Young Jazz: An Interview with Kai Craig and Sean Payne of The Royal Academy of Music

April 2021 | Written by John Simons

Over the years, John Simons’ many stores have served as a meeting place for creative individuals: from musicians, to painters, to architects, the creative drive seems to be a common theme amongst our clientele. Such is most definitely the case for young Saxophonist Sean Payne, and drummer Kai Craig, who stumbled across our store by mere accident. Both Sean and Kai are students at The Royal Academy of Music, and their work recalls the sounds of the mid-century Modern Jazz greats. We sat down with the duo to discuss their passion for the genre, the importance of accessibility for the next generation of musicians, and the difficulties faced as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

What was your introduction to Jazz? Were you gripped right away, or was this a taste that you cultivated over time? 

Kai: My dad is a drummer so I first got into music from seeing him play. Moreover, the records that were being played in my house growing up always seemed to be either Jazz or Brazilian/Latin music. 

The Buddy Rich Big Band was the first group which really gripped me. I then heard “Somethin’ Else” by Cannonball Adderley which featured Art Blakey on drums. This opened a lot of doors for me and I began getting hooked on Cannonball Adderley and Small Band Jazz. It all came from Buddy Rich for me. 

Sean: The short answer is Cannonball Adderley. My playing Sax came from my mum who is a Saxophone player, although she does not play Jazz strictly speaking, and it was she who taught me how to play. I had been exposed to Jazz whilst younger and I was not immediately gripped. I had a lot of outside influences which were trying to push me musically in certain directions as they recognised that I could play music by ear relatively easily. It was not until I was around 11 when my aunt and uncle purchased a Cannonball Adderley Live in Concert DVD, and a CD named “Cannonball Takes Charge”, for Christmas, that I became hooked. This was my “way-in” so to speak. 

Does this influence extend to any other areas of your life, or is it purely a musical sensibility?

Sean: I have found that when I analyse my own playing there are parallels that you find between one’s behaviour and one’s playing style, and this extends too to how you interact with other individuals. It all stems from the same place. But to answer your question, I do not feel that I talk, act or dress a certain way to be “more jazz”, no. It is more of an emotional mindset. 

Kai: It has not necessarily influenced how I do things, or go about my life, but it has certainly influenced how I appreciate things. By seeing Jazz musicians dress a certain way, I came to appreciate fashion and how they can put an outfit together for example. This is a sensibility I probably would not have developed, or acknowledged were it not for Jazz. Moreover, there are many artistic movements which have been directly informed and inspired by Jazz, and I certainly think that I have come to appreciate these movements more, as a result of my love for, and knowledge of, Jazz. Whilst I do not necessarily buy art or dress in a certain style, I can appreciate both of these phenomena as a result of Jazz. 

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How long have you been studying at The Royal Academy of Arts? In what ways has your training lead you to become a better musician?

Kai: We are both in our third year. I think being in an institution where we are surrounded by like minded individuals has been the best aspect of our studies. Simply being surrounded by musicians who all want to do the same thing has been extremely helpful. The connections and people it has lead both of us to play with and meet has been a particular highlight. 

Sean: I completely agree. I would also add that a large part of what you take away from the experience is down to the individual. If you are being taught concepts such as chord theory, or rhythm, or how to transcribe a solo, and you simply accept it then I think you are somewhat missing the point and will ultimately end up fitting a mould. But if you utilise these concepts as a foundation for creating your own art then I think it is invaluable. 

Moreover, to echo what Kai has said, simply being surrounded by so many musicians will teach you far more than you could ever learn by simply following a teacher’s instructions. Inevitably you end up building a connection with these musicians by simply being around them so often, which you could never get from a one-off jam session or something of the sort. 

Is Jazz having a renaissance of popularity amongst the younger generation? If not, why do you think that this is and in what ways can we encourage young people, such as yourselves, to take an interest in the genre? 

Sean: I would just like to state that Jazz has never been popular. That is somewhat the point in my opinion. What we refer to as Jazz comes from the African-American tradition of playing. The more commercial styles of Jazz are rooted in a non-improvised style of playing and were predominantly popularised by white musicians who provided what was considered a more socially acceptable and accessible form of Jazz. This is distinct from the improvised forms of Jazz which we favour, and which ultimately are rooted in African traditions of oral call and response. Jazz as we understand it has never been a popular thing. 

There is an interview out now with [American Saxophonist] Branford Marsalis, in which he likens trying to popularise Jazz with the concept of an Archaeologist having their own TV show. What he means by this is that you can find ways to popularise Jazz; make it look better and sound clearer, cultivate an online presence and so on, but ultimately people will still be drawn to pop music on the charts. Increased accessibility will only really benefit those who were seeking Jazz out in the first place. 

Kai: I completely agree. Although, I would say that through platforms such as social media and the internet more generally, there are a lot more avenues through which one can access jazz now, which is a positive thing for those who have a budding curiosity.

Sean: As we have said earlier, exposure for Jazz is important and necessary, given that it is still somewhat of an underground phenomenon, because one needs that initial “in” in order to begin to appreciate the genre. 

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How has the pandemic affected the lives of two budding musicians? 

Kai: It has been pretty hard. I feel that we could have done much more without it. I was planning on going on an exchange trip this year to study abroad in America. I was looking forward to this experience and the change in culture it would bring. This was a trip, which both musically and personally, would have been a huge point in my career thus far and an invaluable learning experience. When you add to that, the lack of gigs, I would say that it has been very damaging. 

Sean: Whilst I am not particularly religious, I do believe that everything happens for a reason. I was in the middle of a UK Tour once the first lockdown was brought in. This effectively cancelled a month’s worth of gigs. But what did happen for me, was an opportunity to step back and analyse what I want to do as musician. I feel that my playing has changed dramatically during this period, hopefully for the better. I would not have been able to do this without the chance to take a step back. Whilst the situation is most definitely horrendous, you can still draw positives from it.  

What was your introduction to John Simons and in what way did our store stand out? 

Kai: I have nothing short of an addiction to the coffee shop just down the road from John Simons, so I often find myself passing the store. I remember looking in the window at the JSA Corduroy Harrington and Sean [O’Byrne of John Simons] popped out and we struck up a conversation about it. I was in a rush at the time but the next time I passed by I was with Sean [Payne] and we decided to pop in. We were quite taken by both the style and the music that was playing.

Are there any particular pieces or brands that have appealed to you, and if so, why? 

Sean: I like Vetra a lot, their stuff is very nice. My favourite article of clothing in the store was the merino wool Alan Paine polo, as well as the fantastic Japanese socks by Anonymous Ism. 

Finally, what is the state of Jazz in 2021 and do you have any final words for our readers? 

Kai: That is a very big question and it is difficult to answer right now, given the state of the world. Once things return back to normal it will be a lot easier to assess. One thing is for sure though, it will certainly be a different landscape going forward. 

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