Starting a Jazz Programme

From 2015-17,  I established a full jazz big band as part of a jazz rejuvenation at Homerton College (read about Year 1 here). As the Director of the Homerton Jazz Orchestra (HoJO), I set the following goals:

  • Year 1: Build a new band and create weekly live performance opportunities to enable members to develop.
  • Year 2: Create original compositions & arrangements that made the orchestra unique while simultaneously exploring the repertoire and techniques of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Summer Jazz at

Homerton College 

Homerton Jazz Orchestra (HoJO)

Unique Jazz Programme

HoJO was the only full-size Cambridge college big band comprised primarily of members from that college. By comparison, in the year that I performed with Selwyn Jazz, only one band member was actually from Selwyn College. It was especially satisfying to hear our members from the well-established 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 or improvised music. Homerton Jazz provided contemporary music opportunities that were unavailable elsewhere at Cambridge University.

A Year Studying Duke Ellington

To give the band a grounding in repertoire, technique & flavour, HoJO spent one year learning the music of Duke Ellington. Through engaging with Duke, we were able to:

  • Create cohesive ensemble & sectional sounds.
  • Put on bespoke workshops covering brass lip trill & mute techniques.
  • Differentiate HoJO from the over-played repertoire of other bands in Cambridge

An unexpected discovery was than none of the brass players had 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 Since most students in Cambridge do not live anywhere near a hardware store (those have all been replaced by coffee and Chelsea bun shops), I went out to the suburbs to buy eight toilet plungers and returned on a bicycle with a porcupine-looking backpack of eight plunger handles sticking out!  

To help the band learn to use them, I contacted one of Britain’s finest trumpeters, Neil Waters, and asked him to give us a bespoke plunger workshop. Neil’s workshop on plunger technique was brilliant and provided an education that the brass players didn’t get when learning to play Hayden concertos!

Having fresh cohesive repertoire was critical to start with. I once heard Dave Wolpe’s arrangement of ‘Lady is a Tramp’ played by three Cambridge big bands in the same concert.

Homerton Mardi Gras Formal

Big Band Bonanza

Cambridge Jazz Festival

Innovating Our Performances

One of the keys to our success was to secure future performances that we could use as both goals and rewards for our efforts. I believe that discipline wanes and a band will fall apart if they don’t have a performance to look forward to. I found a few high-profile gigs for us and created some of our own.

  • Our gigs in those first two years included the Cambridge Jazz Festival, Cambridge Holiday Lighting Switch-On Ceremony & many Cambridge MayBalls.
  • The most satisfying performances were the ones that we created ourselves such as the new annual events of Homerton Mardi Gras and a 3-band collaboration/shootout called the Big Band Bonanza.

Commissioning Artwork

To raise the level of professionalism and give us flags to rally around, I worked with the Homerton Student Union to commission artwork from German artist Burgit Burhenne. The band and key faculty voted on their favourite designs and I had the winners emblazoned on traditional big band  ‘fronts’ (the boxy-looking music stands).

A fun thing for me is that the golden ring in the designs comes from a photo the artist took of the bell of my baritone saxophone. My sax is forever with HoJO 🙂

Logo for The Homerton Jazz Orchestra

Logo for The Homerton Jazz Society