PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Concert Celebrating Ten Years of the Royal Academy of Music Junior Jazz Department (Kings Place Oct 4th)

Nick Smart (foreground) and members of the RAM JJD in 2004
Photo courtesy of Tommy Andrews

In anticipation of a concert celebrating the first ten years of the Royal Academy Junior Jazz Department, at Kings Place on October 4th, Sebastian interviewed the RAM’s Head of Jazz, Nick Smart.

LondonJazz News: Nick, you were involved with the RAM JJD right from the start, but where did the idea come from?

Nick Smart: I have to give full credit here to Gerard Presencer, head of jazz at the Academy at the time. It was the end of 2002, following the Academy auditions, when Gerard approached me to say it was becoming more and more apparent that the quality of education young players were receiving before the age of 18 was extremely mixed across the country. Outside of the well-established to conservatoire, Chethams/Purcell School etc, it was simply a case of luck as to whether a young musician happened to grow up in an area where there was a good jazz teacher. I was running a Saturday morning jazz course in Bedford in those days and Gerard, who knew me well anyway, felt that the students I had been teaching were suitably prepared and capable. So in 2003 Gerard invited me to establish the Junior Academy Jazz programme to provide a dedicated learning environment to help young players learn more about jazz and if they wanted to, get them up to the level where they could apply to continue studying at music college.

LJN: And you probably remember the first students through the door? 

NS: Indeed I do, it was not a very forgettable year for a start and weirdly, almost the whole band came from Norwich! This was the line-up of the first intake in September 2003:

Kit Downes – piano
Josh Blackmore – drums
Sam White – bass
Toby Seed and Luke Hellebronth – guitar
Freddie Gavita – trumpet
Tom Stone, Tommy Andrews and Nick Carter – saxophones

We were very fortunate that this first band had so many incredible players in it, I am sure it helped establish the reputation of the course so quickly as being THE place for young players wanting to go on to college. Since then the course has a virtually 100% record of getting students into one of the main jazz courses if that’s what they want to do. We had a lot of fun in that initial band, they were a great bunch and at the end of their first year in May 2004 we played our first proper gig at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (inevitably!) with Tim Garland as a special guest. I still have recordings, I’ll sell them one day! (see embarrassing pic of the band at that time, courtesy Tommy Andrews- above).

LJN: Some highlights /milestones along the way?

NS: Well since we set up it became obvious very quickly that we were going to need to set up a second band, and then a third band which Simon Colam taught (and still does), so by the end of that first year we were up to three bands which is where it has remained ever since. One of the most memorable things we did was to invite Kenny Wheeler to be the patron of the course, we played a concert with him at Pizza Express where the position was officially announced. He came in at least once a year and played and talked to students, very special memories.

L-R: Nick Smart, Gareth Lockrane, Mike Walker, Simon Colam

We played concerts at Ronnie Scott’s every summer with different special guests, we had one with Gerard, one with John Parricelli, with Soweto Kinch, one with Kenny Wheeler again plus Norma Winstone on that occasion. Since then (under Gareth Lockrane’s directorship) there have been concerts with Stan Sulzmann, Tim Garland and Mike Walker (photo above).

We would also hold these special kind of “band residency” days where we’d all be together for the whole Saturday with an ensemble, The first was with the Perfect Houseplants, then we had Stan’s NEON group, Bobby Wellins‘ quartet, and Gareth has run them with Iain Ballamy‘s ANORAK, Jason Rebello/Jean Toussaint Quartet and Pete King. It’s amazing when you list it all out like that, they’ve had some incredible experiences throughout the last 10 years. That’s not even including days with Joe Lovano and the “Daves” Liebman, Holland and Douglas!

LJN: Regrets? Too few to mention? 

NS: Well personally it was a great sadness for me to finally have to move on and leave the position, it was such a rewarding job and something I remain incredibly proud of. In 2010 when I was appointed head of jazz at the main Academy it was just too  much (not to mention probably inappropriate) to keep on both positions, so at Christmas that year we were delighted to appoint Gareth Lockrane the new director of Junior Jazz. He has been amazing in that role and continually inspires the young players with his passion for the music, and obviously his astonishing abilities on the instrument! It was always a shame we were not able to expand more but in the end the available space in the building would just not allow it, and on the plus side it has meant we have been able to keep the standard high and maintain a close-knit community.

LJN: As you said, Gareth Lockrane now runs it but do you still have an involvement ?

NS: Gareth and I talk frequently about the students and who is coming and going, what projects are planned and so on. I try to pop in as often as possible and make the concerts, the atmosphere is still every bit as exciting as I remember it. I also see a lot of the players through the National Youth Jazz Collective which I am very involved in, many of the guys do Junior Academy and the NYJC projects.

LJN: What are the plans for October 4th?

NS: Well the opportunity arose to do this concert and Gareth and I thought it would be great to celebrate 10 full years of the Junior Jazz course, since the first group “graduated” in summer 2004.

We wanted this to be a collaboration of various ex students from throughout the years, book-ended by a reunion of the original class of 2003, and the most recent graduates of June 2014. So Kit Downes et al from the original group are coming back together, a couple of them couldn’t make it but we have more than a sufficient pool of Jnr jazz deps on hand, bassist of the moment Tim Thornton will be stepping in and so will drummer Dave Hamblett.

We have a whole host of mixed ensembles taken from across the years featuring rhythm section players including James Opstad, Flo Moore, Ben Brown, Lizy Exell, Ralph Wyld and the musical phenomenon that is Jacob Collier! Alongside horn players including trumpet star Tom Walsh, Tom Barford, Jim Gold, Nubya Garcia and Rosie Turton.

LJN: What will you/they be playing?

Nick Smart: We’ll be playing a mixture of repertoire from across the years including some old Junior Jazz favourites from Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland, original pieces by Jacob Collier and Kit Downes, and some of the jazz classics we all hold dear.

It is going to be a truly memorable evening and no finer demonstration of what an exciting and vibrant time this is for the music and the generation of players currently taking on the mantle.


Categories: miscellaneous

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