Q&A with Peter Johnstone, director of ‘The Magic of Art Blakey’

On Monday 16 November at 12:30pm, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is livestreaming “The Magic of Art Blakey”, a tribute to the legendary jazz figure from an octet directed by Peter Johnstone. The octet is formed of students on Tommy Smith’s jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, including recent Rising Star winner at the Scottish Jazz Awards: trombonist Anoushka Nanguy. The concert features compositions associated with Art Blakey, including tunes by Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller. Rosa interviewed musical director Peter Johnstone:

Peter Johnstone and Tommy Smith. (Photo by Derek Clark).

What, for you, is “The Magic of Art Blakey”? 

Although there are so many aspects of Art Blakey‘s musicianship that stand out, for me the first thing that comes across when I put on his albums, is the incredible passion and love he had for the music. He was one of those musicians that was able to communicate this passion from the first beat of his live concerts and recordings to the last note of his compositions in an honest and unashamed way.

Art Blakey

Why do you think Art Blakey is such an important figure in the evolution of jazz?

Art Blakey was many things: a prolific composer, a unique and innovative drummer and an incredible bandleader. For me although his music and compositions will live on long into the future of jazz, perhaps his greatest contribution was as a bandleader and as a mentor. So many of the jazz legends of today spent time apprenticing and working in Blakey’s band at one point or another. Although undoubtedly these musicians learned many musical lessons whilst being sidemen, I think Blakey managed to do something even greater and pass on his incredible passion for the music and his love of band leading. These experiences have provided a generation of jazz musicians with the motivation to continue making original music and ultimately pass on the passion that Blakey helped instill in them.

Art Blakey led the Jazz Messengers for almost 40 years, how did you narrow it down and decide on the chosen tunes for this event?

It was an impossible task, there are so many classic and important compositions but we only have one hour. In the end I just picked some of my favourites –  hopefully the students agree with my choices!

The octet includes many gifted musicians – trombonist Anoushka Nanguy won the Rising Star award at the recent Scottish Jazz Awards and saxophonist Matthew Carmichael is set to release his debut album in 2021 – what, as the musical director, has it been like, working with some of the top young talent in jazz?

Well, we actually start rehearsing from tomorrow, but I know that all of the musicians on this project are extremely passionate about the music they make and are all driven to search for that special ingredient of Blakey’s live performances.

Matt Carmichael and Anoushka Nanguy. (Publicity Photos)

What do you imagine people will take away from this performance?

If we do everything right, hopefully people can take away a little bit of that passion which is such an integral part of Blakey’s music.

Have you had to overcome any issues due to the pandemic and how have you gone about doing this?

We are dealing with a fairly small group of musicians in a very large rehearsal space, so there should not be too many issues to overcome, apart from the normal social distancing and, of course, being as careful as possible. The RCS has an extensive range of measures in place already and has been very supportive when organising this event.

If the online stream is available after the concert at 12:30pm, what, for you, would be the benefit of watching the performance live? 

I think as humans, just to know that a performance is taking place in real time changes the way we perceive the experience. Making it more possible to feel that empathic connection with the musicians. So, if you are a human – try to watch it live if you can!

More information about “The Magic of Art Blakey” is here

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