FEATURE: Celebrating 25 years of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Awards

Peter Whittingham, in whose memory the Jazz Awards were set up.

This week sees a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Awards.Tim Foxon  of Help Musicians UK explains the background:

Every year, Help Musicians UK (formerly the Musicians Benevolent Fund) convenes a panel of eminent musicians to audition some of the best rising jazz talent on the scene. It’s part of our wider programme of support for emerging artists, but there’s something particularly special about this award. It’s not just the incredible roll-call of artists who’ve received it, or the emphasis on supporting creative development rather than just rewarding great talent, but also that one family’s gift can have such a lasting impact.

Peter Whittingham was a distinguished scientist – an expert in survival medicine. Also a keen amateur pianist, he loved the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Peterson. Following his death in 1987, his family decided to set up a charitable trust in his memory to provide an annual music award aimed at encouraging both composition and performance of quality popular music. They asked what was then the MBF (now Help Musicians UK) to run the awards – which began in 1990.

In the early years, the Peter Whittingham Award was broad in its remit: musicians at any stage of their career could apply and, whilst there was a strong jazz emphasis, it also encompassed popular songwriting. Early recipients included Errollyn Wallen, Scott Stroman, Mark Lockheart and Dave O’Higgins.

Over time, the award cemented its jazz specialism and honed its focus to nurture talented young artists on the cusp of a professional career. By offering financial support tied to a specific creative project, the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award has built a reputation for investing in talent at a crucial time. The likes of Empirical, Led Bib, World Service Project, Roller Trio and Phil Meadows have used the award to kick-start ambitious projects, and subsequently reaped wide acclaim. In recent years it has been fantastic to see the success of WSP’s Match & Fuse and Phil Meadows’ Engines Orchestra – two projects that got under way with ‘seed funding’ from the Whittingham Award and that have gone on to grow and sustain themselves, with the benefit of that initial investment reaching far beyond the recipients themselves.

The Whittingham family’s much-valued involvement in the award continues. Peter Whittingham’s son Chris chaired the selection panel until his untimely death in 2012, and now Chris’s brother-in-law Clive Shelton oversees the proceedings. Of course, we couldn’t do it without the brilliant established artists who give their time and energy to adjudicate – and who offer expert advice and real-time feedback to the auditionees.

This week we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the award with a special event at Kings Place – we’ve invited the jazz community to join us in thanking the Whittingham family for their gift to music. We hope others will be encouraged to join their lead and help us build an even brighter future for jazz in the UK.


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