Why music was just the medicine for Jeremy Sassoon

Jeremy Sassoon is a former shrink who turned his back on medicine to become a singer and pianist. Born and raised in Manchester to a family of musicians, he worked as a psychiatrist for several years before opting to pursue his love of blues, soul and jazz. He splits his time between Manchester and London and has just released a new album, Jeremy Sassoon & Friends Live.

How did you get into music?

I started with the piano at five and was granted a scholarship to study at the Royal Northern College of Music aged eight. At this stage I also took up the trumpet and this was the start of an 11-year training in classical music on both instruments. After music college I was faced with a choice: study medicine or music at university. Almost on the toss of a coin I chose medicine and I trained and practised for 12 years before making a sudden and drastic U-turn – back to music.

Why the switch from medicine to music?

Medicine itself is one of the most rewarding jobs one can do. The issues are ones of politics, NHS funding, low morale and long hours. I was specialising in psychiatry where many of these issues were even more pronounced. Working within a tough system, there were few outlets for true creativity and I felt a whole side of me was being suffocated. I didn’t know at the time that music would turn out to be the right decision, but it was all I knew how to do, other than medicine.

Did you ever think you’d made a mistake?  

No, I never did. The feeling of freedom I experienced once I’d left full time employment in the system was something I couldn’t, and still can’t, put a price on. I still love medicine and psychiatry, but I belong professionally in the world of music.

What challenges did you face moving your focus from instruments to voice?

It was one of the hardest and scariest challenges I’ve ever faced. I was totally unaware I could sing. I’d never been a fan of singing in the shower, nor did I ever indulge in carpool karaoke. As a keyboard player and musical director, I was very focused on accompanying great singers. After nine years of working with jazz and gospel singer Paul Bentley, we recorded and released an album in 2010. With a diary full of bookings, we launched the album and five days later Paul announced he would never sing again for personal reasons. It was at that stage I realised my career was in jeopardy and “someone” was going to have to sing at our gigs. I realised it had to be me. I had already put together my Ray Charles Project, an 11 and 17-piece big band tribute to the music of Ray Charles with Paul singing, and I either had to front it as a singer/pianist or disband it. It had to be the former as I loved that show.

It was scary to re-invent myself in front of the Manchester musical world – everyone knew me as a keyboard player. I recorded and released my first album in 2011 and called it Coming Out. Now I can’t imagine being anything other than a singer/pianist and would never go back.

You’ve enjoyed several long-standing performing residencies. What are the benefits and disadvantages of long-term residencies?

I’ve always been a fan as they offer some stability for musicians. One gig every Tuesday is 52 gigs a year. One Sunday a month is 12 more. They’re also a great way to try out new material safely and to bring in different musicians to develop musical relationships. Done correctly they create a loyal fan base, and you have a fail-safe place to invite prospective clients to hear you on home soil. My longest residency – every Tuesday at Smiths Restaurant in Eccles – finished three weeks ago after 20 years. I’ve also held at least three other residencies for over 10 years each.

In London I’m resident at The Boisdale chain of clubs: The Ned Hotel, The Arts Club in Mayfair, The Den in Soho and, until recently, The Shard. It’s crucial, though, to have an agreement that you can programme other artists in when you can’t do the gig, otherwise being overly tied down is a major disadvantage of holding residencies.

How can singers improve the way they deal with bands, especially if there is little rehearsal time?

Good communication with your band is absolutely fundamental, especially on stage. My advice to singers is to never listen to people with an attitude of “ah don’t worry, it’ll be fine”. You need to be prepared and do the work. Firstly, pick reliable, professional and musical guys and girls in your band. Prioritise getting all your material on written charts (even if it costs money), decide your set lists early and then email the parts to the band. They won’t feel you’re being demanding. Deep down they’ll be relieved that you’ve given them a chance to get it right in advance. They work for lots of other singers. Try and be one of the ones they like working with. It just isn’t enjoyable leaving stuff to chance. It’s actually very stressful.

What’s your view on the current state of the jazz scene?

Word around town is that there’s a jazz resurgence happening. I’d agree with that, especially in London, although I think this mainly relates to instrumental jazz. I can’t say there’s a plethora of new jazz singers I’m aware of right now but watch out for a friend of mine Sara Dowling. We were musical partners back in Manchester and she’s starting to take the London jazz scene by storm. Alice Zawadzki is another talented creative singer with original tastes that I’d keep an eye on too.

How would you describe your music?

My music encompasses jazz, blues, soul and groove – probably in equal measure. I’m not a composer (yet), but I try and stamp my hallmark onto any tune I sing and play. I’d like to think that people could hear a song on the radio and be able to say, “that’s Jeremy Sassoon”. Singers should embrace their “sound” and like it, whatever it sounds like. How else would Bjork, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits have made it?

Who are your musical influences and why?

Because I didn’t sing until later most of my influences were instrumentalists. My journey took me through Santana to Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson. In terms of vocal influences though, it’s almost entirely the influence of black music – its roots in gospel and soul really resonate with me. Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Earth Wind & Fire and Ray Charles are where I’m coming from.

What’s next for Jeremy Sassoon?

I’m launching my new album, Jeremy Sassoon & Friends Live, on 27 July. The album was recorded live at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London, and it’s my “baby” at the moment. I have a single from the album already out so please check out Wichita Lineman on all platforms.

I’m also headlining the Wigan International Jazz Festival this month too. I may have an interesting project planned for my 17-piece Ray Charles Project next year, fingers crossed, but otherwise I’ll be straight back in the studio.

Website: jeremysassoon.com 




Gemma Wilson-Vidal is a London-based journalist, editor, blogger and all-round media professional. She has a particular interest in popular culture, beauty and fashion and works in the internal communications industry. Although a seasoned editor, Gemma still enjoys writing and regularly contributes to a variety of lifestyle titles.