National Youth Jazz Orchestra The Stars of Tomorrow

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra 2013
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra 2013 | Photo (detail): BuJazzO / A. Prox-Dampha

The experiment has succeeded. In 1988, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra began its work as a talent pool for young jazz musicians. In the meantime, it has become an established institution of musical life in Germany and of artistic exchange with other countries. A portrait on its anniversary.

Germany’s big band veteran Max Greger likes to tell how difficult it was in the 1960s and 70s to find an adequate replacement for a musician who had cancelled at short notice. “Today”, he says appreciatively, “you can find a boy in every city who can play to beat the band”. This development is owing, on the one hand, to conservatories and music schools having discovered jazz since the 70s and, with now over 20 jazz departments, included it in their programmes. On the other hand, however, the role of an institution that in spring 2013 is celebrating its 25th anniversary (with, among other events, an anniversary appearance at the Bonn Jazz festival) cannot be overestimated: the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Bundesjazzorchester), or BuJazzO for short. From Julia Hülsmann, Roger Cicero and Tom Gaebel to Till Brönner and Matthias Schriefl, from Paul Heller and Steffen Schorn to Nils Wogram and Christopher Dell, everybody who is anybody in German jazz today has usually been one of its to date about 750 graduates. Or, as project director Dominik Seidler of the German Music Council, puts it: “Whoever shapes the scene today was in the BuJazzO. And whoever will shape it in the next twenty years is in the BuJazzO today. We have always been the best of a generation”.

The Herbolzheimer era

The chief figure behind this success story, made possible among others by the German Ministry for Family Affairs, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Gesellschaft zur Verwertung von Leistungsschutzrechten (a German copyright collective), Daimler AG and Yamaha, was the founder and long-time head of the BuJazzO, Peter Herbolzheimer. The gruff heavyweight of the scene, who was born in Bucharest and died in March 2010, brought together in himself exactly those abilities which the today still globally unique enterprise needed: the name and the corresponding attraction thanks to the worldwide reputation of his Rhythm Combination & Brass, the expertise and experience, but also the educational impetus. On top of this, Herbolzheimer was an excellent networker who, with his own peculiar persistence, could persuade politicians to share his views – including former Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was certainly no great fan of jazz.

The trumpet player Till Brönner (with Peter Herbolzheimer) is one of the most famous former members of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. The trumpet player Till Brönner (with Peter Herbolzheimer) is one of the most famous former members of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. | Photo: BuJazzO Thus, on 5 May 1988, the BuJazzO celebrated its official birth with performances at the Bonn Moritz Arndt Grammar School and the next day at the Federal Chancellery. It was Herbolzheimer’s philosophy that the BuJazzO, on the basis of the American big band heritage, should remain open to musical influences from all epochs and from all over the world. Anything else would probably have been absurd for the official youth jazz orchestra of the Federal Republic of Germany, whose age limit for applicants was and is 24. Therefore an integral part of preparing the young people, who perform in the orchestra for a maximum of two years, for the lives of professional musicians is not only block working phases once every half year, but also travel. Tour of the Baltic States and Russia, Calling South Africa, and most recently Calcutta Ending: several of the titles of the hitherto ten CDs of the orchestra point to its 20 spectacular tours.

Getting round the world

One of the most extraordinary of these tours was carried out by nineteen members of the BuJazzO on May 2013. The anniversary year took them to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, sponsored by, among others, the Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut. After a workshop and rehearsal week in the old French colonial town of Saint-Louis, on the border to Mauritania, with African musicians such as the kora player and singer Ablaye Cissoko, the balafonist Djiby Diabate, the singer Gundo and the percussionist Pape Samory Seck, there were seven joint concerts in places ranging from Kaolack to Iha de Bubaque, beginning with an appearance in Saint-Louis at Africa’s largest jazz festival. The initiator, organizer and guest conductor of this musical journey of encounters was the much-travelled and energetic pianist, composer and arranger Mike Herting, who has staged trans-cultural encounters for decades with his “GlobalMusicOrchestra” project and already accompanied the BuJazzO to India in 2011.
A short portrait of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, source: BuJazzO / Youtube

Herbolzheimer turned over leadership of the orchestra in 2006, and since the end of the Herbolzheimer era Niels Klein and Jiggs Whigham, its artistic directors since 2011, have deliberately relied on the challenge of changing conductors and guest soloists. And there is another welcome development: jazz too is no longer exclusively a male preserve. In the 2013 season, for example, six young women wind players have joined the BuJazzO. Not only professional training, but also social practice, the formation of character along with that of musical talent, is more important than ever for the heads of the BuJazzO. In his blog on the Africa tour, Herting reports with pleasure how “all the trumpet section got dressed up in African clothes”.

Specials in the anniversary year

Two more trips aboard, which, Seidler believes “will sharpen the young musicians’ eyes for the qualities of seriousness, professionalism and discipline”, will stamp the activities of the anniversary year: on the occasion of the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU Council, the BuJazzO, conducted by Niels Klein, will perform in the presence of Federal President Joachim Gauck in Vilnius on 12 July 2013. And on 26 July it will show its colours at the festival Jazz is Back in the Croatian town of Grožnjan at the invitation of Jeunesses Musicales. Its own anniversary celebrations will be held in September 2013 in Berlin. Before this, of course, things will have returned to normal: the 52nd working phase, this time led by one of Germany’s best arrangers, the pianist Florian Ross. He is in a way an exception to the rule, not being a graduate of the BuJazzO. Now he can gain this distinction on the other side of the conductor’s desk.