All that jazz

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Dumfries is not known for its musical expertise - until now. Tom Pow reports on an inspirational experience.

It would have to be something very special to make 14-year-old Ben Bryden miss a Queen of the South home game. On a recent Saturday it was. His own school hall at Dumfries Academy became the hottest jazz spot in the south of Scotland.

Surrounded by the members of Dumfries Youth Jazz Group, Tommy Smith played solo sax for a scintillating hour, then for a further three hours answered questions and conducted master classes with solo players and with the whole band.

His visit had been made possible through Barclay's New Futures. An award of pound;7,000 - one of the three biggest in Scotland - had bought the expertise of a number of jazz instrumentalists and bands, from trombonists to army bands, even before the Tommy Smith event.

From its inception in January 1998, the Dumfries Youth Jazz Group has grown from the core of 18 pupils who attended the first meeting with their supportive parents. With financial backing from a Scottish Awards For All Lottery Grant, local trust funds and support from the education authority, the group is now splitting into two groups of 40 - a senior and a junior group. There are a further 80 primary school pupils on a database for whom the committee has applied for a National Youth Fund for Music.

The group's instigator, Christine Barbour, principal teacher of music at Dumfries Academy, believes the success of the jazz group is due to the fact that it offers children the opportunity to play together. "Pupils like the sound," she explains, "feeling they're in the middle of something big. They love the social aspect too - meeting children from other schools, going on trips."

And meeting Tommy Smith.

"I'm going to take you on a journey," he says. But wherever he tok us - to the beginning of time or to the unmistakable sounds of the east - he always took us back to Scotland. He took us to the dark places too, with a reading of a Norman MacCaig elegy, "Memorial", on his sister's death: "I am her sad music," he quotes.

"Yeah, I don't play down for them. Some do, but I like to give them a big experience - something they'll remember."

At the end of his set, he says, with a smile, "That's all. Who's next?" You would think that it would be intimidating for the small group of soloists to take part in the master class which followed. But Smith has a wide and ready smile and a genuine rapport with young people.

"Start very cool, like Miles Davis," he tells trumpeter David Blair, aged 12. "I want you to play the wrong notes, but in a way that sounds right. Play with conviction." And he did.

With the full group too, Smith was constantly pushing: "You're just playing notes. We need to open up the song I" And is there a route to success as a jazz musician in Scotland?

"Yeah, there's a route; quite an established one now. Play a lot, get good, go to Berkeley, study, come back to London or to here I" Yet, in a question and answer session with the group, Smith's biography offers significant lessons. The importance of sympathetic music teachers and an encouraging father; the value of practice and of listening; and the opportunity to play - all played a large part in getting him off on the right road.

Though precious few are gifted with Smith's talents, each member of the Dumfries Youth Jazz Group has the ingredients with which he began. The great benefit of his visit lay in showing pupils that, no matter where they are on the spectrum, they are all on a journey.

Worth missing a rare Queen's home win for, eh Ben? (Queen of the South 2: Stirling Albion 1)

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