Interview Mike Skipper
National youth jazz orchestra
Can you take me through the development of the Standard Bank Youth Orchestra?
It started in 1991 when I was doing what you are doing. I was being a journalist for Grockots and I was asked to cover all the jazz and I got to hear Darius Brubeck playing at the Old Grand Hotel and I reviewed his show and then I decided to interview him afterwards and I asked him a question. I said 'What is the state of tertiary jazz education in this country,' knowing full well that Natal University and UCT were the only two places that you could do any kind of jazz study. He said there were two main factors. One, an abundance of talent and two, an abominable lack pf background. The kids are coming out of school but not knowing enough. That set me thinking on how we could improve upon that specific issue.
I started in 1992 the annual shools jazz festival. It was only for school kids. It soon changed its title to National Schools Jazz festival. I tried before the first one to get a sponsor and I wrote hundreds of letters to all sorts of people and got back a lot of answers that said that sounds like a wonderful programme but we can't give you anything. The schools I worked for St Andrews and DSG in Grahamstown said 'Okay we wil take a risk on you,' and they did and it worked out, it really took off. Then it became the National Schools Jazz festival, then it became the National Youth Jazz Festival. And then it became the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival. A very nice man by the name of Mike Holgate from Standard Bank, heard about our programme through the Grahamstown foundation and he was already involved with Henry Shield's programme. He decided to get his feet wet and put some money behind it which has been fantastic.
Essentially the concept is you have school kids from any age basically, but usually we are talking about 13 as the youngest, through to about 26 which is our age limit, coming from all over the country. And I employ professional jazz men, usually ones with educational experience like Mike Campbell from UCT, Neil Gonsalves from Natal Tech, Mageshan Naidoo from Natal University, Jeff Robinson from Natal University, Brian Thusi who runs his own Siyakula community centre, John Davies a trombonist from Pretoria Tech and Kevin Davidson from Pretoria Tech. There is my collegue from St Andrews College, Rick Van Heerden and then it is always nice to have a working pro on the panel as well and that is Vusi Khumalo this year as a drum lecturer. Those are the guys for this year, just to give you an example. But we have had Darius Brubeck, Lulu Gontsana, Mark Duby and all the serious jazz musicians who are both players and performers of national and international fame, plus educators. They teach these kids from all over the country. We started off by spending three days together and now we spend a week together. It started off with 40 particpants and this year I have got 145. We audition everybody now. The first day they are here they go through the audition procedure and then we select a whole lot of bands but the first main one being the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band, and it has an age limit of 26. Basically you are talking about all the best jazz players in the country 26 and under.
Are you reaching everyone in the country?
Well, we are trying our damndest. We are running it like SANYO (South African National Youth Orchestra). You can't be in the orchestra unless you go to their course and it is the same thing here. I think of last years National Youth Jazz Band playing up at the State Theatre in Pretoria as part of a show called 'Joy of Jazz' which Standard Bank also sponsored. That brought us a lot of attention. We were on the same bill as Hugh Masekela and that was very groovy. I think people are getting to know about it.
The other main band is the National Schools Jazz Band which goes to the age of 18 so that the scholars are not competing necessarily with the universities but if there is a school kid who is good enough to make it into the Youth Band they can get there. The rest of the particpants are put into 5 other bands. They work together. It is not just working together in the Big Band format, they get some small band opportunities. They get improv. clinics, they get instrumental clinics and then we also put on gigs because the whole thing about music is that it is a language. You got to speak to people. So if you don'thave the gig thing it is not happening.
Is the Grahamstown festival a centre for showcasing this talent?
What we are looking at is creating opportunities after festival time. This year for instance the National Youth Jazz Band will definietly go to Pretoria and play in the State Opera Theatre again.
There is an assocciation called the IAJE. We had a South African chapter of it called SAJE (South Africa Assocciation of Jazz Educators.) Now the international body has an international conference every January somewhere in the States, they showcase bands from all over the world so we really need to send a South African Youth band there.
From where do all the musicians come?
The list of institutions involved will probable give you an idea. There is the Siyakula community project from Natal, Umlazi. Pretoria Technikon, Victoria Park High School in PE, Pretoria Boys High, the Mabana cultural centre in Mabatho. There is cultural Mabana from Taung. There is Queens College, Funda community college from Soweto. Red Hill, Rhodes University, St Andrews College. Natal University, Stellenbosch University, Heithfield School in Cape Town. Zaiheti which is a school in Joburg I think. UCT, Stirling High School in East London, very big on jazz that school. A guy called Allan Webster runs an emmense programme there. More than half of the National Schools Band are his kids. They have an awesome programme. And then of course there are the odd individuals as well.
Where have you seen the musicians go, the people who have graduated from the band?
It is interesting to note, the UCT Big Band which has come down on mass this year with Professor Mike Campbell, a whole lot of those kids I didn't know when they got here but I would recognise them. I had seen them in previous years because this is the seventh year that I am doing this thing. I have seen them come from various schools. And that is happening all the time. We see the kids who come here as school kids, getting so fired up from what they are taught and what they learn from these wonderful jazz musicians, they decide to go and pursue it on a tertiary level. And I hope to see youngsters who come to this programme go on much much further and create national and international careers and certainly based on the talent that we have seen, there is an awesome amount of talent.
Who are the outstanding musicians in the band?
The first alto player Kamban Villingfon is from Natal and studying with Jeff Robinson at Natal University. A stunning player and he is totally at home on all the saxes as well. We heard him last night on soprano sax and he blew us away. Simon Bates also from Natal university. Natal seems to have supplied all the saxes. They've got Bernard Ayiso as well. Bernard has come a long way. It has been a great start. On trumpet, first trumpet Skumbuzo Khumalo. Skumbuzo Khumalo is essentially an orphan that sees Brian Thusi almost as a father. He is from a very disadvantaged background. Skumbuzo is a total success story for Siyakula in Umlazi. He has discovered the trumpet and he has discovered jazz and he has discovered Brian Thusi and he is building his life around that. Now he finds himself holding down the first trumpet chair in the National Youth Band against some very tough competition. There are guys like Richard Pool from Rhodes University. Richard plays trumpet with one arm. Talk about overcoming difficulties, this guy has got chops that you won't believe. He plays top D's and E's and he can play them forever. He has got chops like leather. He is so into his jazz. Kesevan Naidoo from East London is a great drummer and he was turned onto jazz by Allan Webster.
Why is the Big Band a good format for education?
There are a whole lot of reasons for that. From a musicians point of view you get a whole lot more people in one group playing together. To make smaller bands you need so many more bands and so much more space. Why big bands work is because there is this whole communal thing. I always say there is only one thing more intimate than making music with someone and that is sex. It is a really great experience. There is so much more than just the music. There is the whole interpersonal relationships going on. The big band is also an extremely powerful musical tool. The big bands from Glen Miller's day, that sound everybody knows like 'In the Mood,' is a very powerful, 'orchestral,' jazz sound. It is extremely powerful with high screaming trumpets, roaring saxophones, booming trombones and a driving rhythm section behind it. It is an incredibly exciting format that I still think there is a market for out there. The great big bands of the 40's and 50's have managed to continue. There has always been an audience out there for them. There seems to be a worldwide resurgence in interest from big band. Apparently the Glen Miller association in America has an average age of 18. There is actually one apparently in PE. I think it is useful for one more reason as well. You get a lot of people who want to play jazz and they are good readers and good ensemble players and they are not into the improvised solo thing, which is a big part of jazz. You have a whole lot of musicians who want to play jazz but might not be ready to improvise. They might still be learning their chops. They get a chance to be part of the whole jazz experience. You see, one of the reasons why jazz is alive and still kicking is because it is such an inclusive art form. Jazz has never really been exclusive. People who don't understand jazz tend to think we are exclusive and snobbish. We are not at all. There is jazz rap now. Jazz says, 'Hey that is new, that is interesting, let's see if we can pull it in and use it.' Jazz excludes nothing. It includes everything. I think jazz revolves around people and speaking musically to each other as musicians and to an audience.
I regard it as the musical language for the New South Africa. It is a music that cuts out all barriers, age, colour, gender... You will be amazed at how many girls you see. In the Rhodes jazz band the first alto players are both girls. My rhythm section pianist is a girl. The trombone player, first trumpeter is a girl. It is almost 50/50. There is a far better mix of black and white musicians than there has ever been before and that is because very important sponsorship is being given, not only by Standard Bank but also by SAMRO who give us money to bring kids from disadvantaged areas because very often that is what is stopping them. They are not short of talent, experience or anything like that. It is the funds that matter. The guys are putting the money where it matters.
Is funding growing?
Last year Standard Bank were very generous and gave us R35 000. After Mike Holgate spent one day here with us, he immediately promised to double that and gave us R100 000 for this year. That is probably not a lot of money but when you are talking about a programme that started with no sponsorship and ran with no sponsorship for 5 years that is an immense amount of money. To quote the outgoing president of SAJE from last year, Darius Brubeck, he pointed out that big business seemed to be hooking onto jazz and are waking up to the fact that jazz is a very useful marketing image. That seems right, the whole Old Mutual programme came about this year and was never before and Standard Bank has an enormous jazz programme that stretches across the whole year.
Do you think the government is getting involved?
They are being ominously quiet. It worries me a little bit. Maybe it is a priority order for them. For a guy like me there is nothing more important than the musical entertainment of South Africa's young people. I look forward to the day when the government will put money into programmes like this.
How innovative are the big bands?
Robert Bewning from SAMRO suggessted to me that we should ask them to commission big band arrangements of South African charts. South African jazz is rich as you well know. There is an immense amount of music. It doesn't often exist in written down format first of all and secondly not often in big band arrangements. We got Darryl Andrews who is a jazz lecturer guitarist at UCT to arrange Baby Mswari and Louis Drummond Van Rensburg who is head of jazz at Pretoria Tech to arrange Skokiaan. There are bebop arrangements for big band, there are fusion arrangements, Around Midnight, So What, Spain even one or two South African arrangements such as Pennywhistle from Mango Groove. Almost anything and everything. When you advertise yourself as a big band you must play some of the Glen Miller stuff. I think a big band that only played that would struggle to find an audience younger than 50. Putting in bebop and fusion and funk, you know Herbie Hancock charts for Big Band are fantastic; they really like to hear that. We interacted earlier this year with a big band from Kalswar University in Germany. They did a South African tour. They did an arrangement of an 'Average White Band' number called 'Pick up the Pieces'. Their lecturer had done an amazing jazz arrangement of that tune. They then played some German originals which were crazy for us. I traded originals with him. He went home with a piece called Grahamstown Groove for bigband which I wrote. He gave me a thing called Summerdance which he had written. People are playing almost anything in big band format.