MUSIC is Mark Armstrong’s life, and at the heart of his dizzying portfolio of roles is his great love of
MUSIC is Mark Armstrong’s life, and at the heart of his dizzying portfolio of roles is his great love of jazz, writes Jon Ryan.
Nothing means more to him than the National Youth Jazz Orchestra who will be making what has become an annual pilgrimage to Henley on November 8 to prove, yet again, that jazz is alive and kicking and in very capable young hands.
Their latest concert is Jazz Goes To The Movies and it promises to be an evening of great music — just so long as Mark finalises the playlist before he arrives. With so much great music to choose from he says it’s no easy task.
But certainly Henley can be assured that there will be a little bit of Bond, and perhaps Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova and almost certainly the swing theme from the 1945 movie Laura when the main aim of a film’s theme song was to get a hit.
“I must admit it is proving to be a real challenge,” he said. “What we need to do is to find genuine bits of film music that are jazz. But I think we are bound to do a bit of James Bond.”
Henley — and in particular the Kenton Theatre — is a favourite venue for NYJO. He said: “It is small but has good acoustics and there is something very special about the atmosphere. We play bigger places like St David’s Hall but that does not necessarily mean better. You get a really great sound in a smaller venue like the Kenton.”
And when he says bigger places he can now look back with pride on the orchestra’s well-reviewed performance at the Proms last year, which was televised. They also have regular stints at Ronnie Scott’s among their 40 or so gigs each year — not bad for a 22-piece band where the upper age limit is 25.
This will be the fourth visit to the Kenton for the jazz ensemble which was founded in 1965 by Bill Ashton, now their life president. They have toured the world and produced 40 albums as well as nurturing a glittering array of jazz talent like Courtney Pine, Mark Nightingale, Gerard Presencer, Guy Barker, Mark Long — and Mark himself.
“It might be pushing it for youth but with jazz it is different,” he said. “To find people who can improvise at a young age is rare, it takes time, but I think that our age range works well. The average time people spend with us is three or four years.”
The bulk of the orchestra is aged between 20 and 21 but one rising star is trumpeter Jake Labazzi who is a mere 16.
One of the ongoing problems is trying to replace talented musicians when they leave to further their career and is exemplified by the search to find a replacement for drummer Scott Chapman who has been with them for eight years.
Auditions are held in London and Manchester and attract around 40 to 50 would-be members and the numbers are then whittled down.
As a trumpeter, Mark combines teaching and directing with playing, arranging and composing. As well as working as the jazz orchestra’s musical director he is also jazz professor at the Royal College of Music and plays regularly with the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra and the Clark Tracey Quintet.
In fact the nurturing of young jazz talent could not be in better hands and he himself was a member of NYJO as a young musician.
“I haven’t really ever left it,” he says. “It is hugely enjoyable. We just want to promote great music.”
The orchestra runs what Mark calls a “squad system”, with some musicians on first call and others drafted in when their timetables allows. While many of the jazz orchestra’s graduates go on to have successful lives playing music Mark sees working with the orchestra as rounding them off in other ways.
“There is a jazz brain which means that those people who have played with NYJO have a lot to offer in other areas.”
He sees no let-up in the enthusiasm of young musicians to play jazz: ‘I am reasonably optimistic about the future and I think it is so rewarding to deal with young people.”
But, as Mark points out, music has changed with the digital age. “Commercial music can be done by one guy on a laptop in his bedroom,” he says philosophically. But while he is at the helm he says the thrill of live music played by people who care will not be lost.
* The National Youth Jazz Orchestra plays Jazz Goes To The Movies at the Kenton Theatre on Friday, November 8. For tickets call (01491) 575698 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk