Finger-snapping, toe-tapping sax education

26th February 2010 at 00:00
They've got some brass: four jazz musicians inspired pupils in Aberdeen to believe a passion for music can take them a long way

Members of the audience couldn't resist tapping their feet at Harlaw Academy in Aberdeen on a day that was almost too cool for school.

Aberdeen traffic was in gridlock, and no one was going anywhere fast, as heavy snow brought the city centre to a virtual standstill.

But in the hall at Harlaw Academy, the school's jazz aficionados were having a treat with a performance from Brass Jaw, a quartet of talented Scottish jazz musicians.

A distinguished line-up of performers - Ryan Quigley on trumpet with Paul Towndrow on alto sax, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor sax and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone saxophone - offered two Aberdeen schools the chance of a free concert, ahead of a gig in the city's Lemon Tree Lounge later this month by Ryan Quigley's Big Band.

It was free sax education, according to the venue's promoters, and enthusiastic teachers and young musicians at Harlaw Academy and Aberdeen Grammar jumped at the chance.

Brass Jaw has been described as "brass with class" and music critics have written about their exuberant performances and idiosyncratic approach to jazz. They didn't disappoint.

The band members all worked on compositions for their repertoire and after a lively set, they took questions from the floor. The pupils had an exhaustive list of enquiries - everything from favourite jazz album recommendations to "What's the shortest note you've ever played?", which caused some head scratching.

Fifteen-year-old trumpeter Emily Geddes plays in Harlaw's senior jazz band. Brass Jaw had her convinced. "It's a really new sound. It's not like anything you've heard before, it's just different," she says.

"They gave us a good insight into what it's like to be a professional musician."

Joe Holland, 14, who plays trombone in the senior band, thought "it was a very full sound - it wasn't missing anything, even though there wasn't a rhthym section."

Head of music at Harlaw is Pauline Craib, who plays trumpet with Aberdeen Jazz Orchestra, and the school has a junior and senior jazz band which joined an S3 and S5 class for the morning performance.

"Quite a lot of our kids play in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland and they tend to go to as many workshops as they can and a lot of them play in Aberdeen City Big Band," says Ms Craib.

Afterwards, Brass Jaw explained why they give up their time and use their tours to subsidise workshops like this in Scottish schools.

Ryan Quigley was inspired to play by his jazz musician dad, but also remembers a visit like this to his school, Stonelaw High in Rutherglen. "I started playing trumpet just before first year and I remember somebody coming into our school to do a concert - I think it was students from Douglas Academy - and it was very inspiring," says Ryan.

If ever teachers doubted the importance of sessions like today, then the experience of these young professionals speaks for itself. Brass Jaw founder member Allon Beauvoisin has a similar story. "My introduction to jazz was at Harestanes Primary in Kirkintilloch, where my headmaster Jim Cameron came in and did almost exactly what we are doing now.

"He brought in his saxophone, said here's `Baa Baa Black Sheep' played classically and here's how it's played like jazz. And from then on that was what I wanted to do."

- Ryan Quigley's Big Band and Del Amitri singer-songwriter Justin Currie play Aberdeen's Lemon Tree Lounge on Friday, March 26.

`A loss to the scene'

Brass Jaw (pictured) has joined the campaign to save a popular music degree course that is under threat of closure.

The BA in applied music at Strathclyde University has produced some of the country's finest musicians working across a range of genres - including the band's saxophonists Paul Towndrow and Konrad Wiszniewski.

Paul Towndrow says: "It has really accounted for a huge amount of talent in Scotland and it's talent that, if Strathclyde's course goes, will be shipped out to England or abroad and it will be a real loss to the scene.

"It's the only place where you have a choice of studying jazz, pop, folk, classical and also cater for a lot of other really useful skill bases that are required for the music industry."

Last year, leading saxophonist Tommy Smith led the country's first conservatoire-level jazz course, which was launched at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

"Ryan teaches on that course and Konrad is studying at postgraduate level on it as well," says Paul. "More places are needed. Its intake is maybe six students a year and that's not enough to sustain a music industry."

Strathclyde University said all students on the course would be able to complete their degree, but it is being phased out to allow "further growth of areas of strength within the faculty, building on links between research and teaching."

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