Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
There is irony in the way the BBC has added a jazz element to its internationally-recognised Young Musician contest, the classical music joust held every two years. The first winner of the BBC Young Musician Jazz Award is Alexander Bone, a teenage alto-saxophonist from Darlington in the first year of his A level studies. It is a fair bet that the eventual winner of the classical finals, to be held in Edinburgh in May, will have as much clue about playing jazz as someone tone-deaf who thinks a riff is a structure made of coral off the coast of Australia. The irony is that jazz is the sound of surprise, while the BBC is the embodiment of galvanised Establishment values. When the twain do meet, there are often sparks.
But first, the jazz award finals. At seventeen, Alex Bone was one of five competitors, the others being altoist Sean Payne, from Hertfordshire (aged 13); bass player Freddie Jensen, from Cheadle (14), trumpeter Jake Labazzi, from London (16); and another altoist, Tom Smith, also from London (18). These were the final reduction from over fifty hopefuls who had sent in demo DVDs of themselves playing, as requested by the competition. From these, 23 were chosen to perform at auditions, where the final five were selected. They played in the chronological age order given here, which was not necessarily a good thing, and possibly suggested that the older you were the better you were. To some extent, that was true.
For three days at the RWCMD before finals night, each of the five had rehearsed a twenty-minute set with the Gwilym Simcock Trio (pianist Simcock, bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer James Maddren) and performed it with them on the night. Simcock is as big a name as you can think of among young British jazz players with a worldwide reach. That is, unless you include Julian Joseph, the chairman of the judges. Joseph’s team were Django Bates, Jason Yarde and Trish Cowles. The MCs were jazz/hip hop star Soweto Kinch and Josie D’Arby. Announcing the result, Joseph said at every stage of the competition, the judges thought the winner had appeared. This suggested a close contest – and we were largely talking hair breadths – but it was obvious that Bone had edged to the front in terms of a confident jazz persona. Simcock had worked marvels with the finalists in rehearsals and was a model of support and encouragement on the night, never playing down to the soloists and doing as much as possible to mitigate their nervousness. Bone had obviously left his anxieties behind.
Conventional wisdom states that jazz cannot be taught, only encouraged and refined. It depends what is meant by ‘taught’. Each of the finalists comes from some sort of musical background and will have encountered jazz early on, though Payne says he has ‘always been around jazz’ but only started playing it seriously two years ago. Smith, in contrast, gigs around London with his own band and in September begins studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Labazzi, who also doubled flugelhorn in his set, is a member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. The most intriguing was Jensen, who had the unenviable task of replacing Goloubev when playing in the Simcock trio: unenviable, because the bass does not enjoy the sustained limelight status of the sax and trumpet and when it does there is little accompanying musicians can do to relieve the pressure musically. It was good to see the alto sax to the fore in favour of the ubiquitous tenor, though each altoist could undoubtedly play both. Payne’s version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’ was both highly personal and memorable. What will he be doing in five years?
Bone has been playing saxophone for eleven years, taught by his father. He also plays jazz piano. He is a member of several big and small jazz combos. It showed. More than anyone else in the final, he was embedded with the Simcock trio and at several points was evidently leading it where the others were playing concentratedly and being supported. His ballad playing, easy familiarity with the jazz classic ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (a tune made famous by Miles Davis) and his own quirky composition, ‘Messed-Up Shape’, made him in terms of age at least the best on the night. He was also the most confident and unfazed, laid back almost. That is a jazzman for you. The judges must have recognised it immediately. He could also be extremely funky and funny, as the audience loudly appreciated.
A cynical audience member sitting near me doubted that the place where the finals were being held or the imprimatur of a BBC award could make a jazz musician of anyone. Before the music began he asked, ‘What will the winner be? A standards/changes man or a Get The Polar Bear Bib “creative” type? He shouldn’t be encouraged into a life of penury, though I daresay he’ll have a degree in mechanical engineering too.’ Roughly translated, this meant there was only one way of moulding a jazz musician and that was via the college of right hooks and ankle taps, in which you picked up what you could, including bad habits, and were too interested in the music to worry about your health or a fall-back career but would turn out to be either a conventional talent or a visionary. At the moment, all five finalists play safely, if you also count frantic be-bop as having settled into a musical lingua franca. But, come on – these guys are just uncorrupted teenagers! One could not help smiling at the dry ice filling the hall after battle commenced. In the absence of cigarette smoke, it did duty as a hoary prop. Most believe jazz clubs are well rid of smoky phantoms, sublime or otherwise. The sublimity should be in the music. But it could have been forgiven. The college, where the semi-finals of the BBC Young Musician (classical arm) were played out on the Sunday following these jazz finals, has a much-respected jazz department and includes among its recent alumni the pianist and producer Dave Stapleton, head of Edition Records.
The sparks referred to earlier regularly appear when jazz fans, who will never understand that theirs is a minority interest, complain at the lack of jazz on the BBC or the Beeb’s habit of messing around with what is there. Against that background of chronic disenchantment one can now add their despair at the number of jazz musicians being turned out by music colleges – some of Cardiff’s were playing, impressively, in the foyer before the finals began – and their clean-cut image. Simcock is the perfect example of that, but he confounds it with premier-league playing that made him the first jazzman to become one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists. What does ‘clean-cut’ mean, anyway?
A further irony lay in Soweto Kinch’s appearance on the alto sax when the finalists and the Simcock trio jammed after the result was announced. It was all good fun – all good, white male fun. No women and no black musicians, let alone black women ones. These are considerations in jazz, in terms of the music’s origins and its largely male-orientated, and sometimes boorish, following. No doubt the BBC will be addressing this issue in subsequent competitions when inviting submission of those DVDs. BBC Young Musician Jazz Award, after this showing, must surely become a permanent fixture. The jazz world ought to be pleased, if not entirely convinced, that the Establishment has a part to play in promoting a music that is often misunderstood, littered with thrown-away lives, so difficult to play as it should be played and whose codes of behaviour often care not a fiddler’s toss for decorum and regularity.
Prize-winners everywhere do what they will with their prizes. BBC Young Musician has produced, inter alia, oboist Nick Daniel, clarinettist Emma Johnson, pianist Freddy Kempf, cellist Guy Johnston, violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Natalie Clein. Alexander Bone is in excellent company. Many will be looking out for him, if only in the circumscribed region of jazz.
The jazz finals were recorded for broadcast on BBC Four on May 23.