This past weekend I took a break from teaching to take on a weekend of learning. Three and a half hours away from home in Rushden, Northamptonshire I’m back in school. Jazz school.
I’ve enrolled on a two-day Big Band Jazz Course; think Duke Ellington, Count Basie and you’ll get the picture. I had never played with a big band before, and last year I decided I wanted to give it a go and signed myself up. Fast forward to Saturday and I’m about to play with the largest brass and horn sections I’ve ever worked with. Altos, Tenors and Baritones make up seven sax players. Alongside them are five trumpets players, three trombonists and even a flugelhorn for good measure. Competing with the fully stocked brass section is a fantastic pianist on a grand piano, a bassist with a double bass the size of a large person, and me on drums. Wow!!!
This was hard work. On the first day, we had to learn seven songs none of us had ever heard before, working with musicians we met the same day. All the pieces were original compositions written by Steve Waterman, our Musical Director and mentor for the two days. We went through four songs before lunch and another three afterwards, going on to perform all seven consecutively at 5pm to a small privately invited audience.
What was hardest for me was the chart reading. I read and teach people how to read drum music all the time. It gives students the ability to open up a world of their own. It's like teaching someone how to read and write in a new language. It’s empowering. Despite that, some of these charts were 8 or 9 pages long with some very tricky arrangements and phrasing, I even needed three music stands just to be able to spread them out and read them! This wasn’t for the musically faint of heart. You have to constantly look at what you are playing, while looking at what comes next, while trying to make it sound good, while maintaining solid time and keeping the other twenty musicians from speeding ahead or slowing down. Phew!!!
On Sunday it was the same routine again. I thought Saturday had been a tough day but Sunday was really, really tough. More very difficult charts to read and another six songs to learn and then perform in the early evening.
The Jazz School is owned and run by Nick Weldon and Andra Sparks. They are the best hosts one could imagine. The venue is an old shoe factory that has been converted into various rooms for up to three groups at a time to be playing, though this weekend they needed all the space for the big band.
Nick and Andra have transformed the whole building into an amazing space for learning and making music, and they even live there. Lunches are provided and as much tea or coffee as you need is readily available. My coffee consumption definitely went up in the afternoons.
Did I learn anything? Yes, most definitely.
Did I enjoy it? Yes! Most definitely.
Did I make any mistakes? Yes, loads!
Would I do it again? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Most definitely!