BBC Young Jazz Musician

I’m thrilled to be in the final of the BBC’s inaugural Young Jazz Musician of the Year, which is recorded next Saturday at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and is going to be broadcast on the 23rd of May. I get to play an 18 minute set with the Gwilym Simcock Trio, which I am really looking forward to! You can read more here, Kerry Clark (the competition manager) has written a long blog post about the experience so far:

‘Although I’ve been involved with the BBC Young Musician competition since 2008 as an Executive Producer at Radio 3, this year is the first time I’ve managed the running of the competition.

BBC Young Musician is a huge team effort and as you can imagine there are lots of people involved in making the competition what it is. As Competition Manager I liaise with competitors (as well as their parents, teachers and schools), and together with the Executive Editor for BBC Young Musician select adjudicators and brief the juries. I sit-in on all of the auditions and make sure the marking is fair. I’m also responsible for child protection, which is extremely important to us, and making sure we abide by the BBC’s competition rules. And, in the run up to each round and the finals, I’ll work with venues, orchestras and conductors making arrangements for performances. I also write guidelines for adjudicators and look after the competition website and social media. I should say though, it’s not a one man band – there are two of us!

I have worked in music broadcasting for 15 years or so but this is the best job I have ever done or can imagine doing. Hearing the young people perform (I’ve sat in on around 650 auditions so far, so I’ve heard a lot of music) and watching them progress through the rounds is inspiring, moving, and then hearing the judges discuss the music and performances – heaven for a music geek like me. It has even got me to pick up my viola again, although members of my family might not think that’s such a good thing.

BBC Young Musician aims to give young people a platform like no other – and to make sure that they have an experience that will stand them in good stead as they develop as musicians. A very important part of that aim is that everyone who enters is heard by top musicians and everyone can request feedback from them. That’s incredibly valuable – it’s not every day that a 15 year old can play to a world class professional musician and get tips and advice from them. They also have the opportunity to be heard on television (coverage starts on BBC Four in April) and BBC Radio 3 and we hope that people watching and listening will be gripped by the journey those musicians go on through the competition. We want to demonstrate the power of music, be proud of what these young people can do and inspire others to get involved in music-making.

In recent years we’ve been keen to develop BBC Young Musician, to expand its reach and to include a whole other set of musicians and a new audience. It’s a great time for jazz and jazz education in this country – more young people are getting access to jazz earlier, more schools and conservatoires are offering courses. Most of the jazz judges we’ve worked with have been self-taught because there simply weren’t the same opportunities to study jazz formally when they were students as there are now. They tell stories about studying at music college and there being signs on the pianos saying, “NOT TO BE USED FOR JAZZ”. But that’s changed now – jazz is a really popular choice for more young people than ever and we wanted to reflect that and give it the attention it deserves. Now seemed the right time to reflect that change in music education and develop a jazz competition.

The competition works in a similar way to the classical competition. That was important. We’ve been determined throughout to treat the jazz as seriously as we do the classical side, but that it should have its own identity.

The first round was judged on DVD submissions – everyone sent us some video of themselves performing and two judges (Paula Gardiner, Head of Jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and Dave Stapleton, jazz pianist, composer and record label boss) watched and marked them all and selected those who should go through to the next round based on a fixed set of criteria (the quality of the video was not taken into account). Twenty three young people were selected to go through to the next round and came to Cardiff for a live audition where each performer got to perform with a trio of professional jazz musicians, after a short rehearsal. For this round the judging panel was Simon Purcell (Head of Jazz at Trinity), Iain Ballamy (saxophonist and composer) and Steve Watts (bass player). Each performance was judged according to a set criteria (similar to the ‘classical’ competition ) and the top five went through to the final.

Jake Labazzi – Trumpet (16 years old)

Sean Payne – Saxophone (13 years old)

Tom Smith – Saxophone (18 years old)

Freddie Jensen – Double bass (14 years old)

Alexander Bone – Saxophone (17 years old)

We received over 50 applications for the Jazz Award, in this first year. The maximum age for applicants was 18 and there had to be a substantial element of improvisation in all the performances. Surprisingly, only a small minority of those applications were from girls. It’s interesting though that this is an industry-wide issue. It would have been great to have had more girls applying and we’ll have a think about that for 2016. But it’s really important to stress (and important to us) that all applicants, on both sides of the competition, are judged strictly on the merits of their performance on the day, regardless of age or gender.

The Jazz Final takes place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on Saturday 8th March and is due to be broadcast on BBC Four at the end of May. The event will be presented by Soweto Kinch, the award-winning saxophonist and rapper.

The finalists will all perform with the Gwilym Simcock Trio, who will work with and mentor them as they prepare for the final. The classical finalists are always most excited about the chance to work with a top orchestra and conductor and we wanted to come up with an equivalent experience for the jazz competitors – Gwilym is definitely that. Each competitor can play for up to 18 minutes. One of their numbers must be something they’ve composed or arranged themselves – but apart from that, they can play whatever they like.

We are in regular contact with the finalists and their parents about the final, what will happen, what it will be like and what they need to do. We did some low-key filming at the auditions so that they have some experience of talking and playing in front of cameras. Since then they have been filmed again for the inserts we make about them, so by the time the final comes around they will be used to the idea of performing in front of the camera, although I must say that the jazz competitors are largely living up to the stereotype of being incredibly relaxed and chilled about everything. All we hear is how excited they are about playing with Gwilym and how much they’re looking forward to it.

In years to come, we would like the jazz competition to grow. We hope that it will provide an invaluable platform for young musicians as they begin their careers and of course also that it might inspire other people, young and old, to listen to or play jazz themselves. It’s also about opening ears and showing what jazz really is – an intellectually demanding but incredibly creative and expressive discipline.’