Report: The BBC Young Musician Jazz Award Final

Contestants in the BBC Young Musician final at the jam sesson with
Gwilym Simcock (left) and Soweto Kinch (second from right)
One of Carlos Lopez-Real’s students, Sean Payne, was in the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2014 Final. Since Carlos was attending the event in order to support him, we asked Carlos to write, and also agreed with him that he would not comment in detail either on the performances or the end result. In this report, therefore, Carlos focuses on the competition in general, and places it in the wider music education context. He writes:

This is the first year that the long-running BBC Young Musician competition has had a ‘Jazz Award’. Competition manager Kerry Clark has said that they were ‘determined throughout to treat the jazz as seriously as we do the classical side, but that it should have its own identity.’ The competition was clearly very well thought through, with great people consulted and involved at all stages.

Paula Gardiner (Head of Jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama) and Dave Stapleton (Edition Records) judged the first round of 10-minute DVD submissions, putting 23 people through to the live semi-final stage in Cardiff. There, Simon Purcell (Head of Jazz at Trinity), Iain Ballamy and Steve Watts listened to them play a 14-minute set with a professional house band, putting the top 5 through to the final. All players were marked on four equally weighted categories: Technique; Improvisation; Interpretation and stylistic awareness; Performance.

The 5 finalists, in order of their appearance at the final concert, were:

Sean Payne – Saxophone (13 years old)
Freddie Jensen – Double bass (14 years old)
Alexander Bone – Saxophone (17 years old)
Jake Labazzi – Trumpet (16 years old)
Tom Smith – Saxophone (18 years old)

To quote Kerry Clark again: ‘The classical finalists are always most excited about the chance to work with a top orchestra and conductor, and we wanted to come up with an equivalent experience for the jazz competitors’. So they invited the Gwilym Simcock trio (including James Maddren and Yuri Goloubev) to be the ‘house band’, with each finalist playing a set of up to 18 minutes for the final. The experience was so much richer than the term ‘house band’ might imply however. Each finalist had two decent rehearsals with the trio, on the two days preceding the final, as well as another full run through on the day, prior to the evening gig. Throughout, Gwilym and the band coached and mentored the finalists. Watching them all on stage together was pure joy, with Gwilym in particular exuding a wonderful warmth and generosity both in his playing and with his verbal and visual communication.

Soweto Kinch was asked to host the evening, lending more kudos and credibility to the event. He filmed interviews with all the finalists in the preceding days, was always relaxed and friendly, helping put them at ease. As well as MC’ing the concert, he joined together with all the finalists in a group blues jam at the end of the night, while the judges were off discussing the performances. The 5 finalists all played stunningly, each with maturity seemingly beyond their years. One wonderful aspect of the event was how supportive they all were to each other. In the preceding days they were jamming together in the hotel rooms, and on the day there was a real sense of camaraderie among them, even though they were competing against each other. All the competition organisers were clearly quite struck by this, and it certainly reflects well on the jazz community generally.

To judge the final, the following panel had been put together: Django Bates, Julian Joseph, Jason Yarde and Trish Clowes. They clearly had a hard time making a decision, with the live audience left waiting 30 minutes longer than expected. Speaking on behalf of the panel, Julian Joseph said that at various points in their discussions each player had come out on top, but they eventually settled on saxophonist Alexander Bone as the winner.

The final TV programme will be broadcast on BBC4 at the end of May (the provisional date is May 23, although this could change). It will be 90 minutes long and consist of edited performances from the final concert, the semi-finals and rehearsals, plus much background footage including various interviews and the finalists playing in their school and home settings. Perhaps in an ideal world, the final concert would have been broadcast in full, but that would have taken the programme to a full two hours, even before you add in the background footage and interviews. There is clearly a strong commitment from Kerry Clark, and the rest of the BBC team involved, to raise public awareness of jazz, and in such a way as to not diminish its depth and history. With this in mind, giving airtime to the processes which lead up to the very polished final performances makes perfect sense; interviews, rehearsal footage, extracts of lessons, and so on, could all contribute to a greater public awareness of what learning and playing jazz is all about. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see how the 90 minute programme is edited together, how much of the final performances are shown, the proportion of playing music vs. background reportage etc.

Many people will be astounded by the level of musicianship at this very young age but, as Simon Purcell points out, in the classical world it’s not at all uncommon for children to have gone beyond grade 8 level by the time they’re 11 or 12. If the educational infrastructure is in place, then there’s no reason why this can’t happen. In jazz, this infrastructure is starting to be in place, hence the wonderful young jazz musicians taking part in this competition. Of course there are huge issues around access to this infrastructure, and expanding it, and it will be interesting to see how things pan out in the next few years, both in terms of the new Music Hubs and the Arts Council’s stated increased commitment to supporting jazz.

Next time around, the marketing will aim to be much more far-reaching, hopefully addressing both the fact that there were relatively few overall applications (‘over 50’ doesn’t seem like very many for a national competition of this stature) and very few from girls. They are also considering opening it up to singers, who were precluded from entering this time round.

Although there will always be detractors of competitions like this, the possibility that it will raise the profile of jazz significantly, and in a positive way, can’t be underestimated. There is real commitment at the BBC to making this a regular event, and to building on what has been a great first competition.

Categories: miscellaneous

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