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Nottingham Jazz Orchestra Celebrates Its 50th Birthday

1 April 19 words: Will Ryan

As Nottingham Jazz Orchestra gets set to celebrate their 50th birthday, we caught up with drummer Les Shaw... 

The Nottingham Jazz Orchestra is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, being formed in 1969 from the Nottingham University's big band of the sixties. Nottingham University Russian Studies lecturer Gerry Smith was the group’s first leader and, alongside trombonist Bob Wilson, was one of the key figures in forming the NJO. The group found its first residence at The Old General pub in Hyson Green where formidable landlord Tom Parkinson watched over them. After eleven years, Smith then moved to Birmingham, occasionally coming back to work with the band, but the NJO then became dormant for a few years until pianist, composer and arranger Tommy Saville re-formed them in 1995, basing the group at The Manor in West Bridgford, now M&S's food hall. Currently, the NJO is based in Sherwood's The Federation Club and is led by Russ Buckberry, Derek Lawton and Les Shaw...

The NJO has been around for around fifty years now, do you feel that the group has changed much over this period?
We are still playing old classics such as Basie and Ellington but now more modern stuff is included, such as American Gordon Goodwin for instance, who is a great American arranger.  Due to the improvisational nature of modern jazz every time you listen you hear and learn different things. The group also gained more respect since Tommy Saville took over from 1995-2011 as the now 94 year old pianist, composer and arranger's leadership led to an increase in quality, virtually replacing the previous era's repertoire.

With the recent opening of jazz bar Peggy's Skylight, it would seem that jazz is on the rise in Nottingham. Do you believe this to be true or would you say it's more of a consistent presence?
Jazz's popularity fluctuates. A lot of people are coming back to jazz, younger audiences appreciating the genre. Many musicians look to jazz when creating, much like Sting with The Police. Not many people know this but Ronnie Scott actually opened up a jazz club in The White Eagle Polish Club in Sherwood Rise around the late ’60’s.

How would you describe the average jazz fan?
Most jazz fans are quite loyal, knowledgeable of the history, very receptive to new music and generally like the excitement of the genre.

There have been many musicians that have played with The NJO over the years, are there any that stand out in particular?
We have had a lot of great individual players, home grown; John Marshall and Ken Hart - to name just two. However it's like a football team, how they work together is the most important factor. Some that stand out specifically have been guests: Alan Barnes, a fantastic saxophonist, trumpeter Steve Waterman and quite recently Mike Lovatt .

What's the most memorable moment you have had as a band?
The Nottingham Riverside Festival is always a real buzz, but it's good when the band hits a groove and it just flows; when there are 16 musicians working together and it just swings.  There are loads of bands around but not many of them really swing. It isn't like this every gig though, some tempos definitely lend themselves better, usually the mid-tempo ones.

What would you say is the major difficulty facing the group?
Well it is difficult to keep consistent personnel, some like aforementioned go professional and if offered a better gig they'll take it, but current commitment from the band is great.  We also have deps (deputies, substitutes) if necessary to fill a vacant band member's position.

What are NJO's plans for the future, will there be another generation of band members?
Yes, there will be. There are now a lot of young talented musicians coming through. For current leaders Russ Buckberry, Derek Lawton and myself keeping it consistent is hard but it will continue.  Most cities have a big band, and they play an important part in the music community.

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