INTERVIEW: Amanda Tiffin (appointed as first Female Conductor for National Youth Jazz Band in South Africa)

Amanda Tiffin
Photo credit: Colette Yslie Benjamin

The Standard Bank Jazz Festival (SBJF) is one of South Africa’s leading jazz festivals whose line-up boasts a bevy of international and national musicians such as the Aaron Goldberg Trio, Tineke Postma and Maria Schneider.

The SBJF runs a Youth Jazz Festival concurrent with its main programme. This event invites more than 300 of the country’s top young musicians between the ages of 13 and 26 participate in training and development programmes with visiting artists. The crème de la crème of these are selected to perform in the National Youth Jazz Band and, for the first time since the NYJB started in 2001, the festival has appointed a female conductor, AMANDA TIFFIN, as Director.

Born in Zimbabwe, Tiffin studied jazz composition and performance at the University of Cape Town where she received a master’s degree. She is an in-demand performer, recording artist, bandleader, arranger, and is head of the Jazz Voice Department at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music. Nicky Schrire interviewed her immediately after the festival and the 2018 NYJB’s first performance at the 2018 Standard Bank Jazz Festival:

London Jazz News: Firstly, congratulations on this prestigious appointment! What does it mean to you to be both appointed as the conductor of the 2018 National Youth Jazz Band (NYJB), and to be the first woman holding this position at the Festival?

Amanda Tiffin: Thank you very much. It has been a great honour to be invited to direct the 2018 National Youth Jazz Band, and an affirming vote of confidence by the festival organizers in my abilities as a bandleader and an educator. There has been quite some heralding of the fact that I am the first woman to hold this position, so it has come with a little pressure, a feeling of leading a charge to some extent, but I am glad to have been asked to do so.

LJN: Given the current climate of #metoo and collectives like We Have Voice drawing up seminal codes of conduct for safer workplaces, does the timing of this honour make it even more pertinent?

AT: Naturally, I would hope that I have been asked to lead the project based on my skills, and not just to fulfil a gender equality mandate, given the telescoping of media attention on gender imbalances in the arts in general and in jazz in particular. However that would be a little naïve. It was mentioned to me that my name had come up a few times in previous years, so one does wonder a little at the timing of this, and begs the question why the delay?! Regardless, it is an important step in the right direction, and I am indeed honoured to be taking on the role.

LJN: As well as being a performing and recording musician, you are also an accomplished arranger and bandleader. Do you think one needs a specific skill-set to navigate the industry as a woman inhabiting these various roles? The answer should be ‘no’, but in reality…

AT: I think a woman navigating any male-dominated industry needs a specific skill-set in order to make any kind of progress or to achieve any measure of success. The reality is that a woman working in the patriarchal constructs that dominate the jazz world needs to work more than twice as hard as a man. She needs something of a thick skin, absolute determination and drive; needs to continually prove her worth as a performer, and to reassert her authority as a bandleader. She constantly has to navigate mansplaining by (often much less experienced) band members, and being talked over in rehearsals or meetings. That said, I have found that a certain level of respect has now come with my increasing age – at least there is something to be said for getting older!

LJN: Since the #metoo movement came to the fore, have you noticed changes in your immediate music community?

AT: I have noticed a number of shifts in my jazz/music community. There have been many enlightening and frank conversations around gender discrimination in our industry and institutions. Some have yielded really positive initiatives such as the all-women Lady Day Big Band, which I have the pleasure of conducting.

Unfortunately I have also personally experienced some resistance and push back from a few threatened male musicians who haven’t quite figured out how to cope with women who no longer keep quiet in the face of discrimination and bullying. However, for the most part the conversations are creating good debates, the search for solutions, and I have seen women proudly take up their space as performers and take on more leadership roles, which is wonderful.

LJN: Lastly, can you tell us how your experience was coaching and leading the 2018 NYJB in their performance last week and what’s in store for their upcoming performance at the 2018 Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg?

AT: It was an inspirational and hugely gratifying few days working with eight of our best young jazz musicians – creative, passionate, hungry to learn, generous of spirit. It was something quite marvellous to see the delight on their faces after we collectively arranged and collaborated on a composition brought to the group by the trumpet player. By the end of the week there was a real affection and connection between all of them both musically and as people. I tried to facilitate a true collaboration between the band members, so that they played as a collective. No room for egos or agendas! It was important for me to guide and mentor, but just as important for me to get out of the way and create a platform where each of the young musicians could really feel confident and shine. I think they achieved something truly excellent at their performance in Grahamstown.

I expect that our performance at the Joy of Jazz Festival will be even more exciting than the first – the band have really established a wonderful connection, and I’m looking forward to hearing them digging even deeper and giving another amazing performance.

The NYJB will perform at the 2018 Joy of Jazz Festival alongside artists like Cassandra Wilson, Oliver Mtukudzi, Nicholas Payton, Bokani Dyer…  in Johannesburg from 27-29 September. More detail at the Joy of Jazz Festival website

LINK: Amanda Tiffin’s website

Categories: Features/Interviews

2 replies »

  1. Thank you very much for the interesting interview.
    I would be interested to know who the members of the National Youth Jazz Band are and what instruments do they play?


  2. We have that info courtesy of Nicky Schrire

    Brathew van Schalkwyk – piano
    Damian Kamineth – drums
    Sean Sanby – bass
    Ryan Truter – guitar
    Ofentse Moshwetsi – alto sax
    Moses Sebula – tenor sax
    Thabo Melusi Sikhakhane – trumpet
    Daniel van der Walt – voice

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