ego in check.

It’s interesting watching you host your radio show and seeing the improvisational element happen. It seems like you’re discovering music in the very moment.

I mix my music live in this show, which hardly any radio producers do. I come in every week with 60 songs, some of which are on vinyl. Most weeks I won’t know until 30 seconds before the hour what song I’m going to start off with. So my show is absolutely based upon the moment.

I’m always close to a massive error, but that’s part of it. I think that’s really important, because errors are good. Actually, people like that. The listeners like things in which they feel like the show is on the edge a little bit.

Have you ever test-driven a new song on the air that you absolutely hated?

No. I do listen to the records before I play them. I’m very specific about why I play songs. What makes the 60 is a week’s worth of curation out of, say, 200 songs. I’ve never done a show in which I haven’t listened to all the songs properly. It’s important that you’ve studied your music before you go on air or on a DJ set.

As a label owner, talk about the transition from Talkin’ Loud Records [1990-2003] to your current label, Brownswood.

[In 1986] I started an independent label called Acid Jazz while also DJing five nights a week. Literally every penny that I was earning as a DJ was going into the Acid Jazz records. Out of that label came Galliano, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies. I was then offered a job by [the Phonogram company], and they said, “Look, why don’t you do that for us and we will give you [a salary] and a car and a pension.” It was amazing because there were no boutique labels for me to learn from at the time.

Once I [co-founded Talkin’ Loud under Phonogram], the boss who brought me in got fired. Then I spent the next 13 years fighting the system at Phonogram that was putting out Def Leppard and Elton John records. I was in that world [but] coming out with the Young Disciples and Nuyorican Soul. Phonogram would give me just enough money to sign the bands but they never really gave me the full weight of the company because Talkin’ Loud was always a little fringe thing.

But the positive side of it is that I still got a chance to put out some great albums. We had five Mercury award-nominated albums, from Courtney Pine to M.J. Cole. And I learned about the corporate record business. I would have never learned that lesson had I just stayed an independent-records guy.

Toward the end of my stay at Phonogram, which became Universal, the DJ scene was becoming a global network. People were becoming superstar DJs. At that time I was on KISS FM, which is a local station, and I really wanted to get onto BBC Radio 1. I said, “This is really a great time for me to concentrate on being a DJ rather than being the record-company guy.” I’d been DJing all the time, but it was secondary to heading the record label. So I focused on being a DJ by getting myself on BBC Radio 1. I continued doing all of my syndicated shows around the world as a DJ. I was in [the venue] Cargo, in East London, and this guy came over to me and gave me a CD and said, “This is pretty good.” I put it in my car on my way home, and it was José James doing a version of John Coltrane’s “Equinox.”

I said, “Wow, this is great.” It was the kind of male jazz vocals that I had been waiting to hear for ages. It sounded like Leon Thomas meets Andy Bey. I felt like putting it out. Then I got the tickle to do a record label again. José James was sort of the catalyst for me to set up Brownswood Recordings. I signed three artists—José James, [pianist] Elan Mehler and the Heritage Orchestra.

Talk about the origins of your annual Worldwide Festivals in Sète, France, and Leysin, Switzerland, which began with the French edition in 2006.

I spent 10 years helping Montreux in the 1990s and 2000s. They asked me to curate the Miles Davis Hall. That’s when I brought over everyone from the Cinematic Orchestra and Roni Size to J Dilla and Madlib. It was during that period of time in which the festival audience didn’t quite get what I was giving them.

The other problem I had with Montreux was that the bands sounded good but DJs didn’t sound that great because they didn’t care about the DJ thing. And being a DJ, I wanted to create a festival where if I invited Theo Parrish from Detroit, he would have the [same great] sound and experience as if I had invited guitarist Ebo Taylor from Ghana. I wanted to make it perfect for the DJs and the bands, and have almost a handpicked audience from around the world.

At Worldwide, we get a very strong element—about 40 percent of the audience—from the U.K.; they bring the party, the decadence and the club culture. [That British culture] is dirty and kind of raw. You need that at a party. The French bring the elegance and the sexiness. Then we have people from Holland, Germany, Austria, Japan. So it’s like a handpicked audience of 2,000 people who are ready to listen to techno, free jazz and everything in the middle. And they get it. That’s the holy grail for a festival for me.

In your various roles as a music tastemaker, what do you look for in an artist?

Obviously talent. [laughs] But I look for drive—someone who’s really ambitious. That’s one thing that I like about American artists. Opportunities are scarce in America. When American artists have that moment when they see that bit of light, they go for it fully. And they will do anything—maybe too much.

Whereas sometimes here the musicians are little bit too cool, and some will miss their moment. A lot of musicians here are a little bit spoiled, and I don’t like spoiled artists. You can be brilliant but you can’t be spoiled. I’ve seen so many artists who were brilliant when they were 28 years old but they missed their moment because of arrogance. It’s important that they have the right attitude. But there’s a learning window. You have to give room for artists to learn.

Also, I look for music that touches me. It’s selfish a bit—but like here on the radio, I’m not going to play any records I don’t like.