Guest Column

Youth jazz festival a rare opportunity

2017-07-23 06:05
 Youth vying for a spot in Standard Bank National Youth Band in Grahamstown. Picture: Harold Gess

Youth vying for a spot in Standard Bank National Youth Band in Grahamstown. Picture: Harold Gess

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Percy Mabandu

Every winter for the past 25 years the little university dorpie of Grahamstown has been host to a unique world-class skills exchange and festival – the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, which runs concurrently with the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.

The festive musical gathering sees a horde of more than 300 school- and university-age musicians get together with about 100 international professional musicians and teachers for workshops and performances.

The result is much more than great jazz gigs that are arguably of the best quality this side of the Atlantic.

While music lovers get to enjoy great performances by their favourite international players on a rare visit to the country, aspirant musicians are taken through a week-long series of workshops and music clinics.

They include unique training opportunities by best-of-class musicians and teachers who bring their unique skills and styles from across the world to the festival.

This means the young trainees get to benefit from the widest possible range of musical insights.

The jazz shindig happens within the famously bitter winter of the culture bowl that is Grahamstown during the National Arts Festival.

Huddled and bundled together on the campuses of Rhodes University and the Diocesan School for Girls, the big stars and the upstarts are equalised by the shared living arrangements at various residences.

There are no frills. This is one of the festival’s winning aspects.

Ask any of the musicians who’ve been through the festival and they are quick to declare:

“The level of access we get to the visiting musicians is unbelievable. It’s amazing because we live, eat and work in the same place as the international guys.

"Sometimes it’s a musician you could have been checking out and buying his records.

"Here you can walk up to him anytime and ask him how he played something on a song you liked and he’ll show you right there and then,” explained award-winning jazz bassist and former Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Shane Cooper.

He says he has attended the festival since he was in high school.

"It changed my life"

These days, Cooper is a musician with a career and international tour schedule that has taken him to Switzerland, Japan, Canada and beyond.

“Some of the international gigs I’ve played were made possible by meeting people at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival,”
he says.

Apart from getting training, the 300 young musicians get to audition for two annually constituted bands, the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band and the Standard Bank National School’s Big Band.

Previously, these bands performed in Norway, New York, Sweden and the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

“There is probably no better way to prepare any kid for a life as a musician,” argues New York-based drummer Kesivan Naidoo.

“I came to the first festival in 1995. It changed my life. I think I only missed two years because I had a gig somewhere,” he beams, with wide eyes and hands in the air.

“The festival is intense. You can quickly see how hard you need to work on your chops skills by checking out other kids on the programme.

"If I had not come to the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival when I was young, I would have been just another talented kid playing drums. Now I have a real career.

"I’m glad I can now come to give workshops too.”

The East London-born prodigious drummer and composer is the festival’s brightest alumnus.

He now lives and works in the jazz capital of the world, New York City, where he relocated after completing a master’s degree programme at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The impact of the yearly training programmes at the jazz festival is yielding fruit beyond the specific genre.

Breakaway pop stars such as Sakhile Moleshe, Dominic Peters and David Poole of chart-topping band Goldfish met at the festival.

Matthew Field who co-founded the cool pop band Beatenberg is also an alumnus of the programme.

By any standard, the festival is, as Alan Webster who has managed the festival for more than 20 years puts it, “our national barometer of the quality of talent and the future of our music industry”.

Mabandu was part of Standard Bank’s social media team during the Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown

Read more on:    grahamstown  |  culture
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