Feature Image: Nick Howe
For Black History Month this year, we asked members of our professional ensembles – the Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Exchange – to tell us about an influential black artist who has inspired them and their approach to music.
Mischa Jardine joined the NYJO family in 2019, as part of the Jazz Exchange – NYJO’s first ensemble designed to create exciting, contemporary work. It’s not often that you see a cellist playing in a jazz setting and Mischa wants this to change by showing us her instrument of choice is a lot more versatile than we would usually give it credit for: “Cello is like a voice to me. It explains how I feel when I feel. There are so many ways you can manipulate it, connect with it, colour it and more importantly use it in any kind of genre.”
It is not surprising that Mischa’s pick is known for doing precisely that. Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a British-Caribbean composer, singer-songwriter, pianist, and cellist whose refusal to conform to genre rules brought her to the public’s attention. Her MOBO Awards Pre-show performance in 2016 transformed not just Sting’s Roxanne but people’s idea of the cello’s elasticity. For Mischa, a young solo female cello player herself, Witter-Johnson’s mixture of Jazz, Blues Soul and Reggae was an inspiration: “she encouraged me to try those genres on my classical cello too.”
When Mischa was 11, Ayanna came to Bradford Upon Avon near her hometown. Her mother took her to see the performance, thinking they would be ready to go home by the interval, “after all it was a school night, but I insisted to stay and I wanted to see more.” She remembers buying Ayanna’s album, having her photo taken with her, and saying she wanted to play like her one day, to which Ayanna positively replied, “You can!”.
Mischa carried on with her classical cello studies, as well as classical singing. It wasn’t until her last year of school that she understood the true beauty of what she could do by combining both styles together. “Not knowing which direction I wanted to go, I listened to her [Ayanna’s] EP ‘Truthfully’. This brought me the inspiration to start the journey. Her version of Roxanne was something I will never forget.”
Ayanna studied Classical Composition at Trinity Laban, and later did a Master’s in Music Composition at the Manhattan School of Music. Much like Mischa, who growing up in a musical family says her earlier musical memories all blur into one, “I remember my younger sister and I singing late at night, mum wanting us to go to bed but my dad would willing accompany us on the piano”. Ayanna grew up in an artistic household, her father is theatre, television and film actor Wil Johnson. She began playing the piano at age 4, and the cello at 13, she was part of the London Symphony Orchestra’ Panufik ‘Young Composers Scheme’ and her career has spawned from becoming an Emerging Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre, to being featured in Courtney Pine’s ‘Afropeans: Jazz Warriors’.
“Thank you, Mischa for celebrating my work. It is such a joy to know that my artistic journey has inspired yours and I hope that you continue to grow from strength to strength as a musician.”Ayanna Witter-Johnson
We would like to thank both Mischa and Ayanna for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll be back with another ‘My Inspiration’ pick soon!