Skip to main content

Rhythm of the saints

Only among jazz lovers is Lillian Boutte a household name in this country. However among pupils aged six to 17 the New Orleans-based singer's rich tones and unorthodox teaching techniques are proving a draw to a whole new generation of jazz enthusiasts.

Her music workshops at schools and colleges during the two 10-day visits she pays to this country each year are eagerly anticipated by music teachers who are able to draw on her services.

"Jazz encompasses so many strands rhythm and blues, gospel, traditional melodies and all the roots of what we call pop that it is a rich vein for teachers. Everybody can identify with some aspect of the music", says Philomena Solomon, head of music at St Clare's International College, Oxford, one of three places where Boutte conducted a workshop on her recent UK tour.

The two other workshops were at a village primary school near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, and a comprehensive school at Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

Boutte works with her German-born saxophonist husband Thomas l'Etienne and a small group of musicians she brings with her. During the day they conduct workshops and in the evening the students join her in a concert which has been known to feature up to 50 participants.

To start the daytime session Boutte selects four or five numbers a mixture of gospel music and jazz. The students break into groups to rehearse, the vocalists with her, the others respectively with the reed player, pianist, bass player and drummer. In the afternoon the entire group at St. Clare's it numbered 40 comes together for a final rehearsal. The concert, in front of parents and friends who pay to attend, takes place a couple of hours later.

In Cirencester, the night before she visited St. Clare's, nearly all the 150 pupils who had attended the daytime workshop came to Boutte's evening concert in the parish church.

"They brought along recorder, guitars, clarinets, a flute and a viola. It's not unusual for a harpist to turn up out of the blue", says Boutte, 46.

"Most of the pupils that eventually play with us in the evening can read music; but quite often many of the singers are not students of music".

"A knowledge of 12-bar blues leads to improvisational and compositional skills and also to familiarity with secondary chords, which is all relevant to the Baccalaureat course we teach here", adds Solomon. "This knowledge is equally relevant to GCSE and A-Level music. Before coming here I taught at a large comprehensive school where the music workshop formula also worked but in larger groups and at a more basic level. In any location background preparation is the key to making the whole thing work".

Boutte, who was also in this country in March to record a compact disc with British musicians, is willing to conduct music workshops anywhere in the UK. Since 1986 she has held the honorary title of New Orleans Music Ambassador, a title only previously held by Louis Armstrong.

"If I get a lot of bookings I can extend my trips here", she says. "For a professional jazz musician this sort of work does not really pay, but I love coming to the UK. Sometimes we go home a little in the red, but it's what you leave behind with the youngsters that really matters".

Boutte has been conducting jazz workshops since 1983. Since 1991, she has teamed up with Dr Richard Speed, a former secondary teacher. They try to avoid set fees for workshops and concerts, by means of grants from local authorities and charitable trusts. Dr Speed is keen to extend this work; contact him on 01367 710593

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you