It’s half past 8 and cruelly cold when we meet outside Stanmore station, ready to head North and start the NYJO Jazz Messengers’ tour of Blackburn and Darwen. The schedule shows 8 performances over the next three days, most of them in primary schools where Jazz wouldn’t normally make an appearance. Having joined NYJO only 3 weeks ago at this point, I wanted to join the Jazz Messengers on the road and get a taste of their work educating the future generation.
A four-hour journey goes by. Between yawns and laughs, we discuss what can classify as a pasty and the rising South London “new jazz” scene, until bass player extraordinaire Arthur O’Hara helps us all pass the time by reading a Jazz in Europe article about Jeff Goldblum’s gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 2018.
From our very first stop in Belmont Primary School, I find myself feeling incredibly proud of the group. Their performance is impeccable, and the room of enthusiastic school children is left in awe with the metallic sounds coming out of Jack’s trumpet, even if the Miles Davis reference is lost on them.
Throughout our stay, I can’t say I have ever caught a glimpse of any of the Messengers without a smile on their face. Each session feels to me like the first one: energetic, heartfelt and fun. In every school, about one hundred 5-to-10-year olds with their legs crossed and ears peeled, listen carefully to the band, occasionally whipping out their air guitars or imaginary drumsticks.
In the brass family, Joe gets the most laughs with his silly trombone demonstrations and Rosie makes a good point when she says that you can sing while playing the guitar but invariably, in every school, the drums get the bigger round of applause when the time comes for the crowd to choose their favourite instrument and even if they weren’t before, you can hardly resist Jas’s effortless tempo keeping and the sense of pride with which she explains “I’m the rhythm”.
My personal favourite segment of the workshop is without a doubt when Chelsea, the NYJO Jazz Messengers’ band leader, acknowledges that listening to jazz may be tricky when it has no words, challenging the children to name a piece of music by how it made them feel: “Walking in a Dream”; “Rainforest”; “Germany!”. You can see them taking a second to consider the question, the liberating feeling of knowing there is no wrong answer and how that can summon real creativity, much like when improvising.
I have listened to Chelsea play before, I have seen her on big stages at festivals, playing alongside very talented musicians I much admire. One can’t help but wonder, would life have been different if some of the most brilliant young musicians of the country had come to visit my school?