My two years as Director of the Homerton Jazz Orchestra

Standing taller:

Last year (2015-2016) I set out to establish a jazz big band at Homerton College (read about Year 1 here). As the Director of HoJO, I wrote/arranged a new repertoire for the orchestra and explored the early era of Duke Ellington. HoJO Year 2 is a story of higher standards,  custom artwork and music stands resulting in the best looking and sounding college band at the University of Cambridge.

 

One of the special things about HoJO was that we were the only full-size Cambridge college big band comprised primarily of members from that college (12 of 19 members). By comparison, in the year that I was with Selwyn Jazz, only one band member was actually from Selwyn. It was especially satisfying to hear our members from the well-known traditional Cambridge colleges like Kings and Trinity tell us that they looked forward to cycling over to Homerton because their own colleges didn’t have any jazz. Through HoJO, I had a large part in establishing a contemporary music programme that was unavailable at most of the other Cambridge colleges.

 

After two successful years, I stepped down from my roles and responsibilities with the orchestra to transition back to my professional non-Homerton career and to ensure that the new leadership and band constitution were strong enough to carry the orchestra forward without me. Homerton College rewarded me with the prestigious Barton Prize for being “the graduate student who has made the most outstanding contribution to Homerton College life over the past year” and the Student Representation Award for enhancing the reputation of the collegeThe experiences that I gained as a team builder, music arranger and orchestra director firmly solidified my confidence and capability with managing all aspects of a jazz orchestra.

 

 

Our year of Duke Ellington:

As Music Director of HoJO, I made the decision to explore the music of Duke Ellington this year. Not only did interpreting Duke’s music provide a great opportunity to engage with one of the highly-stylistic giants of 20th century music, it helped differentiate HoJO from the over-played repertoire of other bands in Cambridge (I once heard Dave Wolpe’s arrangement of Lady is a Tramp played by three different Cambridge big bands in the same concert). At the time, I did not know how far of a stretch Duke’s music would be for the band. For one thing, the brass players had no experience with plunger mutes. Since most students in Cambridge do not live anywhere near a hardware store (those have all been replaced by coffee and Chelsea bun shops), I pedalled my bike out to the suburbs to buy eight toilet plungers. With a porcupine-looking backpack full of sink plungers, I contacted one of Britain’s finest trumpeters, Neil Waters, and asked him to come in to Homerton and teach HoJO how to use them. Neil’s workshop on plunger technique was brilliant and he quickly got the brass sounding convincing.

 

 

Major Performances:

Cambridge Jazz Festival

Our first tests came at the end of November when I secured us places in the Cambridge Jazz Festival and the city’s Big Light Switch-On event. We played Duke Ellingon’s version of The Nutcracker Suite as well as some of the music that I wrote specifically for HoJO. I was proactively contacted and visited local radio stations to promote the band and got a lot of mileage out of my “cycling with a rucksack full of plungers” stories. Below is a video from our first performance at the Cambridge Big Light Switch-On:

 

Moanin’ by Bobby Timmons. Arranged by Patrick Olsen. Vocalist is Nicole Lau.

 

Mardi Gras with HoJO

Around the time of the Cambridge Jazz Festival and Lighting Ceremony, I submitted a proposal to Homerton College to establish a New Orleans Mardi Gras-themed formal dinner. The proposal was accepted and we got to work organising a new annual event for our college. Beginning with beads, carnival masks and a lot of glitter, we organised a Mardi Gras parade through the college, had a jazz pianist perform throughout the dinner and finished by clearing a dance floor and performing a full concert on a purpose-built stage in Homerton’s Great Hall. Everyone loved it and we were asked to repeat the event next year.

I am very proud that my Mardi Gras with HoJO will go on to be an annual tradition at Homerton College. You can read my separate blog post about HoJO Mardi Gras here.

HoJO Mardi Gras 2017.  Performing for the Fellows of the College and then the 250+ guests.

 

Big Band Bonanza

Shortly after Mardi Gras, we were contacted by the organisers of Jesus College’s jazz band. They came to see us at another concert and we got to talking… The next thing you know we invited Emmanuel College’s band to join us and we created the “Big Band Bonanza”. Three jazz orchestras, Homerton, Emmanuel and Jesus Colleges collaborated to put on a new event in a new space. At the end of the night, I invited the other bands to join us on stage to play “The Chicken” together. It was loud, funky and awesome. This event looks to become another annual tradition but with the buzz we generated, it will need a larger space!

“Standing room only” when HoJO & Emma Big Band joined forces. The escalation of the trombone solos was magical.

 

Cambridge’s Famous ‘May Week’

HoJO was invited to play at four 2017 Cambridge May Balls. We were especially excited to be invited by Homerton to open their ‘House of Fun’ -themed May Ball. Homerton always imports the best talent from around the university, so it was deeply satisfying to know that no importing was necessary because we were the best that the university had to offer.

 

May Week 2017. Notice the new music stands emblazoned with our new logos.

 

 

Our New Logo & Stands

To raise our level of professionalism even higher, I wrote a successful funding application to the Homerton Union of Students to get a new HoJO logo made as well professional big band-style music stands. For the artwork, I asked the Irish-based German designer (and jazz singer) Birgit Burhenne to design our new logo. The orchestra’s managers unanimously agreed on a design, had it approved by the college and had it emblazoned on our new stands. The new logo says “Homerton Jazz” but not “orchestra”. This is because I used the logo to link the two Homerton-based projects that I helped develop, HoJO and ‘Jazz in the Bar, under a single brand: “Homerton Jazz”.

 

Trivia fact: The golden circle that cuts through the word “jazz” in the HoJO logo came from a photograph that the artist took of the bell of my baritone saxophone.The original image hangs in the front room of my house and was used in the logo of my former project, The Blue Monk Quartet.  I didn’t ask the artist to do include the circle, but I really like that she did because it discretely leaves my personal stamp on a project that I lovingly developed for over two years.

 

 

All Good Things…

In September 2017 after two successful years, I stepped down from my roles and responsibilities with the orchestra so that I could transition back to my professional non-cambrige career and to ensure that the new leadership and band constitution were strong enough to carry the orchestra forward without me. I look forward to bringing my experiences of directing a jazz orchestra that I built from the ground up with me to my future projects.

 

Summing it all up: Looking out at Homerton College’s Great Hall during the sold-out Mardi Gras event,

I am about to count off one of the many arrangements that I wrote for the orchestra.

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