Friday, 12 August 2022

Jazz professor’s making his mark at the Kenton

HENLEY is part of a special birthday party when the National Youth Jazz Orchestra comes to

HENLEY is part of a special birthday party when the National Youth Jazz Orchestra comes to town next month.

It is 50 years since Bill Ashton created the musical institution that has given hundreds of young people the chance to learn about jazz and play in one of the most respected bands of our time.

Bill is still around — he’s now aged 78 — and still has a band called Bill Ashton’s Graduates which plays in a pub in west London.

Since he took the London Schools Jazz Orchestra and turned it into NYJO there has been a constant stream of alumni who have gone on to make a name for themselves in the jazz world.

The NYJO mark has been left on the world of jazz and popular music not least from among the young vocalists who have sung with the band.

They include not just Henley’s very own Sam Brown — now better known as the first lady of the ukulele — but the hugely talented and ultimately tragic Amy Winehouse and the chart-topping Joe Jackson. There is even footage of a young Julie Walters singing with the band.

Today’s man at the helm is artistic and music director Mark Armstrong, who is not just continuing the original Ashton philosophy but also ensuring that 50 years on it is as relevant in years to come as it was when the band was founded in 1965.

The Kenton Theatre has become a firm fixture in the NYJO’s calendar, but this year’s event — which will also feature the vocal talents of Ellie Bignall — is special.

“For one half of the show we will be looking back and playing numbers from the 50 years, the other half celebrates contemporary writers and pieces by people in the band,” says Mark, who is also Jazz Professor at the Royal College of Music.

The average band size is 22 or 23 musicians and over the course of the year they play 50 or so concerts. There is even a double album out to celebrate the anniversary called NYJO Fifty.

“We had a celebration on October 12 at the 100 Club. My aim is to keep the ethos going over the years but also to make sure it develops both in what we play and where we go,” said Mark.

Auditions are held once a year in different parts of the country. This year they were in Birmingham.

To meet its running costs, NYJO relies on grants and fundraising, including concert revenues.

Travel bursaries are awarded to ensure that those from outside London are not deprived of the chance to be part of the orchestra.

Armstrong has created more education programmes and workshops to spread the word. It is obviously a role that he loves — as well as being an accomplished performer and music academic.

“I spend about half of my working life with NYJO,” he says. “It is a wonderful organisation to be part of. It is something beyond just giving musicians a gig.

“NYJO has a great history to look back on. We are lucky to have a wonderful archive created which has so much in it.”

Indeed, visiting shows what great music has been produced down the years. It’s a chance to enjoy the story of the 50 years through a wealth of sounds and images and appreciate just what a remarkable orchestra is coming to Henley.

• 50 Years of NYJO is on at the Kenton on Friday, November 13, at 7.30pm with an open rehearsal at 3.30pm. To book tickets for either, go to or call the box office on (01491) 575698. The box office in New Street is open from 11am to 3pm on weekdays and from 10am to 1pm on Saturdays.

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