In Dunedin’s beautifully-restored Hanover Hall, young jazz musicians wow the crowd with big band numbers and a fresh touch.
The mainly-teenagers perform on the same stage as professionals, including the man considered to be New Zealand’s foremost alto saxophonist, Jake Baxendale. Big band sounds fill the early-1900s building.
The youth bands playing in this showcase concert last August were the Logan Park High School Big Band, directed by John Dodd, and the Dunedin Youth Jazz Orchestra (DYJO).
Finn McKinlay (19) plays trombone for the latter, although was introduced to jazz at Logan Park.
When Finn was younger, his parents owned a large compact disk collection and he and his brother would listen to a disco compilation for hours. Finn began playing the trombone at intermediate, however was more excited by the high school jazz band.
“We played a lot of funk tunes, I really picked up a sense of groove that I liked, probably from the disco compilation that I listened to!”
Finn says that during three full years in the DYJO, he’s gained a much stronger grasp on things he’d previously only generally grasped. The orchestra performs slightly more involved music harmonically than what he’d been playing.
I’ve learnt how much I haven’t learned yet.”
The 19-year-old has also been able to contribute. While the other trombonists are good, because he’s been playing the instrument longer, he can pass on “hot tips” learned from experience.
Asked to describe what jazz is, Finn says this is notoriously hard. However, he gives it a good go.
“It’s like a rhythmic music with a large emphasis on improvisation and syncopation.”
Founded in 2018
The DYJO Musical Director, Bill Martin, founded the orchestra in 2018 in response to requests from his Otago Girls’ and Boys’ High School jazz band students to enter a competition.
Bill says the resulting annual Dunedin Youth Jazz Festival for big bands and small combos is growing. Festival winners feed into the orchestra, which was initially set up as a charitable trust to run this competition.
Orchestra events have included Literature in Jazz concerts at the Dunedin Public Library which were so popular they couldn’t fit everyone in. They combined Miles Davis’ songs with readings from the acclaimed jazz trumpeter’s autobiography.
“I wanted to do something that was more modern, that was pushing young players a bit and promoting soloists,” Bill says.
A $5000 Southern Trust grant bought equipment and finances rehearsals at Hanover Hall, which is the DYJO rehearsal space and performance venue.
Through the orchestra, Bill desires to complement the strong work high school teachers are doing with jazz bands.
He wants to introduce a more challenging repertoire, to create an educational space in which youth can learn about the genre’s history and have opportunities to improvise and play solos, and to provide a professional stage for them.
The University of Otago doesn’t have a jazz programme and he plans to offer an alternative pathway so young people who want to become jazz musicians don’t need to leave the city.
While the DYJO is an institutional structure, he hopes that over time, young musicians will form small combos and start playing gigs and develop more of an organic youth jazz scene in the city.
“The thing about jazz is that it’s not an easy art form,” says Bill, who is an accomplished jazz pianist and composer.
It’s kind of a slow burn; you get better as a jazz musician by playing.”
The DYJO is a traditional 17-piece big band composed of five saxophonists playing the lead melodies; four trombonists responsible for the chords, and trumpeters who play the counter melodies and add “brilliance to the sound”. The piano, guitar, drums and bass make up the rhythm section.
The high school and university students’ ages range from 15 to 20 years. They practice weekly for a couple of hours and more often for concerts.
In February this year, the orchestra released New Grooves, a four-song album of Bill’s compositions.
The album was recorded at Hanover Hall, with only two takes for each tune. Bill considers the best track is Sidesteps, combining serial composition with groove and funk-based jazz.
“It has a modern sound and the kids like playing it.”
Feedback regarding the DYJO has been positive, including when it plays on the same Hanover Hall stage as older, seasoned professionals.
“I think that the group is good enough to perform on a professional stage,” Bill says.
“People are more generous in how they listen to the young groups – they appreciate what is being done well.”
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For further information about:
The newly-formed Dunedin Jazz Club
The Hanover Hall restoration