Striving to jazz up orchestra

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Clashes over teaching methods have sparked an ideological crisis within Scotland's National Youth Jazz Orchestra, says Kenny Mathieson

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland has never really achieved the same standard as its classical stable mate, the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

NYJoS was launched in 1996, with Richard Michael, Scotland's best known jazz educator, as the director. He has remained involved with the orchestra, but was succeeded as course director in 1999 by Eddie Severn and in 2001 by Simon Purcell, a jazz pianist and educator from London.

Purcell introduced a fresh approach to teaching and performing within NYJoS, emphasising individual creativity and improvisation rather than the traditional virtues of disciplined ensemble playing. The results were uneven, but at their best brought a new and revelatory sense of adventure to the routine procedures characteristic of youth big bands.

However, Richard Chester, director of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, was not convinced. He recognised the centrality of improvisation to jazz but felt that the more creativity-centred approach advocated by Purcell and some of his tutors, including Tom and Phil Bancroft, neglected the basic virtues of ensemble discipline. Tom Bancroft argued that the jazz tutors were being forced to work with an inappropriate model, designed to produce young classical musicians, and he criticised the lack of understanding of the requirements of jazz.

Chester decided to return to more tested ground and Eddie Severn was appointed course director for 2003 on the understanding that he would be allowed to invite all of the "rebel" tutors back. All declined and so Severn put together his own team.

"I had no vested interest in the fight that was going on," he says. "I have been a tutor on every NYJoS course, I worked with Richard Michael in the first years of the band, I had been course director myself and I had worked with Simon and Tom, so I could see it from both sides.

"To me the important thing was that we delivered a jazz course to all those kids who had signed up for it. Most of them aren't going to go on to be musicians and it's important that it be a life-enhancing experience for them."

Last year's summer course was separated for the first time from the preparation of the orchestra itself. Severn and his tutors worked in small groups with the larger number of students attending the course and then concentrated separately on the orchestra.

"In the course we worked mainly on improvisation," he explains, "and with the orchestra the aim was really to get them playing as well as possible as a big band. Creativity has to be encouraged but they must have the grounding of experiencing what it is to play in a good, well-disciplined band."

The 2003 intake performed their final concert in Glasgow last month and the return to a more conventional approach brought mixed results. Instead of playing a range of new music commissioned from Scottish jazz musicians, the orchestra reverted to conventional arrangements of standard pieces augmented by more contemporary tunes (Scott Stroman and Pat Metheny). The standard of ensemble playing was acceptable rather than impressive and the soloing was mostly competent,but without any real sparkle or sense of adventure.

Students for 2004 have already been auditioned by Michael. The summer course at Strathallan School in July will again be directed by Severn, with Michael preparing the orchestra for their summer concerts.

The question of whether NYOS, steeped as it is in a classical ethos, is the appropriate organisation to run a jazz orchestra remains open to debate.

Chester maintains that their experience in working with youngsters has shown them what works and what does not and he places the achievement and maintenance of standards of excellence as their top priority.

Severn acknowledges that NYJoS has not yet achieved the standard of the classical orchestra but argues that the jazz musicians suffer from comparisons with the classical players. The skills needed to be a good improviser are more demanding for 12-to 21-year-olds.

Nonetheless, NYJoS has already produced a number of players who are making their mark as professional jazz musicians, including trumpeter Philip Caldwell, pianists James Cairney and Malcolm Edmonstone, bassist Aidan O'Donnell and drummer John Blease.

It is difficult to predict if any of the current crop will follow in their footsteps. Pianist Euan Fulton, trumpeter Helen Downie and saxophonists Rachel Cohen and Claire Paterson all showed promise and the band also introduced a singer for the first time, 14-year-old Daisy Chute, who did enough to suggest she will make her mark in years to come.

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