Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra combines high-quality music education with all the fun, freedom and creativity of jazz, as Gayle discovers…
According to top jazz musician Richard Michael, “mistakes are cool”.
This sentiment is music to the ears, if you’ll pardon the pun, to members of Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, a group founded by Richard back in 1976.
“A mistake in jazz is an opportunity to make it into something exciting,” he muses.
I bear this in mind as I listen, mesmerised, to the orchestra’s weekly rehearsals in full swing.
Players, currently ranging in age from nine to 17 years old (although the orchestra is open to those aged eight to 24) are encouraged to improvise, to experiment and, as long as they play with energy and conviction, they get the big thumbs up from Richard.
Tonight, they’re rehearsing in the Lochgelly Centre for their Christmas concert, focusing on a piece Richard wrote himself, The Shetland Suite.
Comprising of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, rhythm section (piano, bass, guitar and drums), violins, and even a scat singer, the orchestra makes a beautiful sound, and one which gets bigger and better as the session progresses.
This is largely down to Richard’s boundless enthusiasm and energy.
“Swing like crazy!” he commands, arms flailing wildly. “Be loud, be strong, be wrong!
“Imagine we’re not in Lochgelly! We’re flying into Shetland. We see miles of sea, the edge of a cliff…and then there’s the glorious summer twilight.
“Imagine that brilliant sunshine. Then we go into the ceilidh, and things get wilder until we’re shouting!”
This imagery gets the players going, and I realise I’m grinning like a buffoon, feet tapping furiously.
Many members of FYJO, as they fondly call the orchestra, have gone on to do big things in the music industry.
Some study at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire (formerly RSAMD), some are tutors, while others are session musicians and top performers.
One such player is bassist Andy Hammill who sent Richard a postcard while he was touring with Kylie Minogue, telling him FYJO was “more fun than Kylie!” Now, there’s a testimony!
Another FYJO alumni is Tom Gordon, who’s come along tonight to support 15-year-old drummer Joe Petrie.
As well as being the drummer with the BBC Big Band, Tom has worked with the likes of film composer Lalo Schifrin, jazz stars Jon Faddis and Joe Lovano, and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
With such talent around me, and considering the fact the orchestra needs to crack on and nail the tunes they’re practising, I decided not to embarrass myself by asking if I can have a shot on the drums.
Yes, I did used to play them (as well as timpani, xylophone, marimba and various other percussion instruments) in a couple of school bands and orchestras, and I was also a member of the Grampian Schools Percussion Ensemble.
To my shame, I haven’t picked up a drumstick since I was about 17, so I’m not about to put my head above the parapet and make a fool of myself now.
Instead, I gladly accept a tambourine, and join in, keeping my drumming history a secret until later.
I’d like to think I did a decent job, and certainly, Tom praises my time-keeping, saying: “I think you might secretly play the drums!” and giving me a wink.
The great thing about FYJO is that you do as much – or as little – as you can. And rather than having to read music, much of it is done by ear and improvisation.
“You don’t need grades as you would with classic training,” says Richard. “And even if you can only play one note, you will play that at a concert.”
Once the orchestra has run through The Shetland Suite, players break into groups to work on their performances. I stick with the rhythm section, playing along on tambourine, and even having a wee go on a cowbell.
Richard set up FYJO because he was passionate about teaching young people jazz and wanted to break the mould of musicians having to stick to the script and be note-perfect.
“I felt like the black sheep of music because I was teaching kids to do music without reading it and instead, improvising,” he says.
“What I’m doing is the opposite of what I was taught at RSAMD, where I was nearly expelled for playing jazz gigs at the weekends!”
In a strange quirk of fate, Richard helped devise the Associated Board grades for jazz piano and was responsible for introducing the criteria of “swing” and “groove” into the syllabus.
Richard, 70, a former music teacher at Beath High, Cowdenbeath, has played piano since he was four and performed in his dad’s Scottish country dance band around Stonehaven.
Drawn to jazz when an “enlightened jazz teacher” at Mackie Academy let him hear Dudley Moore, Richard went on to seek out jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in his own voyage of discovery. He hoped to be a professional jazz pianist but discovered he loved teaching jazz.
Players of FYJO hail from across Fife and beyond with violinist, 17-year-old Audrey Doyle, coming from Edinburgh.
“There’s no instrument we can’t accommodate,” says Richard. “And as well as enjoying jazz, players make lifelong friendships.”
His advice to anyone keen to join FYJO is to come along and “be prepared to get it wrong with attitude”.
Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra was founded in 1976 by Richard Michael. It was originally funded by Fife Council but now relies entirely on donations. fyjo.org.uk
There are no auditions or formal requirements for new members.
Richard also runs a jazz summer school – the Richard Michael Jazz Summer Course.
It’s at Strathallan School from August 7-12 in 2020. richardmichaelsjazzschool.com
Richard is an honorary professor of jazz piano at St Andrews University, and a broadcaster on BBC Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights.
FYJO’s Christmas concert is on Sunday December 1 at King Malcolm Hotel, Dunfermline, at 3pm.