Liam Gesoff recently joined the NYJO team as the new Development & Communications Coordinator. His time is split between fundraising and marketing tasks, meaning that – in one way or another – his job is to tell the NYJO story.
In July, we asked Liam to jump on the proverbial bus to see what NYJO is all about, from the immensely-talented professional musicians at the beginning of their careers, to the young people taking their first steps in discovering jazz and music-making, and everything in between. Below are his thoughts and observations of his NYJO July and the four projects he attended. We hope you enjoy it as much as we (and Liam) did!
08/07/23 – Tommy Blaize & NYJO Present: The Music of Ray Charles at St George’s Church, in Deal
Tonight, we played the penultimate date of our tour of the music of Ray Charles with the endlessly lovable singer Tommy Blaize, in the gorgeous little town of Deal. The atmosphere on the tour bus home is charged, not just with the flashing colourful strobes above our heads (prompting a chorus of “party bus” as we got on), but because the band knows they killed it tonight. This is music that, played by a band like this, can reach people somewhere deep inside – move their bodies, and their souls.
I’ll start with the soul. During the soundcheck, I came across an older man sat at the back, watching the band run through some of the tunes for the gig. He told me that he was attending a service that night after the show – “to catch up with whoever it is up there” – and had wandered in early out of curiosity. He looked up at me, put his hand on his heart, and said: “it just gets you, right here, doesn’t it”. Later, I glanced across the upper gallery just as Ucheena Cohen-Shah’s beautifully fragile flugelhorn introduction to ‘Georgia’ melted away into the band’s first chord. As Tommy opened his mouth to sing, I caught the same man’s eye; he put his hand over his heart again, and just smiled.
Onto the body. One of the volunteers in the church ran up to me during the second encore – ‘Shake Your Tailfeathers’, from Blues Brothers – with panic in her eyes. “The church isn’t built for this” she cried, “they’re going to come through the—” before she could finish, the upper gallery gave in, and a mass of jiving and potato-mashing bodies fell through to the stalls below, still shaking and twisting even as they crashed onto the vinyl church floor.
There may be some creative license here, but what is true is that music’s power to move your body is unparalleled, and this show was no exception: a volunteer was genuinely concerned about the ability of the floor to withstand the dancers it supported. “Dance”, in the words of Emma Warren on Woman’s Hour, “is a profoundly tender way to get to know each other. When we dance together, we like each other more”. Music, and the communal dance event, is one of the most powerful tools we have to tap into our sameness, be the dancefloor a nightclub, a village green, or St George’s Church in Deal.
And finally, the moments in-between. Jazz is a sonic phenomenon, yes, but it is also a cultural phenomenon (with everything that entails), and a profoundly social one too. The jazz that happened today was far more than just the hard-swinging and tailfeather-shaking big band music that threatened to collapse the Georgian church. It happened in the first meetings in the heaving rain outside the King’s Cross Premier Inn, the queue for a service station Favorite chicken, the negotiations over an emergency pit-stop on the bus home.
However inconsequential they seem, these experiences are part of what NYJO has to offer. Amidst all the talk of ‘like-minded individuals’, and your ‘professional contact book’, there is a reality of community-building that is as crucial to music-making as any solitary session spent shedding in a practice room. And organisations such as NYJO that bring young musicians together at these formative moments themselves influence how those communities manifest. It was a joy tonight not just to share a glimpse of the musical divine with an anonymous churchgoer, or to dance to Ray Charles with a roomful of strangers, but to witness a jazz community in its formation.
09/07/23 – NYJO Under 18s at the Regent’s Park Bandstand
I spent this afternoon in the dappled sun of the Regent’s Park Bandstand for an outing of our Under 18s Saturday groups at the park’s annual Music Festival. This seems to have been an almost universally enjoyable afternoon, not least for me. In my time with NYJO so far, I’ve twice heard the Under 18s rehearse in their weekly programme at our home in Woolwich Works. Two sessions take place Saturdays; the first, run by celebrated drummer Winston Clifford, focuses on aural skills, communication, and other ‘soft’ aspects of musicianship. This is the sort of praxial music education that is, or should be, a universal: a mode of our everyday lives; a basic component of what it is to be human; and with huge tangible and intangible benefits across essentially every aspect of our development as children, young people, and adults.
The second session is run by NYJO alumna, composer and educator Olivia Murphy and builds on Winston’s foundation to focus on the specific skillsets needed by jazz musicians, be they fully professional, wholly amateur, or in the effervescent worlds between the two (of which all are equally valid). She works on repertoire, sight-reading, ensemble skills, and the more technical aspects of improvisation. I’ve seen these rehearsals take place and already have a deep appreciation for the way the two complement each other, helping develop extremely well-rounded young musicians and prepare them for a wide range of possible paths through music and life. There’s aren’t many comparable programmes that can boast the same breadth of development in and through music.
But today was my first time seeing them perform, and my appreciation for the programme now runs even deeper. The gig was a moment in which all the musicianship being developed on Saturdays, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’, coalesces into 2 hours of music, and this process brings something else out of you as a musician. That frame shift from private/practice to public/performance is a significant one, itself part of a truly comprehensive music education programme, and in this case revealed a level of poise, panache, and pazazz in the Under 18s than I had yet realised was there. Simply put, they played magnificently: from genuinely funky to genuinely swinging, with a range of creative and confident solos, and a degree of trust and communication on stage that you would expect from much more experienced ensembles.
And, crucially, they were having a fantastic time doing it. They were dancing on stage, beaming as they came off, and supporting each other through features and solos (which the whole band took). Such obvious joy brings an audience along with you, which is a large part of why the afternoon seemed to be so universally enjoyed. That’s what music does: it’s the most direct way we have to connect with other human bodies. So, if you see a group of Under 18 musicians being themselves, having fun, supporting each other: we feel those things too. We feel joy, we feel care for others, we feel inspired to drop the pretences and be our-real-selves. I had several really sincere conversations today, including with some of our NYJO Friends and Supporters whom I met for the first time. It’s no coincidence that the soundtrack to those was the NYJO Under 18s jamming over Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers’ 1981 smooth jazz classic ‘Just the Two of Us’: there was joy and realness in the air, and we all felt it.
In sum: the vibes were excellent, our Under 18s are brilliant, and I had a fantastic afternoon. To find out more about how to get involved in these programmes, check out our Learning London page or email [email protected], and click here for more information on how you can help support and enable these opportunities for young musicians.
16/07/23 – Olivia Cuttill’s Quintet at the Woolwich Works Café
This evening, I was at Woolwich Works for the last of our most recent series of small ensemble gigs, where we invite an Emerging Professional to present a project they’ve been working on for a Pay What You Can audience in the Woolwich Works café. Today, the trumpeter/composer/lyricist Olivia Cuttill came down from Leeds with her quintet, featuring Fergus Quill on bass, Issey Chivers on vocals, Miles Pillinger on drums, and Tom Harris on piano.
These series are meaningful to us at NYJO in working towards our mission as a changing organisation. They enable us to diversify our musical output with different sized and sounding ensembles, and shift our power as an organisation towards the hands of the musicians that we engage. The gigs are testament to the agility afforded by our ‘pool’ model, rather than the former ‘chair’ one, since not every musician is interested in this kind of project: we can reach musicians on their own terms, with the sorts of music-making opportunities that interest them.
The way we reach Emerging Professionals can now have less of a core/periphery dynamic with a chosen few at the centre of our work, to a set of concentric rings where musicians themselves choose what and how much they want to get out of us. There remains a core of highly engaged individuals, but they are now accompanied by a fluid set of musicians ‘on the books’ up-and-down the country. Tonight, 3 of the musicians on stage had worked with us before to varying extents, but 2 we reached for the first time. They represent NYJO’s role as a platform for emerging jazz talent wherever it is, an enabler and facilitator bringing young musicians from around the country together under the NYJO umbrella.
That’s certainly how it felt tonight. Olivia, and the gig, were a case-in-point of reaching musicians on their own terms. We had initially only asked for a quartet, but Olivia emphasised the importance of Issey’s vocals to the music that she wanted to play, and we were able to make the necessary adjustments. She seemed really excited by the opportunity, both on her social media channels in the runup to the event and from the stage on the night. She brought down lots of friends and family and the band itself all travelled down from Leeds, where Olivia is studying. She told me that she plans to move to London next year once she feels that she has the tangible opportunities, connections, and networks she needs. Hence, tonight has been materially beneficial to her musical prospects, and the excitement of it was palpable.
The show itself was a delight to watch. The band played restrained, bluesy music – utterly swinging but very understated, especially in Miles’ drumming. The set contained a range of fun but serious compositions by Olivia, each with enigmatic backstories and lyrics for Issey’s vocals – which it became immediately obvious were indeed essential to the set. They brought that characteristic touch of jazz humour, like a tune about a priest that came to a jam in Brentwood and just shredded on the sax (‘Priest from the East’), or about Olivia’s dad’s grand but whimsical schemes for musical stardom “to make him rich and her famous” (‘Your Old Man’s Plan’). It’s been a night of wonderfully mature music-making that warmly invites you in with poetry, swing, and a wry grin.
Find out more about booking a dynamic and varied NYJO ensemble for your venue here, and read about the Friends of NYJO: opportunities such as these would not happen without the generosity of individuals just like you.
20/07/23 – NYJO Learning in Hull: Meeting Points
I spent today at The Ropewalk, a glorious arts centre in Barton, across the Humber from Hull, for a workshop and gig by the Fergus Quill Trio that launched a new project from our Learning team called Meeting Points. This was my first experience of a Widening Access project: the work we do together with partners across the country to address structural barriers to music education. Since they start from local education providers’ identification of their own unique barriers and contexts, this is the most varied and bespoke part of our work at NYJO. Today, it took the form of a 2-hour workshop led by bassist Fergus Quill (the same as in Olivia’s band in Woolwich), pianist Nico Widdowson and drummer Theo Goss, followed by a concert by the exciting young trio who had made the trip over from Leeds.
The impetus for the project came from Hull Music Service, who wanted to create a sense of a young person-led scene for the musicians coming through services to feel excited by, and ownership over. Today was the first in what will become a series of workshops and gigs taking place in small venues across the region, with roles being increasingly created for young people to lead aspects of the programme and soon start inhabiting venues themselves. This is grassroots, youth-focused music provision, a world away from a traditional pedagogy that says, “this is what learning music looks like, take it or leave it”.
The workshop, based around one of Fergus’ own compositions ‘Sun Dream’, rapidly spiralled from the conventional learning of the tune by ear into highly eccentric free improvisation work. It was here that I found the workshop especially exciting, and the young people initially found especially bemusing, as Fergus insisted they make the ‘spookiest noises they can’ on their instruments. Remember, these are young people largely near the start of their musical journeys, many of whom had never experienced jazz before: Fergus is not teaching advanced techniques for highly experienced musicians, but laying the foundations for what music-making is and can feel like for these young people.
A healthy disrespect for your instrument is one of the most important early lessons in a holistic music education. Discovering that an instrument is fundamentally just a tool for producing sound feeds an understanding of what learning to play one really consists of: not a rarefied set of techniques that limit your range of available sounds, but a process of setting free and giving voice to the creative expression being developed in all aspects of our lives. They also come to symbolise things far grander than they really are, often containing histories of power and domination; recognising them as just tools can profoundly destabilise some of our illusory truths about the world around us. And, it turns out, that can look like the moment in which an initially shy flautist suddenly flips her flute and blows, hard, through the bottom. From the way Fergus’ eyes widened as she did this, I know this is precisely what he was trying to achieve.
The trio played ‘Sun Dream’ again at the end of their set, and as Fergus dragged his bow across the bass’ tuning pegs, I turned to look around the young musicians in the room. Several had never seen live jazz before, but for everyone at the workshop it was clear that on stage were just three people being themselves through music. Suddenly, this weird, abstract music started to make sense: Fergus and his trio just are kind of weird and abstract (sorry, Fergus); there are no hard-and-fast rules about how you should play your instrument; and it could easily be you up on that stage.