Interview: Jools Holland on the joy of playing live

Read our chat with the music legend.

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The word “legend” may be bandied around too easily these days, but in the case of Jools Holland and his 40-plus years in the music business, the title feels wholly accurate.

Starting out as a session musician in the mid-’70s, the pianist and presenter first found huge success as a founding member and keyboardist of the London rock band Squeeze. Jools played on three albums with the band, recording the hit singles Cool for Cats and Up the Junction before leaving to fulfil his ambitions of launching a solo career.

Holland’s life changed forever when he was awarded the presenting job of the brand new Channel 4 music programme The Tube. The show, which hosted performers such as The Proclaimers, U2, R.E.M., Billy Bragg, Elton John and hundreds more ignited a passion for broadcasting in Holland, setting him up on the journey to becoming the much-loved music broadcaster he is today.

Chaka Khan with Jools & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra - Ain’t Nobody - Jools' Annual Hootenanny

Jools is best known as the presenter of Later… with Jools Holland. The BBC Two production has been hosted by the musician since its inception in 1992, and features live performances and interviews from some of the world’s most well known and upcoming musicians from all across the genre spectrum.

Another turning point in the musician’s life was in 1987 when he formed the Jools Holland Big Band with former Squeeze bandmate Gilson Lavis. Over the years, the band has slowly morphed into the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, touring the world and performing to thousands of fans.

Jools and his band have a busy summer packed full of shows at some spectacular venues before they hit the road again later this year.

We caught up with the icon part way through his summer dates, to discuss why he loves touring and what fans who are coming to shows can expect.

This interview was arranged by the organisers of Live at Down Hall. Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra come to the stunning venue on 15 June 2019.

How’s the tour going so far?

Fantastic. I think one of the great things about touring is that it’s a tool for expressing the feeling of joy. This time of year is great because people are feeling in a nice mood, and I think that the uplifting music we play, our ska, our blues our British pop and our boogie elements are perfectly suited to this feeling. Also, myself and the orchestra thrive on new material and we’ve got a few new things in the set.

What can fans expect from the shows?

First of all, there’s no real other working big band like us. There are some but none that work as much as us. We have a rich diversity of extraordinary musicianship with us. People like Bammi on the saxophone, who came over from Jamaica where ska originated, we’ve got people like Gilson on the drums, who was with me in Squeeze, Mabel Ray who’s got an amazing voice, Louise Marshall who’s incredible, and you’ve got probably the most amazing British blues and gospel singer Ruby Turner. I don’t know anybody like her, the music comes out of her like a volcano. When you wrap up all those elements of British pop music into one package, with a big band, the dynamics of that is a recipe for a great knees up.

Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra - "Double O Boogie" - OFFICIAL

How much hard work goes into preparing for your tours?

I think the hard work goes in over the years. Years and years of playing shows and years and years of playing with different people. Whether I’m playing live on stage, in a recording studio, at home, on my TV show or in my dressing room on my TV show, I’m plugging into that. It’s not really work, it’s more pleasure. The more you do it, the more enjoyable it becomes. The hard work is travelling around, but I quite like that so that’s not really hard work either! It’s really more like playing, this is the furthest thing from hard work I can think of.

You’re performing at some outdoor venues and festivals this summer. How do those shows differ for you?

I think back to what one of the all-time greats Eric Clapton said to me because we play the Royal Albert Hall quite a bit together. He said, “you’ve got to play to the room.” I think that’s a really important thing, you can’t just decide what you’re going to play and just play it, you’ve got to look at the room, listen to the room and feel the atmosphere. If you’re outside and the temperature drops down a bit you wanna pick the tempo up and get people dancing, and if it’s swelteringly hot you might want to bring the tempo down a bit. Essentially, certain things in the set have got to be there, but you can alter things to try and magnify what the atmosphere is. Even if it’s bad or extreme weather you’ve got to make the most of that. It’s a great pleasure performing outside.

You’ve spent much of your life on the road. What is it about performing live that you love?

I think there’s no other art form where you can communicate your feelings to the recipient of the art, and you can see by how they’re dancing or moving their feet how you’re affecting them. And you and them are all one. It’s not just like, we’re on stage and you’re down there. We’re all in it together. Joined in unity experiencing some great music. I think that’s one of the best feelings in the world.

How does the feeling of playing live compare to broadcasting live on TV or the radio?

On television or radio, you’re doing one brief short performance. When we’re playing live we have a lot of elements that we have to try and fit in. The orchestra on its own is a show within itself. Then on top of that, you’ve got all these great singers and featured artists, so there’s a lot to fit in. If you’re on the radio or TV with somebody, you just do one song and then move onto something else. With a live show the momentum builds up into the one big knockout feeling.

Ed Sheeran – Perfect with Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra

You’re renowned as being a champion of new music. How do you keep your finger on the pulse?

When you say new music, it doesn’t matter if a piece of music is five, 50 or 500 years old, if I haven’t heard it before it’s new. I can hear a piece by Bach that I’ve never heard before that can make me cry, or it might be a brand new artist that gets me excited and that’s new to me too. I think in music you have to be quite careful in defining what’s new. If it’s new to you, that’s the important thing.

On my show, part of it is new music, but part of it is also trying to find legends who don’t have a home anywhere else on television.

New music is a part of the show but it’s not a main part of the show. The artists on there normally have a record out or they’re doing some shows, so there’s a bit of a buzz and excitement about them and they just pop up on my radar.

Catch Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at the following shows:

Summer outdoor shows:

6 June 2019 – Hampton Court Palace, London
15 June 2019 – Down Hall Hotel & Space, Bishops Stortford
11 July 2019 – Kew Gardens, London
19 July 2019 – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Autumn/Winter UK tour:

24 October 2019 – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend
25 October 2019 – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend
26 October 2019 – East Of England Arena, Peterborough
27 October 2019 – Corn Exchange, Cambridge
31 October 2019 – Barbican, York
1 November 2019 – City Hall, Sheffield
3 November 2019 – Harrogate International Centre
6 November 2019 – Victoria Hall, Stoke-On-Trent
7 November 2019 – Bath Forum
8 November 2019 – Watford Colosseum
9 November 2019 – The Centaur, Cheltenham
14 November 2019 – Hexagon Theatre, Reading
15 November 2019 – Royal Albert Hall, London
16 November 2019 – Royal Albert Hall, London
20 November 2019 – Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
21 November 2019 – St Georges Hall, Bradford
23 November 2019 – Portsmouth Guildhall
28 November 2019 – De Montford Hall, Leicester
29 November 2019 – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
30 November 2019 – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
1 December 2019 – Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
4 December 2019 – O2 City Hall, Newcastle
5 December 2019 – O2 City Hall, Newcastle
13 December 2019 – Bournemouth International Centre
14 December 2019 – The Brighton Centre
19 December 2019 – The Great Hall, Exeter
20 December 2019 – Plymouth Pavillions
21 December 2019 – Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
22 December 2019 – O2 Apollo Manchester

Tickets to see Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are available now through