National Youth Jazz Orchestra: ‘Music is such a vital part of understanding what it means to be a good human being’

As a breeding ground for musical talent, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra has a long, proud history.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra

Founded in 1965, it has recorded more than 50 albums while its alumni include Guy Barker MBE, trumpeter Laura Jurd of Mercury Prize nominees Dinosaur, and the multi-million selling singer Amy Winehouse.

Today the 24-piece orchestra performs around 35 gigs a year, the latest of which will be at Leeds Town Hall at the end of this month.

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“It started off as the London Schools Jazz Orchestra,” says artistic director Mark Armstrong. “It was started by a guy called Bill Ashton, he was a French teacher and when he was at university he was involved in running bands and could see that there was little or no opportunity for young players who weren’t interested in being classical musicians but wanted to have a career either in jazz or in music related to jazz – even more so back then but still is now, it was the pop music of the time. There were tremendous opportunities in the 60s for musicians who played brass instruments like trumpets and saxophones and trombones to do a great deal of work backing famous pop singers and doing film music.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Picture: Carl Hyde

“To a certain extent that’s still the case now but back in the 60s it was a massive industry and one of the frustrations for a lot of young players if they went to a music college was that they didn’t get the training that they felt they needed to be able to play effectively in that way because at music college you were trained to be a classical musician to play in a symphony orchestra and that’s such a different discipline on a trumpet and a trombone compared to the way you play in a big band. And the way you play in a big band is the way you need to learn if you want to play pop music, it’s a similar way of doing it.

“Not only from a commercial music perspective, but also from the perspective of jazz being looked down upon as another unnoticed side of music, it was part of that renaissance of interest in jazz in London but also around the country with American artists coming over from New York for the first time and Ronnie Scott’s [club] opening a couple of years before, so there was this burgeoning interest in modern jazz and American-sounding music and I guess NYJO was born into that world.

“It’s always been a way of helping people find a career in commercial music and also supporting people who want to become jazz artists too. It’s always straddled two worlds.”

The orchestra works with musicians aged between 18 and 25. “One of the reasons it’s up to the age is because it takes a few more years of maturity to be able to hold your own as an improvising soloist, compared to playing notated music as you would do in a symphony orchestra,” says Armstrong, himself a trumpet-playing NYJO graduate and composer.

Dave Arch, leader of the Strictly Come Dancing band, came through NYJO’s ranks, as did “almost all” of the TV show’s players. Talent, says Armstrong, is drawn “not just from music colleges, we audition nationally, we’ve just done that for the latest band”.

“We audition in London and somewhere further north. What we’ve done over the last few years is we’ve moved between Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, and we also go to Cardiff. We make sure there’s somewhere geographically possible for most people to get to, to come and audition. I suppose the majority of them are at music college but it’s really great when you meet people who are not necessarily studying and practising music in the same way. There are some people who are studying music at university and there are others who are not studying music at all. Equally there will be people in the band who won’t go on and be professional musicians, it’s not a re-requisite that you do that, it’s just a possibility. We like to help people who are going to have music as a hobby, albeit they’re at the same very high standard as the ones who want to go on and do it professionally, and I think that’s a way of building an audience for the music as well as building the next generation of talent in the business.”

One of the joys for Armstrong is watching how young musicians develop as players. “It’s great to see them perform with such passion and intensity. Also it’s great seeing how well they get on so well together. One of the things about being a musician is a thing that we like to call ‘the art of the hang’, which means who you actually get on with each other when you’re sitting on a bus for four or five hours or in between the rehearsal and the gig and the pub, all of those things are important, it’s part of the lifestyle. So people are learning all those social skills as well.

“Music is such a vital part of understanding what it means to be a good human being, I think, and you can see that happening, not just in the way that people have give and take as performers, but also in the way they learn to tolerate and hopefully enjoy each other’s company over extended periods of time, often in pretty tough conditions.”

Alongside regular gigs, the NYJO’s education programme is “becoming an increasingly important part of what we do”, Armstrong says.

“We do an academy in London on a Saturday morning, a bunch of junior bands that rehearse and a vocal ensemble, but we’ve also got regional academies now which I guess you could describe them as franchises, to a certain extent. They’re run by local musicians but supported by musicians that we send to work with them. I do that a little bit of that too. So we’ve got this network of people that we do stuff with all over the place. For example, we’ve been working in Darlington for a few years now and Wiltshire, we’re starting one in Hull and there’s talk of doing various other ones around the country.”

Armstrong is looking forward to bringing NYJO to Leeds Town Hall. “I did a concert there myself with the Irving Berlin Band, it was amazing,” he recalls. “It’s such a brilliant building and I’m really excited they’re going to experience that. I love the history of that building, I love the connection to really high quality amateur and professional music-making, I’m particularly thinking the Christmas Messiah and the Huddersfield Choral Society, brass band, all that kind of thing. It’s great to be part of that tradition and I think they’re going to really enjoy playing in the room. We’d love people to be there to hear them enjoy playing.

“We’re going to do a mixture of famous instrumental jazz tunes written by the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and some songs made famous by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. There will be some Louis Armstrong in the mix. So it’s a mixture of well-known and enjoyable classics which I think is hopefully going to appeal to bona fide jazz fans and also people who are just interested in the arts and want to have a good night out being entertained by a really kick-ass big band.”

NYJO play at Leeds Town Hall on January 31 and The Laproom Theatre, Barnsley on February 1.