Trumpeter Nick Dewhurst was born and bred in my hometown of Lichfield – he still lives here. Despite seeing him in person every couple of weeks, it was still most convenient to meet in the ether of email for this Q&A. He provides some extensive answers to those practical questions surrounding how one gets from playing in a school band to making a career out of jazz.
Q How did you get into playing music – what age, what prompted it, etc. When did you realise you wanted to make a career out of it?
A I think it would have been quite difficult for me not to get into playing music since both of my parents are musicians. I’m not sure how old I was when I first sat on Dad’s lap and he showed me some notes on the piano. I started learning the piano properly when I was about five, and then started doing percussion when I was seven. My parents would go out gigging on Saturdays and I wanted to go and play as well! I was handed a tambourine, and a couple of years later that progressed into a snare drum, and then some cymbals were added later. When I was nine there was a letter at my primary school offering instrumental lessons, and I chose to learn the cornet. When I was 13 I started to play the guitar, forming a rock band with friends at school called Miniature Rebellion. Our big hit was a song called Tractor Man! Later at school I formed my own jazz band Funktional which I kept going through school and uni, and is a name I now use for more commercial work as a musician. Throughout school I was so inspired by the all the music teachers I had, and I definitely remember thinking I’d like to do what they’re doing.
Towards the end of school we had to decide what to do at university, and for me it had to be music. I knew I wanted to play music later in life, but I still wasn’t 100% sure about a career in music, but certainly as something to study at university it sounded like a good plan. I knew that if music didn’t work out, with a degree I could probably do an apprenticeship in a company, or a graduate scheme.
It must have been during my time at the Conservatoire I started to realise I would actually like to make a career out of music. I’d been gigging the whole time I was there, and had some private pupils in my hometown, Lichfield. In my final year I started doing some casual work for the music service in Walsall, and when I graduated they offered me a job! I’m still there now, and enjoy having an employed position as a music educator. I like having a day job – it forces me into a routine, which I like. It also allows me to do other musical activities without having to solely rely on them for income. I’m now in my third year of work after graduating, and am happy to say it’s all going well. So I think I’ll carry on along this musical career path!
Q What first got you interested in jazz? Were there specific players or albums or live events that fuelled that interest?
A I’m not entirely sure what first got me interested, probably a combination of things:
Brilliant playing opportunities within school, both primary and secondary. At primary school one of the peripatetic staff ran a pop band which I enjoyed playing trumpet in. At secondary school I was spoilt really. One of the main reasons for going to my school was because of the music department. There was a big band which went out gigging! Netherstowe Big Band. There was also an orchestra and wind band. In my sixth form I got to lead the junior band too, which was one of the first places I wrote arrangements for younger players, something I do rather a lot of now.
Lichfield was also supported by the local music service, Staffordshire Performing Arts. I used to go twice a week, once on a Wednesday night to the Jazz Orchestra, and on the Saturday morning to the pop band. I tried the orchestra on Saturday morning, but for me the pop band was way more fun; orchestra had daft things like 100 bar rests!
There were also the concerts put on by Lichfield Arts, and of course the Lichfield Real Ale Jazz and Blues Festival. History doesn’t relate how old I was when I enjoyed the Real Ale element (18 of course), but the Jazz and Blues I can definitely remember. I saw loads of great bands at those festivals, and one highlight was when Dennis Rollins did a few days with our school big band, culminating in a concert at the Jazz and Blues festival. That was really inspiring! Looking back, I’m not sure what my favourite jazz act was, but it’s safe to say there was loads of great stuff. In the blues department, though, I distinctly remember seeing Matt Schofield play. I think it was just after he’d released Heads Tails And Aces – a brilliant blues album. I was really into guitar then (and still am now!), and I remember being blown away by his band.
As for listening to jazz, my then music centre jazz orchestra conductor (and now colleague and good mate!) Paul Bennett let me borrow three of his jazz CDs. They were: Fred Wesley From Hip Hop to Be Bop, Donald Byrd The Best of Donald Byrd, and The Return of the Brecker Brothers. The first two CDs I loved, and the third one I remember thinking was horrendous. Slowly though, I got more and more into the Brecker Brothers’ CD, and it soon overtook Feeder as the most listened to item in my Windows Media Player – tracks such as Scrunch and When It Was being particular favourites.
I would then buy CDs at all the gigs I went to, and listened to Freternity – Martin Taylor, Badbone and Big Night Out – Dennis Rollins, Sound Advice – Byron Wallen, Abram Wilson’s Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta, and I got really into Herbie Hancock, more Donald Byrd, Joe Satriani and Joe Bonamassa. There was all sorts of rock and pop I listened to as well, but I’d already got the jazz bug. Now I barely know any pop, which is always amusing at school when the kids ask if I’ve heard of something… erm… nope, sorry!
Q You have been able to take advantage of the opportunities there are in this country for young musicians – NYJO, etc. What has been your experience of music education up until you left school. How do you think it could be improved?
A I didn’t actually join NYJO until I was at the Conservatoire, and the same is true of MYJO. I don’t know how I would improve the education that I got (probably by me doing more practice and paying greater attention to what my teachers were saying!), but I would certainly like these opportunities to be available to all young musicians across the country. In my work at Walsall I still see similar opportunities. I run two bands at schools that I work in, and there’s a weekly music centre which hosts all sorts of woodwind/ brass/string/jazz/classical ensembles. I think we’re very lucky to have that in Walsall, and I hope similar set-ups exist nationwide, although I always hear people talk about cuts!
It’s definitely worth mentioning NYJO and MYJO though, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with both ensembles. I joined MYJO in my second year at Conservatoire, and I’m still in it now! John and Nichola Ruddick are a real inspiration to me. It’s great that MYJO has three bands too, with younger musicians forming MYJO 2 & 3. John and Nichola work constantly to keep the band going, and continue to inspire young musicians. The band sounds great and so many professional players come out of the band. One improvement? Nope not a musical one – just more funding! This band is such a great asset to the Midlands it would be awful if one day it couldn’t continue due to funding.
I became aware of the possibility of joining NYJO whilst I was in my third year. At the time I was studying in Weimar (Germany) as part of the Erasmus scheme (a wonderful scheme allowing students to do a term/semester/year abroad at another university). I filled out the application, sent them a video of me playing, got an audition, and then luckily got a chair in the band! This was a wonderful opportunity to me to get down to London. I used to go every Saturday morning. There was loads of great opportunities with NYJO, and particular highlights that stand out were playing for the Proms, playing for the London Jazz Festival, and recording at Angel Studios for the album The Change. I wrote some arrangements for NYJO too, one of which they recorded on their latest CD, so I can’t thank them enough for the support they’ve shown to me.
Any improvements? Well I by no means wish to criticise the current set up, since I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, there is an argument that NYJO could have more of a role nationally, geographically speaking that is. In my time in the band, we never once played in Birmingham, for instance. However, I think London is where the band’s HQ should be, and it makes sense too since there’s a greater density of young musical students there, so that helps provide players for the band. If you don’t live in London, and you want to play in the band, the band has funding schemes to help get you down there. My trains to London were all paid for, which is remarkable really. Another thought, and again this is merely a thought, is from an observation I’ve made in the Netherlands. Over there, they have a new NYJO every year. The band is auditioned every year from the current young players, and they have a new MD every year, who presents a programme throughout the year of their music, or at least their musical choices. If I’ve understood it correctly there’s a recording every year, and a selection of brilliant gigs and concerts (including the North Sea Jazz Festival, and playing time with the Metropole Orchestra). This way the Dutch NYJO never gets stale, not to say the British one has by any means, but it’s definitely an alternative approach which perhaps means more players get involved, and more professional musicians get a chance to lead the band.
Q You studied at Birmingham Conservatoire? What was the most important thing you learned there? How did it prepare you for life as a working musician?
A I had a really great time there, but I’m not sure what the most important thing I learned there was… maybe to treat every chord as a minor… that was quite a handy tip actually. No seriously, I’m not sure I could pin-point any one thing as being the most important. I think a combination of just getting stuck into the course, playing and practising loads, meeting lots of new people and networking with musicians both nationally and internationally, and trying to absorb as much as possible of what all the teachers had to say has really paid off in life as a working musician. It’s great that there’s such a wide range of teachers, each with a different viewpoint on the music and life after graduating. I’d like to think that my current lifestyle and decisions after studying satisfy the consistently difficult balance of trying to be a young professional developing a career in music, whilst also maintaing a perhaps more artistic viewpoint of “it’s not about the money, it’s about the music”!
Q Describe your working life as a musician – a typical week, perhaps, or month.
A Busy! Seriously busy! I have a full schedule of teaching every week, mostly teaching all sorts of brass instruments (trumpets, trombones, baritones and euphoniums), and guitars (electric rock and pop, classical nylon, and bass guitar too). I also lead a small school band on a Monday, and a newly formed jazz band on a Friday. Every fortnight I have Blast Off, the community band I run for Lichfied Arts, as well. I also assist in various ensembles every Tuesday at the music centre evening at Forest Arts Centre in Walsall. There’s so much going on there, it’s brilliant! I have private pupils throughout the week as well, and I deliver a programme of national curriculum music at a primary school in Lichfield as well.
That’s been a fascinating development for me recently, and really challenged me. However, it’s a lovely school and the kids are great, (and very musical too – almost two thirds of the entire school are learning an instrument!), so I’m enjoying that despite feeling a bit out of my comfort zone sometimes.
On top of all that most weeks I’m out and about playing too. There’s often a Walsall Jazz Orchestra rehearsal or gig on a Monday night, and on a Wednesday since I’m still a member of MYJO I enjoy a rehearsal with them every week. I’ll have to be excused every month now for the George IV jazz nights too (someone else needs to start practising lead trumpet though…), and on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes Sundays I’m often out and about gigging here or there.
I do try to do some personal development too. I try to squeeze some practice in at home or when the kids don’t turn up, and I try to do some writing too. Sometimes the tunes I write end up taking the shape of big band compositions too. I’m even doing lots of guitar practice currently as I’ve (perhaps foolishly) entered myself for a grade 6 exam… it’s quite funny to be learning three pieces and some exercises all over again! I’ve always just played the instrument for fun…
Q You run a community big band in Lichfield – what prompted that? What do you see as the benefit to those taking part in this project? And what is the benefit for you?
A Blast Off came about in the spring of 2014. I was asked to put together a band with a large line-up for that summer’s Fuse Festival in Lichfield. We got a great response from local community players. Since then the band has kept going, and we’ve now got about 25 members, a wide age range, and all sorts of instruments. We have flutes, clarinets, all the saxophones, upper and lower brass including a tuba, pianos, guitars, vocals, and drums. I play bass guitar in the band, which is huge fun. The benefit for the people taking part? Several benefits I hope. Most importantly I hope it’s fun! I also hope I can challenge and educate the musicians taking part, teach them new tunes, and help them learn about ensemble playing and improvisation.
The benefit for me? Well I suppose frankly I have to admit it’s a job! All part of the freelancer’s portfolio. But it’s way more to me than that too. I love running the band. I write all the arrangements for the band, and I sneak some compositions in there too – that’s good fun. I love the community element of it too, seeing how the band brings together a group of local musicians who might not have otherwise played together. And I’ve also made so many new friends through the band too, and that’s been really important to me.
Q You have just started a monthly jazz night in Lichfield – tell me about that.
A We’ve just had the first one and it was great success. I wanted there to be a monthly jazz night in Lichfield again, so went about setting one up. The George IV is great, not only because it’s a lovely pub, but also because it has a brilliant room at the back, which has a great sound and is just the right size for a small and intimate jazz gig.
I’m hoping it’s a place where I can play fairly regularly, playing gigs with various combinations of musical friends that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. Of course I don’t want people to get fed up with only me playing though, which is why looking ahead, I’ll be keen to ask people to bring their bands, and build up an interesting and varied programme. I’m really chuffed with the programming of the first three gigs, an original music quintet, a mini big band, and a ‘tribute band’ for want of a better phrase!
Since setting up the night, I’ve learnt that there’s going to be monthly jazz nights at the Garrick theatre in Lichfield as well, and there are a couple of other one-off jazz gigs in Lichfield this Spring, so jazz is really taking off in Lichfield! Assuming it works, and we can build a successful night, I hope the George IV jazz nights can become one of the key features of a blossoming jazz scene in Lichfield.
Q What are your own ambitions?
A This year I really want to record my band. It’s about time I did a proper recording, and I really enjoy playing with these guys.
I’d also like to record the Tritone Quintet which I play with. That’s the European band with two guys from the UK, two guys from the Netherlands, and a German guy too! We’re playing some gigs in Holland and Germany at Easter, and at the end of August they’re coming to the UK to do some gigs too. I hope we can keep this band together and do some more projects with it in the next few years.
I’d also like to do a ‘no drums’ project. Drums are wicked, but playing without drums is great too. I’m thinking Flugelhorn, Piano, Guitar and Bass, or something like that. My current band is quite groove based, and I’d want this project to have more of a ‘fluid’ sound, if that makes any sense!
I hope we can carry on and grow the Lichfield Blues & Jazz Festival too. And assuming the night at the George IV is a continued success, I’d like to develop that too.
At some point, I’d like to record my big band music too. Maybe this will happen with Walsall Jazz Orchestra, or maybe I’ll put together a band of my own and do a recording. That would be a pretty hefty project though so we’ll see!
And as a really guilty pleasure, I’d like to do something with my guitar too. But it’s finding time to do all these things that’s hard!
I’ve discovered I really enjoy teaching various instruments and leading ensembles, and I enjoy the challenge of putting together resources and helping musicians of all ages to improve. Working in Walsall and Lichfield is hugely satisfying and great fun, and it’s been brilliant to see how that has developed over the past few years.
Q Finally, what five discs would you take to a desert island?
- Nicolas Folmer & Bob Mintzer: Off the Beaten Tracks vol.1 Live at Duc Des Lombards. This is such a good recording. It captures so many of things I love about jazz. Such great playing all round.
- Paris Jazz Big Band: Source(s). A beautiful recording of this astonishingly good big band. The writing and playing on this album is simply knockout. (That’s how John Hughes MD of WJO would describe it, and it’s thanks to him for introducing me to these amazing French musicians).
- Terry Gibbs: Dream Band vol. 1. My Dutch friend Joris Bolhaar introduced me to this recording. It’s just wicked. Great big band writing and playing, and the line up features so many jazz celebrities. And I love the constant ‘yeahs’ and encouragement from the band leader and guys in the band. So exciting – makes you feel like you’re there.
- The Impossible Gentlemen. Their first album is so good. I expect readers of this site are more than familiar with the album. It’s just wicked.
- Kenny Dorham: Afro-Cuban. It was so hard to choose a fifth album, but I think this wins it for me. Great, timeless jazz language, great tunes and solos, all of them so singable, such joy in the playing, and I love the Latin influence too. I also wanted one of these records to be of that classic Blue Note sound. The Yellowjackets’ first album almost made it, but I think Kenny Dorham just beats it for me.