Secret Night Gang – making their own way

Helena Summerfield interviews Manchester-based Secret Night Gang (SNG), a soul jazz band started by two friends, saxophonist Callum Connell and vocalist Kemani Anderson, who came up through the Manchester education system. They have just been signed to Brownswood Recordings and one of their tracks has been picked up for use in Grand Theft Auto.

LISTEN to SNG  secretnightgang.bandcamp.com/track/the-sun

Helena: Am I right in thinking that you were about 14 when you started writing music together?

Callum: Yeah, I was about 14 but we’d actually known each other for a lot longer before that. We first met playing football. We played for a couple years together every week at Manchester City soccer dome and then we lost contact for about three years.

Kemani: Ironically enough, we ended up going to the same high school. For a good year, I didn’t even know that he went to the same high school as us. It wasn’t until about year eight, where we started playing steel pans that we started to recognise each other. We never looked back since and developed a love for music properly from the age of 14.

Callum: The first musical thing that I did was singing in a choir in primary school. We used to go to churches around Manchester singing in different choirs and at Christmas. Then when I went to high school, I started to play piano and steel pans. They were the first things that I started to play.

Kemani: I was brought up in the church and was heavy influenced by gospel music. But I remember being a six, seven-year-old kid sitting in the back of his dad’s car listening to Smooth FM and soul tunes, like ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ and ‘Part Time Lover’ and that was my real exposure to music from a young age. My mum’s a singer and my brothers are also musicians, so it all contributed to that love for music.

Callum: I loved playing classical music, classical piano. Then I didn’t want to play classical music anymore because there was a school jazz band, and everyone got to play in that because that was the way you got to do a concert – playing an instrument that was used to play in a jazz band. Unfortunately, I was only playing classical piano. So that’s when I then picked up the saxophone and I was taught by Helen Pillinger. She developed me into the person that I needed to be by getting me into the records and into the music. She was a really big influence on me and my learning. She brought me into all the jazz courses that were going on in Manchester and got me involved with the right contacts. My musical career started developing and I started playing saxophone to a really good level.

Kemani: I did steel pans in primary school and carried that on for about eight years from year two to year 11, about eight or nine years. But then in that space of time, I also developed a love for singing. I sang in church for a few years and it was cool, but I was hearing all these other artists like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway who weren’t necessarily doing gospel music, they were doing soul music, which still resonated with me. I have always wanted to make music like that, or in tribute to that. Meeting Callum exposed me to all kinds of music. I remember the first concert that we properly did was at Band on the Wall and ever since that day, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.

Helena: This brings us nicely to your band. Can you tell me a little bit about SNG?

Kemani: It all started in the summer of 2018 when me and Callum went to Love Supreme Jazz Festival. We saw some of our favourite artists like Earth Wind and FireGeorge Clinton and the Funkadelics and Level 42 and we were just so inspired. We wanted to write music after we had seen all of that. It was a life changing weekend. Then a week later, we go to Jam Street and meet another founder of the band, Stuart Whitehead. We had a discussion and he showed us previous things that he’d done and we digged it, we liked the vibe that he was on.

Callum: Me, Kemani and Stuart used to have a rehearsal room next to the old Tranmere Yard in Old Trafford. We used to go there super late at night. We’d all been to college or whatever else all day and we’d turn up at about 9 / 10 o’clock at night, and we’d rehearse until the early hours in the morning. Then Stuart’s son came home one day and was like, “Dad, I’ve joined a gang like yours”, and Stu asks what it’s called, and his son says, “the Secret Night Gang”.

Kemani: And Stu says, “That’s fantastic.”

Callum: So, that’s where the name came from because that’s essentially what we were doing. We were writing albums and writing music, the three of us together in the rehearsal rooms late at night, and it stuck with Stu’s son and that’s where the name ended up coming from. No one knew that we were writing music, no one in Manchester knew, it was all kept a secret for quite a long time, Everything’s come out now and great things have happened for us this year.

Helena: Who else is in the band? Can you talk me through the lineup?

Callum: Kemani Anderson on vocals, myself Callum Connell on saxophone, Stuart Whitehead on bass. We switch between Aaron Wood and Elias Atkinson, on trumpets. Mikey Wilson, the legendary Mikey Wilson is on drums, Jack Duckham on guitar and Kemani is playing a lot of keyboards at the moment for live stuff. But also featuring on the album will be John Ellis and Al Scott.

Helena: It’s a who’s who of Manchester music that, it sounds amazing.

Callum: Running the whole project and our producer and engineer is Yyonne Ellis.

Helena: Fantastic. And I hear exciting news about the band getting signed to Brownswood Recordings.

Callum: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve released two singles and the second single, The Sun, Giles Peterson picked up and absolutely loved it and played it out on BBC Radio 6. The whole eight minutes as well, which is quite remarkable to get an eight-minute-long track played nowadays. After that we started having talks and Giles offered us a deal to be part of their team and work with them and we couldn’t say no really! Giles is an absolute legend on the scene and for me, the London scene wouldn’t be what it is today without him, because he’s helped so many people form this new London jazz scene, and it’s blowing up across the world. It’s nice to see great artists coming out of London now and touring the world.

Helena: I’m glad you guys are there representing Manchester and our northern jazz scene.

Kemani: Always, every day.

Helena: And can video game addicts catch your song The Sun on a game?

Kemani: Yes, they can, oh yeah.

Callum: We had talks with Rockstar Games and they loved ‘The Sun’, our new single. Giles Peterson put it in his Worldwide FM GTA (Grand Theft Auto) playlist so you can listen to the playlist on YouTube or if you’re playing the game, Grand Theft Auto, you can go on Worldwide FM and listen to our new single.

Kemani: It’s the very last song of the playlist.

Helena: Save the best ‘til last. Kemani and Callum laugh.

https://www.facebook.com/SNGmanchester

https://sngmanchester.weebly.com/


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How Jazz North Introduces changed our lives!

Photograph © Olivia Da Costa www.instagram.com/oliviadacostaphoto

Rory Ingham is the frontman of Bonsai (formerly The Jam Experiment) who formed at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. The band won a place on Jazz North’s Introduces in 2014 and they are still the only under 19 band picked for the scheme that provides young northern jazz artists their first high-profile showcase performances. Here Rory tells us how being picked back then has impacted his career…

“Bonsai won the inaugural Jazz North Introduces Scheme in 2014; this had an immense impact on all of us – both the future of the band and as individuals.

The application itself inspired us to write new tracks and record them in the studio. It also pushed us to finally create a band name and have some professional photos taken. It gave us a goal! So naturally we were delighted when we found out we’d won. We were instantly booked to play at four major UK jazz festivals, as well as being awarded a photoshoot, three days rehearsing with a mentor of our choice, and the opportunity to record a concert resulting in high-quality footage.

Initially, winning the award helped us to believe we had something valuable to offer, showing us that we should continue to create music together. And so we did, preparing to play our first series of high profile concerts.

Playing our very first major jazz festival gigs as a small band was our passport to access new audiences and expand our following. These festivals were always attended by many club promoters, which meant that we were immediately exposed to potential bookers from all around the UK. The accolade of the award itself was incredibly important for our profile.

We were featured in top jazz magazine Jazzwise, giving us a ‘look-in’ with promoters who were booking festivals and club dates. Not only could we go on to play at these festivals, but because of our recent victory, we were graced with the presence of large audiences interested in hearing us.

The Electronic Press Kit was our ticket to book our own festival and club dates, which led to more touring in the UK and then eventually into other parts of Europe, such as Rome, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, and Krakow. With Jazz North offering to help put together this EPK, it allowed us all to learn what was required of us if we were to go on to be successful in booking our own shows.

On a personal note, playing the jazz festival gigs allowed me to meet the promoters booking them, and in turn develop friendships and further relationships with promoters, press, and record label managers.

Winning the award also came with three days mentoring with our chosen artist – Mike Walker. This had a profound impact on the group’s development and process. Mike opened our ears to new ways of thinking about music as individuals and as group, learning more about listening, communicating, and serving the music unobstructed by our ego’s. This not only raised the standard of our performances, but also allowed us to be more honest with each other in rehearsal, in the name of the music.

Now, described by London Jazz News as “one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed young bands on the UK scene”, Bonsai have a Parliamentary Jazz Awards nomination for Best Newcomer, have been the featured artists in Jazzwise’s ‘Taking Off’ series, and have been interviewed and performed on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio London. Bonsai have an album out (Bonsai Clubon the prestigious record label Ubuntu Music and over 100 shows under our belt, and all thanks to the springboard that Jazz North initially provided to us with their Jazz North Introduces Award!”

Rory Ingham
January 2021


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Jazz North northern line and Introduces update

We wanted to keep you updated if you’re anticipating a new round of recruitment for the next rosters of Jazz North’s northern line and Jazz North Introduces.

You’ll hear from us as we develop our programmes, but recruitment is still paused for the moment. We want to honour the time left on the schemes for our current artists and stay true to the original aspirations to support and unite artists, promoters and audiences. This means, rather than shifting online, the current round has been extended to let artists get back to playing music in 2021.

There will be lots of news from us in the coming months, so make sure you stay in the loop by signing up to our mailing list at the bottom of this page.


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DJAZZ’s Heather Spencer is our new Programme Manager

“Having been working in jazz for a few years now, I’ve come to learn a lot about the breadth and variety of jazz in the north and have had the chance to meet a lot of the musicians, educators and organisers making it happen.

My work history has been centred up in the North East, as co-director of DJAZZ, Jazz Development Coordinator at Sage Gateshead and co-programmer of Sunday Jazz at Middlesbrough Town Hall. I’ve been involved in lots of event freelancing and was part of the HMUK Jazz Promoter Fellowship in the early days of trying to work it all out.

I met some amazing people, saw some great music and learnt so much whilst volunteering at festivals and making pizza in my brother-in-law’s Chorley market stall. It’s been a fun and rewarding few years and it really has been so much down to the help and support of some brilliant people.

I’ve been working as Programme Manager at Jazz North for just over a month now and I am so thrilled to be part of this small but mighty team – there are only five of us! I was introduced to Jazz North through the fantastic Lucy Woolley who has been doing brilliant stuff in this role before I joined and is now network manager at Jazz Promotion Network (JPN) amongst many other things. Lucy invited me down to the JPN conference in Leeds, following the first edition of DJAZZ in my final year of university. I didn’t really have an idea of what a sector even was at that point, so it really did all kick start from the people I met there.

My role as Programme Manager is based on shaping and delivering activities that support the northern jazz sector. Right now, I manage our artist development programme and lead promoter and artist networking sessions on a regular basis. It’s definitely strange to join a live-music-driven organisation during the most difficult period live music has faced in our lifetime. Despite this, I’ve really felt the togetherness and solidarity of this industry as people have come together to support one another and share experiences.

Come and say hello – heather@jazznorth.org

It would be lush to say hello if you’re reading this and wondering about Jazz North and how it can support you as an artist or connect you as a promoter. Or, if you have no idea what we do or if you’ve already engaged with us a million times and would just like to be in touch again. Especially in these seemingly endless times of being apart, it’s so important to have spaces to connect and I hope this is something we can really help with as we make sustainable and resilient plans for the future.

I really look forward to getting to know this scene even more over the coming months and into a time when we can all get back into venues and enjoy the brilliant live music northern jazz has to offer.”

Heather Spencer


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Jez Matthews on livestreaming, garden gigs and bumpy roads ahead

As soon as lockdown happened, I wanted to try and livestream gigs, so I was pleased when pianist Sam Leak got in touch. Sam had been investigating what was required and wanted to give it a go; so we took our first leap into the new world.

Our initial thoughts were that the gig livestream needed to ensure that money went to the musician(s) (many of the livestreams at that point in time were free or donation-only) and that both sound and visuals should be of a good standard. I also felt that we could balance the slight remoteness inherent with online gigs and provide a sense of community by holding a Zoom meetup and a Q&A with Sam. I also added a personal video introduction and a raffle to further maintain the link to our actual gigs at The Lescar.

Sam’s technical approach involved OBS broadcasting software at the musician’s end, and we used a private Facebook event page to broadcast the event. The gig was a success, Facebook allowed audience responses to be visible, giving a sense of being ‘in a room’ surrounded by fellow fans, and the Zoom meet-up was attended by a lot of the audience, and Sam’s music was of course perfect.

We stuck with Facebook for a couple more gigs, but there are some disadvantages with it, not least it excludes audience members who don’t like it, or just don’t use it, and also the payment/entry process was slightly clunky.

As a result we refocused our efforts onto Crowdcast. This is an internet platform used by the likes of Hay Festival. It allows a nice clean payment and registration process, as well as still offering the audience the chance to feedback with a built-in chat mechanism. We also focused on learning about OBS, and establishing a technical template and process for all gigs that we could pass onto musicians each time. We’re fortunate enough to have on the Jazz at The Lescar team a couple of people who have been successfully filming our gigs, so we’ve been building up some audio/visual skills without quite realising how useful they were about to become.

We decided early on that using Zoom for the gigs compromised both sound and audio too much, and presented some administrative problems, although we have retained it for our post-gig audience meet-ups, which I really love.

Over the course of eight gigs (including two Sheffield Jazz livestreams) we refined things, and learned a few lessons along the way. The musicians were amazing, and we were blown away by the audiences and their overwhelmingly positive feedback, and importantly, we’ve also ensured that the musicians involved can be paid for their art. An unforeseen impact has been feedback from audience members who’ve said that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to make the gigs in Sheffield, and now can do this thanks to the new technology.

The downside is that the level of preparation is high (so far between 6 and 8 hours of technical setup and sound-checking) and there is minimal control of any issues once you ‘go live’ with the broadcast. Also there is a high level of dependency on the technical setup at the musicians’ end, which puts them under additional pressure I feel.

After a few months of organising live-streams, I was beyond delighted in July to be offered the chance to arrange a gig in a private garden belonging to two friends of Jazz at The Lescar, Steve and Bo Escritt. The garden was large enough to easily accommodate enough people with the required social distancing.

Filled with joy and relief, we went away to work out what we needed to do. We took advice from a number of people, not least the amazing team at Jazz North, the police and fire service, and also from some trusted friends with legal expertise who helped us negotiate the ambiguities in the government guidelines and legislation, and to ensure that we ran our event both legally and safely. Our garden venue needed to be converted into a ‘COVID-secure’ and safe environment, with a total limit of 30 people strictly enforced, and by carrying out appropriate risk assessments and doing things like taking advance payments only, ensuring social distancing, and providing sanitiser. All this was done with the clock ticking towards the end of summer, and the threat of less favourable weather.

All the work paid off. The gig ran smoothly and was a real delight. Sheffield-based guitarist Jamie Taylor was joined in a trio organised specially for the event with Martyn Spencer on bass, and Johnny Hunter on drums. It was such a joy to see everyone there, and everyone was so pleased to experience the live music that we’d all been missing for months! Our audience helped us with some really generous donations, and the event also raised money for City of Sanctuary Sheffield, a brilliant charity working to build a culture of welcome and hospitality for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Our only regret was that we couldn’t invite a few more people along, but we hope we can run more events like it next year.

As we head into the winter months, and a lot of uncertainty around running live events, we’re currently unable to run gigs at The Lescar. They’re in such a difficult situation; the government guidelines have made it very difficult for them to run events of any kind. We love that room, and the great team of people down there. They’re so supportive, and it’s been the scene of so many great nights and amazing memories, and we hope we can get back soon.

In the meantime we’ve just had a really successful joint promotion with like-minded promoters Listen! in Cambridge, running a beautiful pre-recorded live stream featuring Chris Montague, Ruth Goller and Kit Downes, and we’re working on a schedule of events at another venue, mixing pure live streams (with no audiences) with a few live gigs which we’ll also stream so that we can make them work financially and to make them accessible for audience members who are unable to come along. We’ll also continue to share infrastructure and expertise with our friends and neighbours Sheffield Jazz.

It feels like a bumpy road ahead, we’ve already had to cancel a couple of live streams due to the pandemic, but on a personal level, it’s all been 100% worthwhile, providing focus and a sense of purpose at a time when all gigs have stopped. I sense that both musicians and audiences have also valued the experiences, and I’m so grateful to all of them, to our wonderful hosts for the garden gig, to our friends at Listen! and Sheffield Jazz, and the Jazz at The Lescar team who’ve given so much energy to making something happen in trying circumstances.

By Jez Matthews – Jazz at the Lescar


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New online video magazine from Jazz North

See jazz-north-online

In Autumn 2020 we broadcast our first Jazz North Online video magazine on social media, hosted by presenters Megan Roe (J Frisco) and John Pope (John Pope Quintet and Archipelago).

John and Megan say “In each episode we will be looking at what is topical and important to the musicians, the audiences and the promoters who make music in the north so vital. We’ll be talking to people who are putting on gigs, releasing music and managing their careers in these strange and uncertain times, as well as anything you need to know as both a maker and a listener of jazz in the north”.

The programmes will also include ‘Body and Soul’ items – thinks like yoga, cooking, meditation and physical recreations – all the things that a musician or promoter needs to stay on top of their mental health in this time of uncertainty.

Viewers are invited to submit ideas for items and topics that they would like John and Megan to talk about. This might be a new album, a gig or live stream, or something that’s been helping them stay afloat during this turbulent time.

As well as the video magazine, longer form interviews and features – such as the Jazz Heads interviews broadcast during May 2020’s northern online broadcasts, these will be published on Jazz North’s YouTube channel.

Jazz North’s Digital Director Nigel Slee says “Jazz North Broadcasts is a natural development for Jazz North building on the experience and success of Jazz North’s annual northern online broadcasts. John and Megan are a great team with natural onscreen chemistry plus, as artists, they understand what’s important and the challenges faced by the jazz scene”.

The magazine is published on Facebook and YouTube with supporting clips and features appearing on Jazz North social media channels.

Send us your news

If you have news you would like us to share via Jazz North Online, Jazz North blog or our social media channels let us via news@jazznorth.org


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Releasing new music in lockdown by saxophonist Emma Johnson

During lockdown Leeds-based Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat released a single called Where Were You Hiding? (feat. Nishla Smith). The track is the first song Emma Johnson has recorded with a vocalist. She has put pen to paper, specially for Jazz North, to tell us about why she came to release it, what it was like to put a song out into the world at this time, and offers a few helpful tips…

Hey! Thanks for coming to check this out. I’m Emma, a saxophonist and composer based in Leeds, UK. As a bit of background, I was due to be in the studio in April recording my debut album with my group, Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat and had spent most of 2020 building up to that.

As a result, I’ve spent a bit of lockdown juggling between feeling a bit sad about the recording and various gigs not going ahead, and feeling guilty about that because it’s a very small, very unimportant thing in the scheme of everything that’s going on. Some wise friends have pointed out that there’s space for both of these things which has really helped me. Having chatted to many fellow artists, I think a lot of people have been feeling similarly conflicted!
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The cancelling of a lot of work, and a lot of plans led to me feeling a bit lost and a bit helpless with what I could do to be useful in lockdown. It’s a strange feeling when you’re usually fairly busy to have a lot of spare thinking time, and even more strange when you realise you don’t have that many skills that are useful in this kind of crisis! Music is all I’ve worked on for the past however many years, and I kept coming back to this hazy, hopeful ballad that was sitting on my hard drive.

I last went into the studio last September to record a demo (which has turned into a single from a future album), and a ballad with guest vocals from the amazing Nishla Smith. I wanted to record this for posterity more than anything. I love what Nishla does with the song and thought it’d be nice to release it one day, although there were no plans for it to be now! We were (are?!) both working on our debut albums with different bands, so those were due to be our next releases and this track was something for the future, perhaps.

The decision to release it was a fairly quick one, as I thought it might help some people and be nice to put something positive out into the world. The band and Nishla agreed and a chance Instagram scrolling led me to find the perfect artist for the video – a guy called Dougie Harley, who I’ve been following for years. I’d just read an email saying that now was the perfect time to reach out to creatives for commissions or to ‘shoot your shot’ as many people had more time, so I did and he agreed, leading to the beautiful video that accompanies the single.

It’s been quite a while since I released anything, and I didn’t know a lot about release strategy then, but I think the extra time meant I could take it a bit more seriously, and really work on tailoring emails/press releases/review requests to each person I contacted. It was fairly hard work to sit down and do it, in the timeless bubble that has been lockdown, but I spent a couple of weeks putting in a shift at the laptop – spreadsheets, highlighting and lots of emails and I really feel like it paid off. Hopefully, it will stand me in good stead for the album – although I’ve still got buckets to learn, I think it’s a decent start.

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On the release day itself, I mostly sent follow up emails with all the ‘live’ links to people who’d agreed to write reviews, share or playlist it, and then when I’d done that, enjoyed a brew whilst sending out the track to friends and family, venues I’ve played at previously and other people whose day I thought I could brighten their day a little. The weekend after the release, I had a total screen break and went for a relaxing day out (walk and car picnic because of the rain!), and just enjoyed feeling like the whole process was complete.

In terms of the release itself, the most lovely thing was the feedback I received from fans and people who hadn’t heard my music before alike. It was really powerful and reminded me of why I have chosen to do this. I gave a free download of the track to my mailing list and some of the conversations that it opened up were so inspiring and humbling.

If you want to check out the single it’s here on YouTube

Or on Spotify here

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Release Tips (I’m no expert but here are a few helpful things I’ve learnt).

  1. Make a Clear Plan
    It’s all very well and good saying you’re going to email every publication ever for reviews (etc), but it takes ages and is so easy to get demotivated when you’re only five emails down and don’t know where to turn next. Take some time at the start to do some reading, make a list of appropriate blogs/playlists/radios, find the emails or a contact etc. It’s scary to start from scratch, which is what I did this time, but ask people for help or advice and keep a spreadsheet!
  2. Chase Ups
    Everyone’s busy and inundated, but most people really do want to help and hear/share your music. Polite chase ups after about a fortnight can work wonders. This kind of relies on leaving enough time after the initial contact to have time to follow up, so get started early!
  3. That Old Chestnut
    BBC Introducing, Spotify Editorial Submissions, Fresh on the Net. Tried, tested and worth a punt.
  4. Schedule Socials!
    In the run up to the release, the worst thing is realising you haven’t posted for days because you’ve been buried in emails. In your clear plan (see Step 1), work backwards from your release date and work out what you want to share with your audience and when. E.g. Pre-Save Link, Sneak Preview, Incentives, Creation Process.

A clear roadmap will save you loads of time and stress. Hope this is helpful in some way and please do get in touch with any questions!

www.johnsonmusic.co.uk/contact

Emma


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Arts Council National Lottery Project briefing webinar video

Are you an artist or promoter thinking about applying to Arts Council England’s re-opened project funding scheme? We’ve made an on demand webinar full of handy tips and help on how to apply.

Clickable Index – to make it easier to use the webinar we’ve added a clickable index. To use the index you’ll need to watch the video on our Vimeo channel. The index is in the video description.

Thank you to artist/educator Jo McCallum and Charlotte Bowen of The CultureHouse Grimsby, for sharing their experience and ideas in the webinar.

One-to-one help is also available from the Jazz North team if you live and work in the north of England and you’re planning to make an application to this scheme, which runs until April 2021. Contact us to see how we can help.

Disclaimer: all advice, guidance and opinions in the webinar and resource documents are given totally independent of ACE and you should take it in that spirit. We are not affiliated with ACE and not involved in their grant decision making. We are, however, funded by ACE to help you engage more fully with funding opportunities.

Download resource documents for this webinar:

NLPG advice for artists and promoters (screen shots from doc in video) Word Doc | PDF Version

Active Lives showing lowest engagement in north of England PDF Version

Risk management template example: Word Doc

Zip folder with all above documents: NLPG_Notes-and-Resources-AUG-2020.zip

See ACE website: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/projectgrants


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Good luck Lucy!

We are sad to announce that we will soon be saying goodbye to Lucy Woolley, our Artist Development Programme Manager, who is leaving Jazz North in October to take on new challenges and concentrate on her roles at Jazz Promotion Network and Lancaster Jazz Festival.

Lucy has been a valuable member of the team since 2013 and has played a key role in shaping and delivering the Jazz North northern line and Introduces programmes, providing valuable support and guidance to musicians and promoters across the north of England. Her understanding of musicians and their needs led to the development of the annual Artist Networking Day that we deliver in partnership with Lancaster Jazz Festival and has also helped us to develop new support activities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whilst we are sorry to lose her, we know that she has a great future in front of her and in a sector as small as ours, we look forward to bumping into her regularly and hopefully working with her again soon.

Good luck Lucy!

Lesley Jackson – Chief Executive


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Artist experiences of socially distanced live streamed gigs

When Manchester jazz festival was cancelled due to Covid-19, the team raced against time to create a fully online festival. From 21st to 24th May 2020 mjf2020: Jazz Unlocked went live online with Jazz North and United We Stream as producing partners. Current and past Jazz North northern line artists Nishla Smith, Ubunye featuring Thandanani Gumede and Archipelago performed socially distanced gigs as part of the festival. Here are their experiences….

Faye MacCalman – Archipelago

Archipelago were initially booked to play Manchester Jazz Festival before lockdown, but of course like most of life as we know it in 2020 it was cancelled. A few weeks of isolation later, after catching a breather from a busy time of gigging and freelance juggling I was really missing playing with other humans and connecting with audiences.

When mjf emailed us explaining they were partnering with United We Stream, offering us a socially distanced livestream gig I was excited to have the chance to play again but a little hazy on how we could work under lockdown restrictions. I decided in the end to have only one distanced rehearsal 2 nights before our gig to minimise risk, and we travelled down together in the car with key worker status which the festival arranged for us.

We were placed understandably very far apart by the crew there, with John Pope (Bass) even having to go on the audience floor which only added to the surreal-ness of the day.

My music works best when we’re close together as it is so much about our individual energies as well as the compositions, so it’s always difficult when we’re far apart. However in this case I think the intensity of the livestream and our happiness to be playing together again after so long more than made up for that!

Since lockdown there’s been a massive emphasis on artists sharing music from their homes, but I think a lot of people don’t realise how inaccessible this can be for many reasons, including costs, living circumstances and health. It was a total game changer having a film and sound crew who took care of all the technicalities so that we could just focus on the music, this was amazing! We were also paid which is vital right now for artists doing livestream gigs as it’s tempting to end up doing a lot for free.

For me, it was really mind blowing to play live again. Although I was very nervous to be streaming live for the first time, my nerves on the day were overshadowed by the feeling that during what continues to be a sad and strange time I am really lucky to be able to play music and how transformative music really is through the good, bad, and everything in between.

www.fayemaccalman.com / www.archipelagobanduk.bandcamp.com

Instagram & Twitter – @fayemaccalman

Facebook & Instagram – @archipelagoband

Thandanani Gumede – Ubunye

I was originally asked by Steve Mead to perform at mjf earlier this year but it was cancelled (along with a string of other cancellations!) for obvious reasons. These are strange times defined by exponential uncertainties. So a glimmer of hope reemerged when I was asked to submit footage from my last year’s performance at the mjf hothouse showcase instead of a cancellation but that was eventually cancelled too. As you can see, this was already a roller coaster ride. Finally, Steve called again about the Manchester Jazz (Digital) festival in collaboration with Jazz North and United We Stream. It had to be live and I felt alive again—music is my life after all and I hadn’t had the chance to perform in a while since the lockdown was right at the heels of my trip from South Africa.

Our band consists of three singers from South Africa and four more musicians from the U.K. who make up the rhythm section; seven people in total. But there could only be a maximum of four people  for my set in order to adhere to Social Distancing guidelines—this was the first of many curve balls when it came to logistics and our preparation for the gig. I had to prioritise Keys/Piano, Bass, Drums and Lead Vocals. My aim was to make the set a hybrid of my solo repertoire and Ubunye repertoire because both projects mean the world to me. It wasn’t going to be the same without everyone but we had to make it work. I would not have been able to pull it off on my own.

First things first: I upgraded to Zoom Pro.

Rehearsals

What followed was a series of video/text/email and phone call correspondence with Dave Evans (piano/keys) to get a set together, and next to get the band together while remaining apart. Communication was everything: while we couldn’t practically rehearse, we went through the songs note for note and through the harmonies. Revisiting the songs theoretically and knowing them inside and out helped us rehearse synoptically despite the separation. I also had to use different apps to record myself singing different parts so I could listen back and gauge accuracy, blending, sound out some vocal onsets and imagine how those would sound like with a different voice and timbre.

Both our guitarist and drummer have very young children and we didn’t want to put them at risk. But Dave’s eldest son, Jonah is a fantastic drummer too. He knew most of the songs we played. Since they were self isolating in the same household it made sense to ask him to play and they could travel together without violating the Covid 19 lockdown guidelines. The entire process was centred around problem solving:

  1. I had to sing songs that were designed for 3-4 singers;  so I had to sing lead and backing vocals. Dave harmonised with me. I also had to give him a crash course in Zulu.
  2. Our bass player was unable to honour the engagement due to unforeseen forces–my stress levels were off the roof but Jason Dandeno saved the day. Singing down the phone to one another was a nightmare but it was necessary.
  3. Finally, it was strange to arrive at the venue and not greet or hug each other…rushed sound check and had to go live in 5 mins.The hardest thing was to break formation and be so far from each other without any eye contact with most of the band. But the team from United We Stream was incredibly supporting and calming. When you’re there you realise that you do not have a trapped audience.
  4. I once had to perform under the watchful eye of the Queen’s guard and a security detail that was armed to the teeth with weapons I had only seen in Call of Duty. But this was by far the scariest performance to date because people do not have to be polite online. They can say whatever they want and leave the stream if they didn’t like your set. I felt vulnerable at the honesty of it all. In the end the well planned set came with the elasticity to create things in the moment so everything fell into place. There are no regrets and there was so much love from the people who watched. I am sorry I could not contract the entire experience in 400 words but I’ll leave it here: this was different but it was special.

Ubunye Facebook page

Nishla Smith

When it was decided that the festival would go online, Steve Mead reached out to say that the mjf team were working on creative ways to include as many of the artists as possible in the new format. I had this idea for Tom Harris and I to do a socially-distanced concert filmed in my building for my neighbours. We wheeled my piano into the foyer and neighbours watched from their own balconies. It really felt like it brought the building together as a community—one person in my building is a dancer and he improvised to one of the songs Tom and I played. Unfortunately we had some technical issues, and the recording wasn’t able to be broadcast, which was a real shame, but even so, it still felt like a small act of music in a really isolating time, so I’m glad we did it!

Since we weren’t able to share that concert, Tom and I joined the amazing lineup of bands at Bury Met as part of the Sunday livestream. Archipelago were just finishing up as I arrived, and it was super weird because the first thing I wanted to do was to run over and say hi, but we instead kind of waved and kept our distance. The schedule was meticulously planned so there was minimal overlap, which meant that soon after Tom and I arrived we were sound-checking and then suddenly we were on. There’s always adrenaline and even fear for me when I perform, but this felt somehow both more and less scary than a regular show. There’s so much energy built up when you’re performing live, and without the audience there to absorb and reflect it, it has nowhere to go, so it just builds up and up— there were some songs in our set that we’ve performed together before, but that took on really different characters because of the strange cocktail of emotions in the room, and the insane power of playing together again after so much isolation. I miss performing for people, I miss my friends and colleagues and I miss after-show hugs (!) but until we can safely have all those things again, it’s important to find ways to create and disseminate art and music remotely, I think mjf did this amazingly well.

Instagram – @nishlasmith / @tomharrisisacommonname / @movementdecoded

For our staged work with artist Luca Shaw – wwww.ulita.uk

Nishla Smith is on our northern line scheme with Nishla Smith Quintet.


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