I first saw the John Wilson Orchestra playing at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago, and I was totally blown away by their style and standard.
When I first really got into swing and jazz music, my listening was limited to big bands from the 1930s and beautiful orchestrations in the old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films.
The scores to these films, and many other MGM films from the same era, were unfortunately destroyed in 1969. John Wilson took on the challenge to restore these scores for his wonderful hand-picked orchestra to perform.
At the beginning of this year, THSH began Women in Jazz, a project that aims to support young female jazz musicians, providing them with opportunities to develop both creative and professional skills needed to develop a career in jazz which is currently a bit of a male dominated world.
I expressed my interest in meeting John Wilson to the Project Manager Phil Woods and Creative Adviser Sara Colman, and they arranged for me to interview John. I was very excited and began to research deeper into the conductor’s life and the orchestra in order to ask some really good questions. Although I was nervous about meeting him, I reminded myself of a few things:
1. John is also human!
2. He also studied at a conservatoire
3. He has a passion for a particular style of music
So actually, John and I have quite a few things in common and I realised that he could probably relate to a lot of my own experiences and vice versa.
In the interview John and his manager were extremely friendly and interested in my musical studies. John asked me about which instruments I play, and was pleased to hear that I double on flute, clarinet and saxophone as he said that in this day and age it’s really important to double on other instruments.
Eager to find out how his interest in swing music began, I told him how I first discovered jazz music by accidentally finding a Benny Goodman track on the internet, which then opened the door to the music of the 1930’s. I asked John about who or what had first opened that door for him, to which he answered Frank Sinatra.
He elaborated on this, and told me that Frank Sinatra to him had the most fantastic voice he had ever heard and loved the beautiful accompaniment of the orchestra. This totally took me by surprise, as a man who studied classical music at the Royal College of Music I had not expected this response. For someone like me who has also admired the very same things about Sinatra, it formed a very visible smile on my face!
I then began to ask John about how he developed this interest in the music and how he took it further. His answers simply inspired me. He described his musical education, and I was shocked to hear that while he was at school in Newcastle there was an arts strike which lasted around 4 years. This meant that there were no extracurricular arts activities at his school and yet he still was able to single-handedly arrange and conduct musicals.
At the Royal College of Music John was able to form relationships with classical musicians, and jazz musicians from the Royal Academy of Music, and he regularly used to play in dance band gigs with them.
Interested in his experience, I asked him whether he got a lot of support from the tutors at the conservatoire and their view on his musical interests. He told me that he actually found that his musical colleagues were the ones who supported him the most and some of those who were originally in the first band are still performing in the orchestra to date, along with his manager who has stuck by him from the very beginning.
I asked him about his amazing orchestra, which is described by many at Birmingham Conservatoire as one of the best in the country in terms of the string section. He told me that the majority of the string musicians came from conservatoires but the wind section varies, with the musicians coming from brass bands, army bands and jazz courses.
As the interview came to a close, my final question was my most important. I asked him if he could give a musician like me, who loves a particularly rare type of music which can often be overlooked by many musicians, some kind of advice. He told me to never give up on the music I love, and never to stop working at it. He added that what you do outside of the conservatoire is as fruitful as the work you do inside of it.
All in all, the whole experience with John definitely put my faith back into the music I love, and I am now determined to become the best musician I can possibly be and to follow in his footsteps. I am forever grateful that the people at Jazzlines and THSH made this interview happen.
– Sam Wright
John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra will perform at Symphony Hall on Thursday 12 November 2015
The Women In Jazz programme continues later this month with a Professional Development Event offering career advice and guidance from a panel of experienced musicians and industry figures, open to female jazz musicians between the age of 16 and 25.