Debbie Forwood is the Development and Communications Manager for NYJO. She spoke to Matt Pannell about this ever-expanding hothouse for young jazz talent and the steps it is taking towards “Levelling the Playing Field”.
LondonJazz News: What is NYJO?
Debbie Forwood: We’re called the National Youth Jazz Orchestra but we’re definitely outgrowing that name, as we now work with young musicians at all stages of their development, all around the country and in ensembles of different sizes. At the “emerging professional” end we’ve got this world-class jazz orchestra that plays the Proms and Ronnie Scott’s, then smaller bands including the NYJO Jazz Messengers that does schools concerts. Our musicians have the opportunity to develop as educators, too. We also have the NYJO Academy for younger musicians, every Saturday in London. But the fastest growing area is our national education work. Last year we worked with 9,000 young people in 362 workshops. There’s quite a lot!
LJN: What do you do?
DF: I’m the Development and Communications Manager. It essentially means fundraising and marketing, but there’s a silent third part of my job – general management tasks, including boring but important things like GDPR compliance. I love it because it’s so varied.
LJN: How did you get into this, and how long have you been doing it?
DF: I trained as a classical saxophonist at the Guildhall, and since then have roamed around the music industry, just following my nose! I was a freelance musician and teacher for a while, but found myself getting pulled more and more into music admin. I worked for Serious for a couple of years on the London Jazz Festival, then for Help Musicians and then in music tourism where I organised opera holidays for Wagner fans (a particularly obsessive breed of music lover). After that I set up my own business called Jazz Travels, which took people to jazz festivals around the world. Then in early 2017 I was doing some freelance bookings work here at NYJO when the Development and Comms Manager left. I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I’m a generalist, and I pride myself on that.
LJN: Do you still play music?
DF:A little bit – not as much as I’d like. But it’s very freeing, not trying to do it as a profession any more. As soon as I gave up that idea of doing it for money I just relaxed and had fun.
LJN: It’s International Women’s Day. Do you have a view about feminism?
DF: I’m a very strong believer in feminism, but there are mixed feelings in jazz about IWD. Some see it as the one day of the year they get promo, while the rest of the time it’s slim pickings.
Certainly the last year has seen some great strides for women in jazz. Last year we commissioned female composers to write for us. We had a great response to that and it’s great to already see some of those works entering the repertoire.
But I think jazz has still got a long way to go. It was alarming to hear that two major conservatoires didn’t receive any female instrumental jazz applicants this year. None. The only way we can do anything about this is by working together which is not something the jazz industry is traditionally very good at. But it’s why we’re doing all this work with younger people, trying to support female participation in jazz from the very beginning.
LJN: This is an aim you feel strongly about?
DF: I was lucky in many ways as a young musician and got to conservatoire with a lot of help from my family, schools and local music service. But I kind of fell out of jazz, which makes me sad, now.
As a teenager I loved jazz and played in my county youth big band, but I began to get this nagging suspicion that it wasn’t for me and I’d be safer doing classical stuff.
I’m now passionate about creating an environment where there are role models, encouragement, and support for girls to get through that and have the confidence to know their voice is valued on the jazz stage. They might have different things to say from the boys, but what they have to say is valid and welcome and part of the conversation.
LJN: Surely this extends way beyond the world of jazz musicians? Don’t you feel intimidated by the scale of this?
DF: Oh yes it intimidates us every day! We talk about it constantly, and sometimes it feels insurmountable, but it’s one of those “how do you eat an elephant” questions, isn’t it? One bite at a time. We just try to do all we can.
LJN: What about those female musicians who complain at the endless “women in jazz” stuff, which can be clunky and patronizing? Don’t female musicians just want to play music?
DF: Of course. They just want to be respected and booked as artists, not because they’re women. I get that. It’s a difficult line to tread, though. We’re reaching 9,000 young people every year, so we want to be a role model to them of the kind of diversity that we want to see in the future of jazz. Otherwise how will the situation ever change? That means we want to book role models from different ethnic backgrounds, or who aren’t from London, or because they’re women. We at least try to be open about it.
LJN: Why do you think so much attention has been paid to this particular form of inequality, rather than to the broader question of social and wealth inequality in jazz music?
DF: Jazz is really lacking in diversity, of all kinds. The gender balance is shocking, the ethnicity balance is not good… the socio-economic balance, too, is terrible, especially outside London. But socio-economic status is not one of the nine “protected characteristics” so maybe there isn’t such good evidence. Maybe it’s harder to measure. Maybe it’s a conversation people aren’t so comfortable having.
But our response, as I already mentioned, is to address inequalities right from grassroots level. And it’s not just role-modelling. Jazz education can be patchy around the country, so young people can get affordable access to jazz education no matter where they live, we think this will help. We call this grand plan “Levelling the Playing Field”.
For example in some areas, there’s a county big band, but how do you develop the skills to get into it? You have to have gone to a school that has a big band and jazz lessons – and they’re often the more affluent or private schools. So that’s why we’re now working in partnership with music hubs to both inspire young people and improve that infrastructure; including creating and supporting entry-level jazz bands and improvisation workshops, so if young people want to progress they have those skills.
We see our national work as important for ensuring the future diversity of the jazz audience too. If we can play a schools concert to a nine-year-old in Corby, and that means they now look forward to seeing the word “jazz” in a programme rather than being scared of it, that’s a win for us.
LINK: NYJO’s website