Kit Downes: The night I didn't win the Mercury

As a jazz trio, we always knew we were outsiders to win the Mercury. The exposure it gives to modern jazz is a good thing – but a separate Mercury jazz prize would be even better

I never dared to hope we might win the Mercury prize. For a jazz act like my band, the Kit Downes Trio, just being there is the important thing – we're not making mainstream music, so we can't hope to compete in any way. But even though we knew we weren't going to win, the Mercury ceremony was still a celebration: there we are, getting played on BBC2, which for us is a huge deal, because you can count the number of times contemporary jazz gets played on primetime BBC TV on one hand. This was improvised music's three-and-a-half minutes per year in the spotlight.

For us, then, the main thing about Tuesday evening was the performance, after the stress of the build-up. For the rest of the evening it was just odd to be in a room with a load of people from the music industry who we didn't know, and who didn't know us, and who after the ceremony ended would probably never think about us again.

Over the past few months I've come to realise that the jazz act that gets nominated for the Mercury becomes an ambassador for jazz, because of the raised profile that results. And that's odd for us, because we're only 23 or 24, and it feels like a lot of pressure for people at the beginning of their career, when there are people out there who are both much older, and much better. And at the same time, you have to accept that many of the people who hear about the award regard you as the "token jazzer" – but it's right that jazz should be represented on the shortlist, because jazz accounts for about 10% of the audience for live music in the UK. Nevertheless, I'm not surprised people greet the jazz nomination with this mixture of fear and confusion, because it's not mainstream music.

In fact, jazz isn't one music, and it doesn't have one audience. People don't like "jazz", because that term covers so many things – they like particular musicians or kinds of music. They might like Iain Ballamy because of what he does with electronics, or they might like Seb Rochford – and then that might draw them into other aspects of music. So if you type "Seb Rochford" into Google, you'll discover how many different bands he's involved with, and how much different music he plays. In fact, the internet has been a great way for people to discover more about improvised and experimental music, because it enables people to see the connections between different artists and musics.

One reason the Mercury is so important is that there aren't that many awards in British jazz – just one or two – and they don't reach the mainstream like the Mercury does. What would really help the profile of jazz and improvised music in this country would be if the Mercury had a jazz shortlist alongside the rock and pop shortlist, so six artists could see their profile raised, instead of just one, and the idea of the token jazzer would disappear. That would also show people the huge range of music that jazz encompasses.

As for what the Mercury prize has done for us: we've sold a lot more records, we've been able to play to new crowds, we've been able to talk to more people about jazz. And we've found that people are listening to us who we never imagined would have been interested – I heard from a heavy metal fan, for instance. And it's also made me aware of music that I didn't know anything about, too – I've now discovered how good Villagers are.

The Kit Downes Trio play Kings Place, London N1, tomorrow. Kit Downes was talking to Michael Hann.

Kit Downes

The GuardianTramp

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