Keith Morris


KEITH MORRIS, the founder of the ‘Schmazz’ concert nights, died in June 2005 at the tragically young age of 52. A man of many parts, active across an enormously wide spectrum of the arts, he lent his hugely accomplished musical skills as composer and performer to any project where he felt he could make a contribution. In his own words, he wrote music “for all sorts of reasons, including theatre, literature, art and other kinds of events in the North East. Used to be called a 'jazz composer’, . . . but writes also for youth and school circumstances, choirs, bands and ensembles, and also writes songs”.
As a committed socialist he had a burning belief in the power of the arts to reflect, comment on, and play a part in the transformation of society, and much of his work engaged with the life of his adopted region, either directly through involvement with community choirs and bands, or in theatre projects that celebrated the working class history of Tyneside. In the diversity of his work, and in the great humanity that he brought to everything he did, he touched the lives of many people, locally, nationally and internationally, a fact that was reflected in the outpouring of tributes following his death, and in the artists who performed at a memorial concert that marked the tenth anniversary of that event in celebration rather than sadness -
For Keith all these many activities were equally important, and he would have dismissed suggestions that he could be defined by any single part of his creative life. But for dedicated jazz lovers, and for Jazz North East as a promoter, his establishment in late 1999 of the monthly ‘Schmazz @ the Cluny’ concerts left a remarkable legacy on which we continue to draw to this day.
Keith did not in any way regard this initiative as being in competition with Jazz North East, which had already been promoting gigs on Tyneside for more than thirty years, but - recognising that there were new artists and new approaches which were not finding a local platform - he sought to position Schmazz as complementary rather than in opposition to JNE. The intention, he explained, was “to prioritise original compositions/inventions over the tried and tested 'Jazz standards’ approach. We aim to provide a platform for new things with a jazz connection for the North East region’s musicians, and from the wide world outside . . . Original material must make up the main body of the music played: it’s not that we don’t like ‘jazz standards’, it’s just that they’re catered for elsewhere. No playing from the ‘Real Book’, ever.”
There were other principles which Keith applied to the project right from the start, none more welcome than the determination to treat visiting artists with the respect and consideration they deserved: “All musicians are paid a proper minimum fee, in cash on the night, get welcomed on arrival, and are fed and watered in the venue at the club’s expense. Basic civilised practice, not at all hard to do......... “. It’s no surprise that, by 2004 when Keith decided to step back from front-line responsibility for Schmazz in order to concentrate on his own musical activities, the Cluny gigs had already become a by-word for adventurous and admirably organised jazz programming, and were much sought after by a rising generation of jazz musicians.
When Keith stepped aside, the Schmazz mantle was taken up by a small committee of enthusiasts determined to maintain the principles he had established, with sympathetic members of the Jazz North East board now playing a part. As JNE absorbed the spirit of Schmazz, and increasingly also added gigs from younger contemporary artists to its own programming, the two organisations grew closer, aiming to create an integrated and inclusive jazz programme for Tyneside. An increasing number of co-promotions marked the cooperative evolution, and joint publicity forged even closer links.
Then, in 2013, the two promoters formally merged, but with a determination to sustain and develop the principles that had been dear to Keith and his legions of friends and admirers: a platform for emerging musical creativity, an embracing of diversity that reached far beyond rigid definitions of ‘jazz’, and, above all, a commitment to treating all musicians with fairness, consideration, and respect.
That remains at the heart of Jazz North East’s work; it is, for us, the finest practical tribute we can pay to Keith Morris, a friend whose personal presence is still sadly missed, but whose legacy continues to light up the creative life of the North East. (Paul Bream)

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