Feature/Interview

A look at lockdown: Grand Union Orchestra

The impact of the lockdown on freelance musicians has been grave. Opportunities to play, rehearse and record have all but disappeared with only the virtual, digital world an outlet at present. That British jazz musicians will need the support of fans once the Covid-19 crisis has abated states both the obvious and is a message needing reinforcement. But rebuilding or, at least re-establishing, a viable and sustainable jazz scene will require more than just goodwill and generosity. It will also need the vision and skills of those jazz actors and organisations best placed to help regenerate British jazz.

In the first of a series of articles, Duncan Heining looks at how the lockdown has affected three such organisations and examines how those involved are planning for their part in a post-Covid jazz future.

Grand Union Orchestra (led by Tony Haynes), Tomorrow’s Warriors (led by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby) and the National Youth Jazz Collective (led by Issie Barratt) are jewels in the British jazz crown. Despite differing approaches, each one shares a commitment to youth, education and audience development. Each one has its own strong value base and each one is located in and serves its own particular community.

This week we talk to Tony Haynes of the Grand Union Orchestra.

Grand Union Orchestra performing Undream’d Shores in 2014

Formed in 1982, Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) is rooted in the community of the East End of London with its mixture of races, religions and musics. Pan-stylistic, pan-rhythmic, pan-cultural, pan-everything, Grand Union represents a unique and radical vision of multicultural Britain. That vision has been steered for nearly forty years by founder-director Tony Haynes.

Before we begin on the subject at hand, Haynes wanted to say a few words about producer John Cumming, who died recently.

“John was one of our four co-founders,” Haynes tells me. “In the early days, he was our lighting designer and was involved in directing and co-writing early Grand Union shows. Although our paths diverged, we remained great friends and would meet up at the Harlequin behind Sadler’s Wells from time to time for lock-ins.”

John had retired from Serious, the production company he created, about a year ago. When Tony and I spoke, we were both still trying to take in the news of his death. Haynes felt strongly that some of the obituaries had missed something of the man in their eulogies.

“I guess they tended to focus on John as an entrepreneur,” he says, “and, of course, that’s all true but there was so much more to John than that. I sometimes wondered whether, despite the success of Serious, he wouldn’t have preferred to be back on the road like the early days working with these music and theatre companies.”

GUO song of contagionIn 2017, Tony Haynes created Song of Contagion based on an idea by epidemiologist, Elizabeth Pisani. Bizarrely prophetic, it proved, it was one of GUO’s finest large-scale shows, taking as its theme the spread of disease and its differential impacts on peoples, communities and, in particular, poorer countries. How ironic it seemed to be talking with Tony Haynes at a time like this.

The lockdown has clearly been a huge challenge but Haynes also sees the crisis as an opportunity. Many projects, including a large-scale participatory show Independence Song, have been postponed, to be resumed when conditions allow. However, there have been casualties, such as the loss of a big Windrush show at the Hackney Empire for the end of June and of GUO’s annual residential summer school.

“The Windrush event was date-specific, so we will probably have to abandon that,” Haynes explains. “As for the summer school, we are trying to see what we can salvage of that and what we can put online. We are working on a series of masterclass videos and a series of part-instructional profiles featuring our jazz and global musicians at present. We are putting all these on a new Grand Union Education channel on YouTube, along with all our big shows from the past featuring large numbers of school children. So, it may be that a virtual summer school could grow out of that.”

Financial pressures on GUO were certainly mitigated by the Arts Council’s Emergency Fund, for which independent organisations such as GUO could bid. “We received every penny we asked for,” he tells me. “This allows us to maintain our infrastructure and pay essential staff well into the autumn. The next step is to get our musicians doing productive work for which we can pay them. Obviously, that’s difficult until we can get people actually in the same space playing together.”

I ask Haynes to sum up what this period has been like for him and his colleagues.

“Well, it’s been the small companies and, of course, the individual musicians, who have suffered most,” he says. “On a more positive note, it has been an opportunity to reflect, review and consolidate material, whether that’s workshops, videos or audio material. In a way, we are now in a position where we can open up in the autumn or next year. Projects we have in the pipeline that might have started this summer, we can now start later.”

One major, future Grand Union project that will come to fruition in 2021 is built around the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh. In fact, the last gig GUO was able to perform before the lockdown featured the wonderful Bengali singer Lucy Rahman performing songs by her father, Sheikh Luthfur Rahman, a leading Bangladeshi activist and composer. “We will continue to plan that event,” Haynes adds, “and are involved in planning meetings at the Bangladesh High Commission in London. Those songs by Lucy’s father will no doubt be heard as part of our contribution to the celebrations.” 

So, what are Haynes’ hopes  for the future? What does he hope those involved in arts funding might have learned from this crisis?

“To begin with, we hope that the Arts Council giving us this money is a vote of confidence,” he says. “It would be great if there was also a rethink by some of the funds and trusts in terms of who they donate to. That would be a positive. The art has to be good and has to come first. The crisis has certainly made us more aware of the digital world. We are happy to embrace it but the production standards have to be high. I think we are in a good place for the future of GUO.”

LINKS: Find out more about GUO on their website

Listen to GUO on Soundcloud

Watch GUO’s Sound of Contagion 

Read Tony Haynes’ In Memoriam to John Cumming

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