Susie York Skinner (*) is Chief Executive of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO).
NYJO, as she explains in this interview for International Women’s Day, is much more than a large ensemble putting on professional concerts. Whereas this – inevitably – is its main public face, NYJO is also several other things: a training organisation….a professional development programme….a nationwide community of people with a common interest in jazz. “Learning and growing,” she says, “are inherent in everything we do. Whatever we are doing, we put the young people involved first. Our aim is to give them opportunities to develop musically and personally and the space to learn and explore.” Interview by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: What was the main thing that you found appealing about taking on the NYJO role?
Susie York Skinner: I was part-way through the interview process in early 2021 when I realised what was driving me to want this job. For me, it combines two essential sides of the same coin: excellent professional-level performance standards alongside a strategic education programme. I had come to realise that I need both these things in my life. I’ve spent much of my career engaged in professional performance, but in recent years – as a mother of two small boys – I’ve become increasingly aware of how little participatory arts there is in schools and within the community. I’m absolutely passionate about changing that and about increasing accessibility and opportunity for young people. This is my chance to do that.
LJN: What is Woolwich Works (photo above) – and are there tangible benefits in NYJO now being located there?
SYS: I visited Woolwich Works for the first time a few days after I learned I’d got the job. I’ve never worked ‘on site’ at a venue before – I’ve always been stuck in an office miles away from the action. It was like being given the keys to the sweetie jar! It’s so exciting to be here, in beautifully restored buildings with so much going on – there is a huge performance space, recording studios, rehearsal rooms, dance studios, cafés and bars. We’re one of four Resident Artistic Companies and will be working closely with other residents to deliver community work across the borough: we already have a Community Jazz Choir, a Creative Ensemble and Holiday Projects for local children up and running. The next step will be to bring The NYJO Jazz Messengers, our schools’ concert programme, to local schools later this year.
LJN: You have a new head of Learning and Participation, Vikki Moorhouse. You presumably work closely together….
SYS: We do and, in tandem with the move to Woolwich there’s been a lot of opportunity for change, but we’re trying to be careful not to change too much too soon. The obvious new ventures are in our community work in Woolwich, but we’ve also been re-thinking our national work. Across our Regional Academies we’re now focusing on Widening Access, working with partners to find ways to reach into the unengaged sections of their communities. Meanwhile, our workshops across the country are being transformed into a national network of activity, collaboration and best practice sharing. Our new online teaching platform, DPX, will be at the heart of that programme, as a way of embedding jazz within their weekly activity.
LJN: DPX? Is that related to the Virtual Academy that we covered early in lockdown in this feature?
SYS: Yes, it’s one and the same. DPX is a re-launched refined version of The Virtual Academy, which was put together in a hurry at the start of lockdown so that we could maintain a presence with our partners and their participants. We were fortunate to benefit from a Culture Recovery Fund grant, part of which was used to redevelop the platform for post-pandemic life. There was lots of debate about what it should become, but in the end it became clear that the best use of it was to enhance our offer to partners across the country, creating a more sustained, continuous presence with them and their participants, and making it possible for us to fulfil our national remit in a more environmentally responsible way.
LJN: What other changes in the way NYJO operates have come about from the experience of lockdown?
SYS: One of the positives from that incredibly difficult time was our NYJO Presents series at Ronnie Scott’s, where we promoted smaller ensembles via livestream, and eventually to in-person audiences. It was such a successful series, for both our musicians and audiences, that it absolutely has to continue, so from this year we’ll start promoting a range of smaller ensemble performances in venues across the country. Some will be made up entirely of our young artists, some will be directed by guest artists – we hope this change will broaden the kind of musicians that are attracted to work with us by creating a sense that there is something here for all kinds of creativity and musical personalities.
LJN: A major annual focus used to be the auditions leading to appointing musicians to “chairs” in the orchestra. How is that process changing?
SYS: NYJO has traditionally used a ‘chair holder’ system, with musicians holding a chair for a couple of years; of course some gigs are depped out, but on the whole, once they’re in, they’re in. That system limits the number of people that we can serve and, at a point when we are determined to increase and diversify our reach, it has slowed the pace of change. We’re therefore moving to recruiting a larger ‘pool’ of players that we draw on for different projects – this will challenge us to create a wider range and larger number of performance projects, to keep everyone engaged, but I hope it will mean that more young musicians can find their creative ‘home’ with us.
LJN: You have at least part of your career in development and fundraising. People often say jazz is “different” (by which they normally mean “poorer”). What does your experience tell you?
SYS: Nonsense! Perhaps I speak from a rather privileged position, given that NYJO is equipped to play the education card in a fundraising conversation, but there is certainly no reason why we cannot make the same – perhaps better – fundraising arguments as any of our counterparts in other art forms. I am a great believer in art for art’s sake, but where funders want us to make an argument focusing around personal or social outcomes for arts funding, jazz could not be better placed: Communication? Teamwork? Confidence Building? Agency? Creativity? Bravery? We can tick all these boxes, and many more besides.
Having said that, we do need to work together across the sector to make this case more successfully with core funders, and raise the profile of jazz with them. I can’t wait to get started on doing that…
LJN: Looking forward, one concert in the NYJO calendar that stands out ..to me!… is the Barbican date with Hermeto Pascoal on 5 May. What’s the story there ?
SYS: Our collaboration with Hermeto Pascoal is the second event in our new Commissions Project, funding new works for big band and, in some cases, less conventional line ups. The legendary Pascoal himself is travelling from Brazil with his sextet and the ethnomusicologist & MD, Jovino Santos Neto, to join NYJO for a series of workshops, rehearsals and performances of Pascoal’s music, arranged for this unique line-up by Santos Neto. The highlight will be a new specially-commissioned work which will be premiered at The Barbican on 5 May – it’s safe to say that this is new territory for NYJO and something we’re all really excited about.
LJN: Which other composers are featured in this commission programme?
SYS: The project began with a programme that has been running since September, a tribute to Amy Winehouse who of course performed with NYJO at the start of her career. For that project, new big band arrangements of her work were commissioned from NYJO’s Composer Chair, the brilliant Olivia Murphy. Performed by Lucy-Anne Daniels with a 26 piece band, Olivia’s arrangements have been a huge success with audiences across the country; we’ve now performed the show nearly 30 times and the bookings are still coming! (Review Here)
We’ve also commissioned new arrangements of John Zorn’s Masada project from Sam Eastmond and future projects include new works by Nikki Yeoh and Squarepusher in 2023. This project is a significant departure for NYJO – a multi-season strand of artistic work providing the foundation for a series of bespoke individual projects. I’m excited to see how this develops and other, new projects that it will pave the way for – as well as to hear the music!
LJN:This is an interview for IWD. How – formally and/or informally – do you and how does NYJO ensure that the organisation provides a positive/encouraging environment for women?
SYS: NYJO has, historically, been a male dominated environment; jazz, in many places, still is. But that is changing – creatively, we know the voices are there (just look at the artists we’re commissioning!); each year, female membership of our bands, and female participation in our training groups, increases. But the pace of change is slow and it’s not always easy.
NYJO is now a female-led organisation, with a 50:50 gender split both amongst our trustees and staff. But sadly this isn’t indicative of our players’ experience. Amongst our emerging professional musicians and participants in training ensembles, women and girls remain in the minority: we are working hard to change this and to ensure that, as we do so, women feel that their voices are heard.
At the end of last year we formed Women of NYJO, a group discussing the hurdles to participation for women, and sharing women’s experiences within NYJO. We’ve talked about everything from the music we play and who plays it, to codes of conduct for members and how we travel home safely. The next step will be to invite everyone – men and women – into such a group, to share experiences, opinions and ideas more widely, and to start to make changes where they are needed.
LJN: And your role in that…?
SYS: If I have a role as a female leader, I believe it is to make sure that, at every juncture, the path is just that little bit easier for the next woman – a case of letting the ladder hang that little bit lower, to encourage the next person to step on, rather than drawing it up behind me. Of course at NYJO I am surrounded by talented young women and I am determined to do anything and everything I can to make their path through this profession that little bit easier. I’m aware that some may look to me for leadership, and I will try to give it; the irony is that they don’t realise how inspired and motivated I am by them. Their talent, their determination, their ambition: that is why I am here; that is why this job is worth doing.
(*) Susie York Skinner has been Chief Executive at the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) since July 2021. Susie has two decades’ experience working in arts administration. Her previous roles include Chief Executive of the Gabrieli Consort & Players and Director of Development at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Since joining NYJO she has led the organisation’s move to Woolwich Works, has overseen its post-pandemic return to in-person activity and is managing a continuing expansion of both its performing and Learning & Participation activity.
LINK: NYJO website