Grahamstown festival and the 'honey pot' jazz incubator
It’s not every day that Maria Schneider, the multiple Grammy Award-winning composer from New York, rehearses her orchestra in a tiny classroom. On this particular day it is unusually warm for Grahamstown in July: the classroom is hot, and Schneider is rehearsing her delicate works opposite a trombone workshop.
The acoustics in her rehearsal venue are less than ideal and the trombones across the passage are characteristically insensitive to volume.
And so, at the suggestion of the drummer, Schneider takes her handpicked orchestra outside into the sunshine. Festivalgoers will later pay to watch her two sold-out performances, but today students as young as 13 gather to watch the rehearsal for free.
The bird sounds that are usually produced by instruments in her composition Cerulean Skies now emerge from the sunny skies themselves, as though the gods themselves are applauding.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime master class in orchestration, conducting and composing. This is the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, which runs in tandem with the jazz festival at the National Arts Festival for six days in July.
In the building nearby, pupils from around the country attend elective workshops. In room one, Romy Brauteseth, Louis Mhlanga and Nduduzo Makhathini rehearse. Melanie Scholtz warms up the vocal students at the vocal centre. At the auditorium, Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger is playing a walking bassline on his instrument, which rests sideways across his lap, like an electric bass. A student jams along on a trombone.
Irish bass player Ronan Guilfoyle, who literally wrote the book on rhythm concepts for jazz improvisation and the South Indian tala system, runs an improvisation workshop nearby.
Across the campus at the Diocesan School for Girls, amateurs and professionals are paired in classrooms. International trends are being taught, careers are being born.
This year, acclaimed pianist, saxophonist and producer Mark Fransman directed the National Youth Jazz Band. (Photos: Matthew Boon)
“This is the honey pot,” says Alan Webster, the youth festival’s director. It began in 1992 as the brainchild of Mike Skipper, former music director at St Andrew’s College and the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown.
Skipper is the kind of teacher whose passion for music education is infectious. So infectious that it permeated the industry for two decades, steadily drawing the best musicians in the country to Grahamstown, where they gather once a year to teach.
Here the best musicians in the country give up their hotels for cold showers at the Rhodes University residences, sacrificing their normal performance fees for small classrooms and wide-eyed jazz students.
It is an incubator for the local jazz industry: just about every major performer is a product of the festival, playing in its bands or attending its workshops at some point in their youth. Schneider called the festival “unique in the world – something you can all be very proud of”.
Students come from schools and universities, and audition for a spot in one of the bands. First prize is a place in the prestigious National Youth Jazz Band (NYJB), and there is also the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band, and the National Schools B Band. This year the big band is directed by Mike Campbell, head of jazz at the University of Cape Town.
But every pupil plays in a band here – irrespective of their skill level – in which beginners are mixed with young professionals.
Acclaimed pianist, saxophonist and producer Mark Fransman directs the NYJB this year.
“This is probably the singular, greatest thing, all in all, that’s happening in South African music at the moment, and jazz music specifically,” says Fransman.
‘Changed my entire view’
Tumi Pheko, a trumpet student from the University of Fort Hare, says this year a workshop “changed my entire view of music”.
“I learned that technique is not the same as good music. Music is about concepts, about philosophy, about soul. It’s going to change the way I practise,” he says.
Nearby, over coffee, a young saxophone student from Johannesburg is preparing to pick the brain of her favourite professional Norwegian saxophonist, Frode Nymo.
Musicians take part in workshops and training sessions by international artists at the festival.
Jazz drummer Kesivan Naidoo first participated in the festival as a grade 11 pupil in 1995. He made the National Youth Jazz Band that year. But more importantly, that was the festival when the late, great drummer Lulu Gontsana taught the young Naidoo how to swing.
Says Naidoo: “Here I met some of the musicians that I ended up playing with in the future, and also learnt some of the lessons that I wasn’t exposed to previously. Before I was just playing in high-school big bands and that kind of thing, but as a kid you’re just so underexposed, until you come here.
“And the festival was much, much smaller then. There’s so much interest in it now that I don’t think the festival can grow any bigger, logistically.”
It is unfortunate that the festival is now turning away prospective students because of the venue’s limited size. But the intimacy created by the small class sizes is possibly what makes the workshops so unique.
Naidoo adds that the festival also creates an audience for jazz music as it nurtures passion for the music among the students.
Fransman explains that the development of young jazz musicians is especially important in light of how many musicians have died in the past decade. He lists, among others, Hotep Galeta, Zim Ngqawana and Bheki Mseleku. This year the National Youth Jazz Band plays two tributes to Mseleku, one of which is a searing composition written by Fransman.
For the first time the nine band members all hail from the University of Cape Town. Another first for the band is the use of three vocalists.
Webster explains that it was simply too difficult to choose between the three vocalists during the audition process.
“In the end we decided that we don’t choose the band based on the ‘right’ combination of instruments; we choose the best musicians. And if we could have two trombones, for example, why not three vocalists?”
Fransman’s use of the vocalists points towards a broader trend in jazz music, which regards vocalists as more than the conveyers of the melody or featured soloists, and sees them as an additional instrument, part of the tapestry of the music.
The band’s performance on the last night of the festival is electric. In four days Fransman has woven a show that simultaneously shows off the ability of the performers as soloists without losing the band’s unique blend. It shows a maturity of musicianship in these young players that ordinarily takes years to nurture.
Bänz Oester was one of the artists teaching at the festival this year.
This is a key part of Fransman’s vision and his understanding of what jazz music is: the singular within the collective.
“A good band is like a microcosm of society in that way: there’s cohesion, singularity, but individuality within unity with others. The players might be young but they’ve got identities. Some are sweet, some are naughty, some are funny,” says the director.
“And what’s special about this band is that they are good musicians because they have their own concept of various sounds and it’s not preconceived. They can look at a piece of music and decide what they think is best, getting around the chord changes quickly and in their own way. I don’t dictate when it comes to improvisation, I never do, and I certainly don’t do it with this group.”
Sense of individuality
This sense of individuality is passed down from mentor to student, as the festival draws players from as far afield as Sweden, Norway and Ireland, Hanover Park and Durban. Drummers, instrument-makers, Grammy award-winners and experimental rock-jazz rappers.
“Where Grahamstown always redeems itself is that they always, throughout the years, invite amazing individuals who have an extreme prejudice against being robots,” Fransman says.
“There are people running this festival that care. They’re aware of the pitfalls of the industry and they want to produce young kids who have strong individual outputs as artists and as thinkers.”
This is largely thanks to Webster, who has been running the festival since 2001. He also plays matchmaker, putting together the ensembles that will perform at the main jazz festival.
This is key to the festival’s success: most of its administrative staff are musicians, and so they have an intimate understanding of what is required to develop jazz, and years of experience in running the festival.
As a Swedish saxophonist points out over a pre-gig Heineken, Webster has done more for jazz than any minister of arts and culture. His ability to manage the needs of the 90 jazz musicians from 12 countries at this year’s festival, and the needs of the 330 students, has not gone unnoticed.
Although the ensembles are not always perfectly matched, nine times out of 10, the musicians agree, Webster gets it right. This is largely thanks to the festival’s corporate sponsor, Standard Bank, without which the festival would not exist, Webster points out.
Pianist Kyle Shepherd, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award-winner for jazz, also attended the festival as a high school pupil.
Says Fransman: “The other day Kyle and I were talking about this festival and we laughed. We thought, you have to take your hat off to this festival because for some reason they let us come back every year. But in all seriousness, if we are the result of this festival, maybe there is something to it.”