Me at the SBNYJF
Me at the SBNYJF

Every year I head up to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (incorporating the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival) for a week of explosive jazz from sunup ’til the early hours the next day. Apart from the plethora of awesome live shows I get to see there (as presented by some of the best jazz musicians in South Africa, if not the world), I also get tuition by said musicians – this ranges from electives on jazz improvisation to sound engineering, from jazz history to music business and everything in between.

The aim of this post (and subsequent posts) is to provide readers of this blog a scope into what goes down at the festival, through the eyes of an avid festival goer who also happens to be a keen student of jazz. This trip is my biggest annual highlight and often leaves me with a massive epiphany on how to better endeavour a career in not only jazz, but in the arts as a whole.

Please keep in mind that being one person, I was  not able to attend all the electives or all of the gigs – most of what I attended was chosen on merit of what applies to my personal development as a musician at this juncture in time.

NYJFAbout The Festival: Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, Grahamstown: a barometer of South African Jazz

The Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival has become one of the most significant jazz development programmes in the country, annually bringing together over 300 students and 40 teachers from diverse backgrounds all over South Africa, with nearly 60 professional jazz musicians and educators. The festival lasts nearly a week, incorporating innovative jazz performance, rehearsals, workshops, lectures, networking and an opportunity for South Africa’s future jazz stars to interact personally and musically with their peers and the country’s top performers.

The SBNYJF has hosted most of South Africa’s leading jazz musicians over the past 16 years, as well as musicians and teachers from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Mozambique, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and Zimbabwe.

Before I go further, I’d first like to say a big thank you to Felicia Lesch (course coordinator of the Certificate Programme at Stellenbosch University) for setting up the opportunity for myself and the whole lot of the Stellenbosch crowd to head out to the festival, as well as to our chaperones Lynette Petersen and Philip Vermeulen.  Without your help and support – life would pretty much suck!

Also, a massive thank you to the festival organisers Alan Webster and Donné Dowlman for putting together this unparalleled experience.

Stellenbosch Raggets
Stellenbosch Raggets

Thursday, 27 June 2013

National Youth Band Auditions

The top jazz students in South Africa audition for places in the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band and the National Youth Jazz Band (NYJB) and these national bands are conducted by some of South Africa’s leading jazz educators and performers. The NYJB performs regularly at major festivals around South Africa – Grahamstown, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban – and has performed in New York, Sweden and the North Sea Jazz Festival, The Netherlands.

Marcus Wyatt
Marcus Wyatt

This year’s band was conducted by Marcus Wyatt, one of South Africa’s leading trumpeters and recipient of many major awards. He has worked with some really boss people in music including Abdullah Ibrahim, Winston Mankunku, Jimmy Dludlu, Bheki Mseleku, Waddy ‘Ninja’ Jones (Die Antwoord) and James Morrison! I also have to add that I’m a mad fan of his music, his 2005 album Language 12 changed my life – no kidding.

Once again, I went head first into the physically and emotionally taxing audition situation – hoping to get a spot in the band as the bassist; full knowing that I would probably get my butt handed to me by the formidable Benjamin Jephta (who made the band the previous two times, along with drummer Marlon Witbooi – both rhythm section stalwarts from the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town).

The audition panel this year was made up of Alan Webster (Festival Organiser), Brian Thusi (Trumpeter and Professor of Music), Nishlyn Ramanna (Piano professor at Rhodes University), Carlo Mombelli (Bass Boss and Lecturer in Jazz at Wits University) and Mark Ginsburg (Boss of Saxophone in Australia).

Charl Clayton
Charl Clayton

The first round of the audition went most fetchingly I thought – with every player having to recite a prepared piece, do a bit of sight reading and jam over a jazz standard. It was the final round of the whole thing that went mad crazy! Myself and Charl Clayton (Tenor Sax boss) were the only two Stellenbosch kids that went to the last round against a strong contingent of jazz bosses from UCT, including those other two rhythm section boys mentioned above and a few random guys from other institutions.

Marcus split the finalists into two groups (or two bands) with the aim of having them do a spur of the moment jazz arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard A Night in Tunisia, which went down in front of a live audience of about 100 festival goers.

Trying my best
Trying my best

The first band seemed to nail the task at hand right proper, but my band seemed really spooked with such a dubious and exposing instruction – how does one (or many) do a full arrangement of a piece of music, having not played with one another before and in the face of a very discerning audience and group of panel members?

That group was pretty much eliminated. End of story. 🙂

Congratulations to the chosen ones:

Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band 2013: Matthew Ehrenreich (Alto), Zeke le Grange (Tenor), Sibusiso Mkhize (Trumpet), Murray Buitendag (Trombone), Thandi Ntuli (Piano), Benjamin Jephta (Bass), Marlon Witbooi (Drums), Palesa Modiga (Voice).


BruutMaaten Hogenhuis (Sax), Folkert Oosterbeeck (Hammond Organ), Thomas Rolff (Bass), Felix Schlarmann (Drums)

Shortly after the national band auditions ended, it was time for the opening act of the festival – a ‘super jazz’ group from Holland called BRUUT!.

You will have noticed the exclamation mark at the end of their name written in all caps – well that’s because their sound is a mixture of funk, blues, dance and contemporary jazz underpinned by an ‘in your face’, fat and no prisoners type stage performance. Backed up by the tightest rhythm section I’ve seen in ages, their saxophonist Maaten Hogenhuis is one killer of a player (having won the Best Soloist award at the Dutch Jazz Competition last year). All in all I felt this gig was awesome. I particularly enjoyed the very present chemistry between all four of the members, as I could tell they were all having a lot of fun – which in turn allowed the audience to participate in the fun too.

Rus Nerwich & Wondering Who

Rus Nerwich
Rus Nerwich

Rus Nerwich (Sax), Andrew Lilley (Piano), Nick Williams (Bass), Ronan Skillen (Tabla & Percussion), Kevin Gibson (Drums)

Cape Saxophonist Rus Nerwich is always wondering, considering, exploring and searching for new ways in which to add a new face to the prism, and by introducing eclectic sounds and exotic colours, instruments that have “predictable” tones suddenly find new life.

The above quote is quite a fitting description for this collective, as Rus managed to fuse influences from various sources into one coherent whole.

The set opened beautifully with Rus playing an instrument that looked like an mbira (although I may be mistaken) over Ronan Skillen’s percussive table playing. After a few moments, the repetition of simple ideas led to a cacophony of unique colours and tones until the drums came in ‘pow’! What managed to keep the whole thing together I felt was Nick Williams, who let his bass grooves anchor the entire show simply, smoothly and without too much embellishment. Kevin Gibson always seems to play sparingly, which is something I reckon comes with years of experience – somehow managing to emphasize only what’s truly necessary.

A delicate and well refined gig – something I definitely want to see happen in many more incarnations in other settings.

Shortly after this gig was over, I was out like a light. Please keep your eyes peeled for subsequent posts.

In memory of Salmone Moller van Vuuren.
In memory of Salmone Moller van Vuuren.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *