Photo credit: Pat Pascal
The BBC Young Jazz Musician competition is the BBC’s platform for young, talented jazz musicians. Following the success of the first three editions, the biennial competition returns in 2020 to celebrate and showcase the next generation of UK Jazz musicians.
NYJO alumni have enjoyed a lot of success throughout the awards’ short history. This year, we spoke to three of the 25 semi-finalists: NYJO Jazz Orchestra Tenor Saxophone player Asha Parkinson, NYJO Jazz Exchange Saxophone & Woodwinds player Emma Rawicz-Szcerbo, and NYJO Jazz Ambassador, Composer and multi-instrumentalist Roella Oloro about their careers and what this competition means for them.
For both Emma and Roella, this is the first time applying for BBC Young Jazz Musician. Originally from Devon, Emma has gained a lot of experience since she began studying and playing Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and with NYJO. “Honestly, I was completely surprised when I got the email, but I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, and excited to play with and alongside so many inspirational musicians.” Emma tried a variety of different instruments growing up, but she eventually discovered the saxophone, and jazz, at the age of 14. In her own compositions, there is a clear influence from Brazilian and Latin music, alongside more traditional sounds learned from icons such as Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk.
Emma is part of the first cohort of the newly launched NYJO Jazz Exchange. “Being a part of the Jazz Exchange programme has been more invaluable to me as a musician than I can possibly begin to describe. It has brought a group of inspirational, talented and downright lovely musicians and friends into my life, that have encouraged me to try new things, improve myself as a player, composer and collaborator.”
When we spoke to Roella, she shared with us a similar feeling of complete shock. “It felt truly surreal to be selected! Never in my wildest dreams would I have seen this coming! I remember the first word I saw when I received the email was “Congratulations” and time itself just seemed to stop for a few seconds.” Roella – a composer and multi-instrumentalist of Nigerian and Jamaican descent – gained an early musical education in the Pentecostal Church, playing piano in regional gospel choirs around south west England. Since then, Roella’s classical training in piano, clarinet, alto saxophone, and bass guitar has inspired a love of jazz, most notably after hearing the virtuosic brilliance of Oscar Peterson in her early teens.
Asha has made it to the semi-finals before but nevertheless, “the competition didn’t seem real until I got an email about semi-finals!”. Lockdown has made it harder to keep track of schemes, grants and competitions, but this year’s more flexible application brief meant, “the pressure of pulling off a flawless ten-minutes of continuous playing was taken away”. As a teenager, Asha started campaigning for peace, especially in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict. At age 14, she decided to write a choral work to bring together children from different cultural backgrounds, singing for peace in the Middle East. The project developed into a Diana Legacy Award winning initiative, Voices Beyond Divisions.
Asha started out in the NYJO Academy when she was eleven. She had been playing saxophone for a year and going to NYJO was the highlight of her week. “I always looked forward to it intensely during the relentless double period Chemistry on Friday afternoons”. Ten years later, she is still part of the family, playing with the NYJO Jazz Orchestra!
This year has been challenging for young musicians at the beginning of their career. For Emma, the cancellation of A level exams, uncertainty with university places and the absence of quality time with peers were especially tough. Lockdown provided an opportunity to fully throw herself into practice and composition ahead of beginning her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in September. Besides a very supportive family with whom she loved being able to spend more time, “my friends and mentors at NYJO provided me with support and an easy way to stay positive through the inspiring sessions at the NYJO Virtual Academy, and provided me with a hopeful outlook for when times are a little less difficult.”
Asha learnt the importance of being easy on herself, taking an occasional break and maintaining her focus through regularly writing notes about her goals and values. “The lockdown forced me to take a step back from projects and be creative in different ways.” While her normal work life wouldn’t allow much space for reflection and meditation, Asha hopes to factor them in more regularly from now on. “I’ve also really enjoyed doing a lot of creative writing, improving my foreign language skills and getting into Pilates!”
Roella recently started studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. “It’s been amazing meeting and playing with new people from around the world. What I have with my quintet back home however will always be special to me.” It’s been difficult for her not being able to play with others and she’s excited to get back to playing with her band again. Roella’s Quintet was formed in September 2018 and did their first gig for Jazznewblood, run by Pat Pascal, as part of the EFG London Jazz festival. Following this came more musical events and gigs in and around London at venues like Ghostnotes, Jazz:refreshed at Mau Mau Bar, Pizza Express soho and Ronnie Scotts among others. “I miss playing with my quintet so much! The vibes we had were just so wholesome.”
The BBC Young Jazz Musician is an incredible opportunity for young musicians to showcase their talent, not only through exposure to a bigger audience via their vast online presence, but also as an experience in itself. To Emma, having personalised feedback from the judges, the opportunity to play with the house rhythm section of the semi-finals, and the chance to interact with many other talented young musicians at all stages of the competition is a huge honour. “This is all invaluable to my development as a musician personally, and to my skill set when it comes to interacting with professionals and peers within the industry.”
As a black British woman in Jazz, Roella hopes to personify a hugely under-represented demographic of society within the jazz world. “I don’t know of many black-British female jazz pianists, or instrumentalists for that matter, and I really want that to change. It would be an honour to help in some way to be a catalyst for that change.” She hopes to inspire people from all backgrounds to follow their musical dreams to new and uncharted territory.
We would like to thank Asha, Emma and Roella for taking the time to talk to us, and wish them luck for the competition! We hope to check in with each of them again as they continue to make waves!