The cool, collaborative world of bandleader Xhosa Cole

The former BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year and sharp-suited saxophonist is bringing jazz to a new generation. We meet an engaging enigma of a musician...

Xhosa Cole has got moves. Serious moves. Such moves, in fact, that the set stood still during this shoot. We all just watched — enraptured and enchanted — as this sharp-suited saxophonist, this 25-year-old bandleader, this engaging enigma of a musician, bent and leant himself into impossible, beautiful positions. It was improvisation without an instrument; seriously spellbinding stuff. 

“I’m just not comfortable being comfortable,” says Cole, once he’s done striking shapes. “But my first footsteps into the arts were actually taken through dance. My older brother is a contemporary dancer. I’m the youngest of three, so I’ve always strived to do whatever my brothers were doing — even if I wasn’t physically or mentally capable of the task at hand. That said, I have been doing a lot of hot yoga recently…”

Cole is a creative — perhaps the purest creative you’ll ever encounter. He first scooped up a saxophone while at school, paying £2.50 for a lesson from a teacher who turned out to have asthma. Not that that stopped him. 

Three years ago, Cole was crowned BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year. And today, freshly freed from lockdown, he’s high on a return to the cool, collaborative world of jazz. The gigs haven’t stopped. There have been almost ten in the past week alone; everywhere from his native Birmingham to Soho institution Ronnie Scott’s. No wonder he’s having a dance. 

“I’m just not comfortable being comfortable…”

“I’ve actually started to think about how movement is a part of the work,” Cole considers. “Classical conductors use their bodies and physical movements to indicate to the ensemble what the vibe is, and it’s the same for a frontman like me. 

“Because, here in the west, we tend to have this idea that all the arts are separate entities; that they exist in isolation. But, in actual fact, they’re very, very connected. Watch Sonny Rollins, one of my all-time heroes, or Thelonious Monk, playing and dancing — and you’ll see that it’s all connected. That’s why I’ve found myself more conscious of my movement, and how it impacts on the music. Obviously I’m not busting moves, but I’m trying to become more liberated with movement.”

From skills to sentiments, few of Cole’s mannerisms betray his young age. Even his longer-term targets — to stage more community concerts, lectures and workshops in his hometown of Birmingham — are the aims and aspirations of a performer twice his age. “My priority” he says, “must be to establish a new generation of talent”.

It makes sense — because, ultimately, the interpersonal, improvisational world of jazz turns on the talent and support of other musicians. 

“People are predisposed to certain roles,” explains Cole. “And I actually find it much easier when I’m leading a band. Not in a controlling way — just that, when you have a certain level of autonomy, there’s a liberation that comes with that. And I like music that can breathe — music where there’s room for collaboration, communication, democracy and arguments.”

Cole is a conversation-starter. And, with his painted nails and black lips, he’s also remarkably intriguing, expectation-subverting figure. But, behind all the music and the make-up, there’s a natural leader. And, whether he’s using words or a reed, Cole’s charisma mainly manifests as a rallying cry against conformity.

“Because we seem to be at a time in society now — with this whole ‘woke’ thing — where we’re striving for perfection. But we’re doing that without acknowledging a simple fact; we’re imperfect people. 

“We have to understand that, if we want to reach different outcomes, that requires different levels of compromise or imperfection from people. So that’s where I’m at, at the moment. I’ve understood that. And that’s the way I’m trying to get the best out of the people.”

Want more from our latest cover feature? Classical pianist Cyrill Ibrahim strikes a chord…

Become a Gentleman’s Journal member. Find out more here.

Further Reading