Feature/Interview

National Youth Jazz Collective: adapting to online (interview with Issie Barratt)

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 third and final article of this series, Duncan Heining interviews Issie Barratt, founder and Artistic Director of the National Youth Jazz Collective, to talk about the impact of lockdown on the Collective’s work and the continued enthusiasm and creativity that is helping them to adapt.

NYJC Summer School

NYJC Summer School. Photo credit Sarah Hickson

 

Now in its thirteenth year, the National Youth Jazz Collective (NYJC) goes from strength to strength with a faculty of over seventy tutors, including many of the finest musicians in the country. Crucial in our very male jazz scene are the major efforts that NYJC has made to foster young female talent. NYJC does not just preach diversity, it acts upon it.

It is clear from our conversation that the last three months have been something of a roller-coaster ride for Barratt and her colleagues.

“It’s been very demanding,” Barratt says, “but with some quite wonderful and surprising successes along the way – all thanks to the collective spirit of this wonderful music and the far-reaching platform of the world wide web.”

NYJC went into lockdown while Barratt and her colleagues were in the middle of their series of regional workshops around England and were preparing for their national audition tour to select participants for the annual summer school. They had also just launched – in partnership with the University of Birmingham – the new cohort of their Creative Leadership Ensemble and Ambassadors Training Scheme.

Both are dear to Barratt’s heart. The first involves eight of NYJC’s “strongest female musicians” in writing and preparing an hour of original music for festivals and school workshops. The second initiative is for recent graduates “keen to join our faculty and specialise in leading creative music projects of improvisation, composition, arranging and bandleading.” Inevitably, some rescheduling has been necessary.

Barratt was herself stricken down with the virus early in March. Despite, as she put it, being “slightly delirious,” she happened to check her Twitter account and found a message to all National Portfolio Organisations, of which NYJC is one, asking them “to honour contracts agreed with freelancers/artists and think about what help they can offer their communities.” Barratt called a board meeting, at which it was agreed to move the Collective’s entire programme online. This enabled NYJC to continue working with young musicians and their music teachers while supporting their freelance teaching artists, who were struggling with the loss of gigs and other paid work.

“We wrote to everyone to say none of our work was going to be cancelled, simply suspended while we took it online,” Barratt told us. “We’d spent October to February scheduling our programme for March to September, only to have to start all over again. Crushing! And financially draining, as we were having to pay for the entire programme to be rescheduled.”

At the moment, NYJC is waiting on the outcome of their application to the Arts Council’s emergency fund. “We’ve got our fingers crossed that will be successful,” Barratt says, “so we can weather the financial impact of redoing six months scheduling and totally revising the summer programme. It became really clear that our usual practice of leading day-long workshops wasn’t going to work online. We were clearly going to have to replace monthly activity days with weekly two hour sessions – which immediately multiplied the amount of work for our programme manager. What a hero he’s been.”

The logistics involved were a challenge. Making sure that teaching artists and students both wanted and were able to be involved was just one issue to be addressed. As Barratt says with delight and relief, “They were thrilled to be able to continue working with us. Nobody asked for their enrolment fees to be reimbursed and the messages of thanks were overwhelming!”

But as Barratt points out, the real challenge was how to keep things authentic to jazz.

“My dear friend and our mentor, the late Graham Collier, famously said, ‘Jazz happens in real time – once!’ So how do you keep the group vibe going so we can play together and ensure everything continues to be interactive, engaging and inspiring? How do you respond to each other’s playing and sharing of ideas when everyone’s different broadband width means you’re burdened with latency? Only way to find out was to crack on!”

And she adds, “I needn’t have worried. That magic’s still there. And we’re enjoying focusing our energies on being creative online, while counting the days till that sweet moment of our first meeting together, in person, is in sight.”

Like Tomorrow’s Warriors and Grand Union Orchestra, who featured in previous articles in this series, NYJC has fought hard to sustain its work but also to expand it in new directions.

“We started our online series of regional workshops as well as the Creative Leadership Ensemble and Ambassadors Scheme in mid May,” Barratt tells us. “We’ve just hosted a week of online auditions and will be launching a summer programme involving over 100 participants across 10 ensembles in July and August. We’ll also be streaming daily online taster sessions via our Facebook page for absolutely anyone to join in. Just sign up for NYJC’s newsletter to find out more. We’re replacing the end of summer school three-hour concert with a three-day, online festival that celebrates the entire summer programme of work we’re currently doing online – some will be live, some will be pre-recorded. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone that’s helped us develop our online wizardry. It’s quite an adventure and the end product feels authentic, wholesome and true.”

We ask how Barratt sees NYJC’s future.

“Because we specialise in small group ensemble playing, we may not be as hard hit as other national youth music organisations. We may be one of the first to bring our musicians together. We’re sad not to be able to play in front of a live audience but, while we wait for that to be possible, we hope to soon be performing together in person, in safe environments, with the performances shared via a livestream.”

This is being made possible with the support of colleagues working in the media world, who are already back recording at Air and Abbey Road studios. It’s one of those trite things people like to say about great problem-solvers – “They don’t see problems. They see opportunities.” But it’s true, not trite, to say it about Issie Barratt. Barratt’s enthusiasm is infectious – the good kind!

We just have time left for a short commercial:

“And as we’ve discovered already with our online offer and #nationalyouthjazz Wednesday live stream at 6pm on Facebook, being online means we’re able to widen our reach, free of the restriction of venue capacity or the need for students to travel great distances to access our national network of regional work. We can all meet online! Look forward to seeing you there!”

LINK: NYJC website

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