Michael Connarty: We should be blowing trumpet of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

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It is one of Scotland’s success stories but its funding is under threat. Michael Connarty explains why we should be blowing the trumpet of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

The Scottish Government must encourage and directly support the music of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) if it wishes to be recognised as a truly modern nation. That is a view I have held since I first heard that Tommy Smith – Edinburgh born, Berklee College trained and regarded as a saxophone wonder throughout America and Europe – had returned to Scotland to create such an orchestra.

Everyone knew Tommy’s prodigious personal talent when the community raised the funds to send him to Berklee at just 16, from his playing in bands with stars such as Gary Burton and Dizzy Gillespie, and from his four albums on the Blue Note label by 1990. Tommy paid his dues with periods teaching at Napier and Strathclyde universities, adding his other passion through the setting up of the National Jazz Institute to create a full-time jazz music degree structure in Scotland to challenge the growing courses in England and Europe.

While still in demand around the globe and recording in his own right, Tommy launched the SNJO in 1995 and began a process of developing a wide spectrum of Scottish talent who would make their personal contribution to Scotland’s jazz output and also weld together as a powerful jazz voice for Scotland in the world of modern music.

The question today is not “did Tommy succeed?” but “how did Tommy Smith succeed so well?”

As co-chair of the UK parliament’s Jazz Appreciation Group, I watched Tommy develop the SNJO and his Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra.

As I became more involved in helping the former Scottish Arts Council develop the structure for jazz in Scotland, chairing the first Scottish Jazz Forum and the Scottish Jazz Federation, I was pleased to accept Tommy’s offer to chair the SNJO board and support his vision.

Tommy’s aim has always been to create something special and long-lasting which Scotland can be proud of on any international stage. One example of his success was in 2008 when his Youth Jazz Orchestra played the music from their first CD, Exploration, before 2000 people in Toronto, receiving a standing ovation and a request to return a second evening. None of the members pay Tommy for tuition and any fees for concerts go to the young players, most of whom are in school or college.

The SNJO, which is made up of musicians born or living in Scotland, is no stranger to standing ovations. With the ability to plan ahead allowed by the previous flexible funding made available by Creative Scotland, we could book dates well ahead in the diaries of top world jazz stars, at very reasonable fees thanks to Tommy’s personal playing reputation. The two-year funding commitment meant we could take on difficult works and commission composers with worldwide reputations to write stunning new arrangements.

I have been drawn to my feet again and again in ovations by Scottish audiences at the end of SNJO concerts.

Added to that is the wonder of seeing ovations from audiences outside Scotland, from 1400 at the Sage in Gateshead, to sell-out audiences at the London Jazz Festival, Molde in Norway and Coutances in France.

It appears that only Creative Scotland does not recognise the standing of the SNJO contribution and threatens to extinguish it by withdrawing the funding stream that allows true creative projects to be developed.

SNJO is not only for Scotland playing American music, it is actually about Scotland creating music that speaks to our heritage and place in the world. During discussions with the board and Tommy , I have been struck by his deep sense of being a Scot, seeking to articulate that through his own musical contribution. Through the perceptive support of John Wallace, the principal of The Royal Scottish Conservatoire [formerly the RSAMD], Tommy’s dream of full-time undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses in jazz music are part of the curriculum.

I see only one real solution in a Scotland where all the politicians tell us that they are the ones who value Scots and Scotland’s creative talent.

The Scottish Government must step in, with hopefully the support of all the political parties, and recognise that the SNJO is a national orchestra for Scotland and fund it directly and adequately on a long-term basis, just like the other creative organisations that carry the flag in Scotland and abroad. I give notice to Alex Salmond, Johann Lamont and the other Scottish party leaders – my letter is in the post.

• Michael Connarty MP is chair of the board at the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

TEENAGE PRODIGY

THE funding crisis facing the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra hit the headlines last week when Tommy Smith threatened to quit the organisation he founded.

He said radical changes which will see 50 arts organisations lose annual funding agreements in favour of one-off project grants may force the SNJO to “go commercial”.

Smith was a teenage prodigy whose talent first blossomed at the Wester Hailes Education Centre in the 1980s.

From there, it was nurtured at Lothian Region’s special music unit at Broughton High School, and then at the legendary Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Tommy honed his skills.

The majority of the cash used to send Tommy to the States was raised in Wester Hailes. He never forgot his roots and regularly returned to share his knowledge with young students.