Introducing the JJOB – Interview with Bonn’s Youth Jazz Orchestra founders

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On 16 June there is a musical anniversary to celebrate as the Jugend Jazz Orchester Bonn (Bonn’s Youth Jazz Orchestra) will be playing a concert in the Pantheon Theatre to celebrate its 5th Anniversary.  3Songs.  Here the JJOB’s  co-founders Thomas Heck and Thomas Kimmerle give their thoughts on the anniversary, the concert, and on the Orchestra itself.


I like the description offered on the Jugend Jazz Orchester Bonn’s website of the band’s sessions being ‘Serious Fun’.  How often do you meet and practice?

Thomas Heck:
Our rehearsals take place during two hours once a week except for holidays. Twice a year we organize rehearsals over a whole weekend outside of Bonn. These days are an important opportunity to get deep into the music, prepare for the upcoming concerts and create social cohesion as well.
What was the situation in Bonn for youngsters wanting to play Jazz prior to the JJOB’s formation in 2013? 

Thomas Heck:
We felt there was a kind of vacuum. There were many young musicians we also knew personally and who wanted to immerse themselves in the music more intensively than is possible in the context of a school band.  In terms of content, we also wanted to offer a program that focused more on the traditions of jazz, modern jazz and contemporary compositions in big band jazz.

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No shortage of sax players as Thomas Kimmerle directs

How did the orchestra come into being?  Was it a council initiative? Or did you see a need for it and set about the foundation yourselves? 

Thomas Kimmerle:

No, the founding of the orchestra was not an initiative of the city.
Both of us talked a lot about how we can create a forum to young musicians who want more.  We also operate school bands (Thomas Heck – Nonnenwerth / Thomas Kimmerle – Aloisiuskolleg) and know – with respect – the potential there;  so it was decided to found our own Youth Jazz Orchestra for all young people in the Bonn region.
Ultimately, it is also because of our own love of jazz and the desire to inspire young musicians for this kind of music. I think that if there had been such an orchestra in our youth here in this city, we would have gone there as often as possible.  We want to enable aspiring musicians to do something we could not.

The result was that, finally, in 2013 we founded the Youth Jazz Orchestra Bonn on private initiative without having any subsidies!
Are there similar orchestras?  And if so, some friendly rivalry?

Thomas Kimmerle:

The Youth Jazz Orchestra Bonn is the only one of its kind in the area.
Since it is really aimed at all young musicians, no matter which school they go to or where they take lessons.  There are also many big bands in schools.  We value the work of the colleagues there very much and consider them very important.  As I said before, we are also leading such bands in school.
We do not see the Youth Jazz Orchestra as competition but as an additional offer to all the young enthusiasts.  Most of our members are also playing in bands at their schools where they are highly valued.  It has also been shown that we can help many bands in this city by helping out some of our musicians again and again at their concerts.  Any opportunity for the young musicians to sharpen their musical skills must be supported.

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Thomas (Kimmerle) & Thomas (Heck) introduce the Band at LVR Landes-Museum last year

Do you visit the local schools looking for young musical talent (talent scouting) or do the schools contact you? 

Thomas Heck:

We try to contact schools whose Bands perform well, hoping we can arrange joint concerts, but sadly the reaction is somewhat mixed.  Last year we did a concert with the HBG Big Band of Hardtberg Gymnasium, which was a very nice experience, but we couldn’t continue this year.

An additional benefit of these get-togethers is to facilitate an exchange among young musicians.  This may cause a lot of extra work for music teachers though. During the year teachers are involved in rebuilding the band from September onwards and preparing concerts for Christmas or other occasions.
Nowadays schools leave less and less time for extra curricular activities and G8 puts extra pressure on pupils.

Thomas Kimmerle:

We do not actively scout talents. But if we listen to someone somewhere who sounds promising, we get in touch. We are also in contact with other music teachers who make us aware of their students and, last but not least, we also receive inquiries via our homepage.

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Trumpet – Perfect for extroverts

I read that your Orchestra functions differently to that of the average youth Orchestra in that band practice takes place weekly during school time rather than during vacation time which is the normal case.  Why do you do things differently?

Thomas Heck:

To sum up: the key for this kind of ‘success’  is continuity.  Given a wider exposure, we would even be prepared to work during vacation time.  However, for our orchestra, weekly sessions work best.

Every year you have to build a new orchestra ‘from scratch’ so to speak.  Given that an orchestra needs a wide range of musical instruments is it difficult sometimes to fill some positions whilst others are ‘overfilled’?  I remember seeing the concert at the Landesmuseum last year and there were an array of sax and trumpet players but trombonists, for example, seemed thin on the ground. Which instruments are most, and least, popular amongst aspiring musicians? and why?

Thomas Heck:

Well, if we knew!  For sure, saxophone players are the easiest to come by, as we both are teaching this instrument.  Also in terms of the youngsters on the trumpet, there is a lot of potential in Bonn.  But regarding trombone or bass players there seem to be rather few talents who seek us.  Ask classical music directors, they’ll tell you the same – Why? If we knew!

There also seemed to be more male musicians or am I wrong?  Certainly, when I looked at recent pictures of the full Bonn Jazz Orchestra in concert there seemed to only be a lone female sax player.  I remember Lisa Pflaum playing the trombone at Jazztube in 2012 (with Sabeth Perez who was recently guesting with Andreas Theobald – another former member of the JJOB)

Thomas Kimmerle:

In the early years of jazz history most of the jazz musicians were male, only a few female instrumentalists made it to be a bandleader or become famous – and if at all, they were mostly singers. I think that was a mirror of the time and how the female part was interpreted then.

This is changing though, slowly but steadily.  Even in our Youth Jazz Orchestra there are several female instrumentalists, and on instruments where you wouldn’t expect them: Take the big Baritone Saxophone or Bass Trombone for example. I hope this trend continues.

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There’s passion aplenty at JJOB concerts – and not just onstage as Thomas Heck proves

Your ‘mission’ with the JJOB as I read it is to offer young Jazz enthusiasts the opportunity to play as part of a Big Band and create a network for young talent to develop in.  When I visit JazzTube  each year I always discover new youngsters bringing their own style to Jazz so it seems to be working.  Bands like Jin Jim are very popular even outside of Bonn/Cologne.

Thomas Kimmerle:

First, the musicians of Jin Jim were never part of our orchestra. 😉 but they are a good example, especially for my work.

I am very close to the young jazz scene and you could say that I accompany young jazz musicians for a very long time, from their first jazz attempts to the start of their professional career and beyond.  In the Youth Jazz Orchestra there are quite a few musicians who decided to pursue a professional career.  In this respect, the JazzTube festival is a great way to gain important experience, and I would like to give these young musicians the opportunity to present themselves.

A great example is this years band “Bungalow” who will play at JazzTube 2018. The Band consists mostly of former musicians of the Youth Jazz Orchestra along with our current drummer.  Also, our former pianist Andreas Theobald has made giant steps, presenting himself at last years JazzTube and this year very successfully together with the singer Sabeth Perez at the Dottendorfer Jazz Night.
For me, it’s possible to support the young talents beginning at the school band level, on to the youth jazz orchestra, and ultimately as a top act on a big stage such as my concert series Jazz In Concert at the Pantheon Theater Bonn.

P.S .: “Jin Jim” will play a double concert with the band “Three Fall” in November in my concert series at the Pantheon Theater! I’m really looking forward to that event.

On a more general young Jazz players note, what do you think of the Jazz music scene that has developed in Bonn over these last five years?  Are the youngsters preferring certain Jazz styles and maybe abandoning others?   Are youngsters even still interested in playing Dixieland Jazz for example?  Are there many wanna-be young sousaphone players out there?

Thomas Heck:

Not that I know so many young sousaphone players!

Looking back five years, there seems to be an increasing number of young talents hoping for a professional career in music, and, this for sure gives modern and contemporary Jazz Styles an advantage. No surprise, don’t you think?  I remember when I started playing jazz in the late seventies, there were a lot of Hot Jazz Bands playing in the style of Armstrong’s Hot Five or Hot Seven, of King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, for instance. Ask young musicians today if they know those names!

Even in the legendary hot spots of roaring twenties Jazz Styles of Nordrhein Westfalen (for almost 50 years) like Cologne, Düsseldorf and the Ruhr Gebiet, the scene has lost a lot of bands – why? Because only very few young players want to play the music of this period. Because this music is simply less popular today.

There is only one exception: Swing style of the thirties. This because of the dance style “Lindy Hop” which has been gaining popularity for the last 10 or 12 years and is therefore getting more and more attractive for musicians.
You may also think about gypsy jazz as relatively close to what I am about to mention.

Starting a jazz career today, as well as during the last 40 years, means to hone one’s instrumental skills, to enlarge the general view on music, to prepare what is a common sense for the jazz community and to be able to participate in orchestras or bands.  You can see this at our our JazzBar Session at the University of Bonn where we come together on every second Thursday of a month (during the semester).

Maybe one day we can present the delicate performance of a young talented sousaphone player, but for now, we consider ourselves lucky to enjoy the regular visit of an excellent vibraphone player which is rare enough, don’t you think?

More importantly, this regular occasion to meet other musicians has become a place where young players feel encouraged to jam and to take their first, second and third steps in jazz.  A lot of these youngsters are or were members of the Youth Jazz Orchestra Bonn.  Since last year Andreas Theobald, of whom Thomas spoke, started hosting his jam evenings at the jazzbar. But sadly, as far as I know, he hasn’t checked out the sousaphone, either!

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There’s many a proud parent watching come ‘Graduation’ Day at year’s end

Many members of the Youth Orchestra have gone on to study at the Music Highschool in Cologne and/or play the State Jazz Orchestra of Nordrhine Westphalia.  Can you tell me about some of your success stories, please?  Players who started out with the JJOB and have gone on to establish themselves outside of the Youth Orchestra world?

Thomas Kimmerle:

As you said, some of our musicians go to the conservatory and I believe the Youth Jazz Orchester has played its part.  Some discover a true calling over a few years, others come to us to use the orchestra as part of their preparation for the entrance exam at the conservatory.  Others stay with us even though they already have a place at the conservatory, because they greatly appreciate the chance of playing practice.

In recent years, many of our members participated in competitions such as “Jugend Jazzt”  and very often achieved the first or second place, also some of the former members are playing in the “Landesjugend Jazz Orchester NRW”.

We are very happy about all that and are also rather proud.  However, the most important thing for us is that all the musicians in the orchestra have great fun with jazz, regardless of what prizes they win, broaden their musical horizons and improve their skills on the instrument – SERIOUS FUN!

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Follow the Leader – Thomas Kimmerle points the way

Looking back over the last five years;  what are you most proud of? 

Thomas Heck:

It has involved a lot of organizing and social work to build up a band and hold the community together, to invite newcomers, to integrate them and so on.
Our band is an assembly of many different personalities and with at times opposing interests. But every year we create a new team spirit. When things become serious you can rely on everybody. This is great and more than compensates for all the hard work.

Concerning music, we work on a wide variety of styles and periods, of arrangers, not only “classics” but also “no names”.  Personally, I do strongly hope the kids feel proud of themselves due to their work. Our role, Thomas’ and mine, is to further each kid’s individual abilities. We lead, yes, but we take a step back when the work is done. It is important to give musicians space in order for them to become leaders themselves. And when they succeed this is maybe what I’m proud of most of all.
Thomas Kimmerle:

For me it is to have met so many talented young musicians, to have discovered jazz with them, and to be able to experience so many great concerts with them.   The last 5 years have been a great time and I hope there will be many, many more years.

Many thanks to all, the former members and the current members as well!

And what would you have done differently?  Or do you see as still needing to be done for encouraging youngsters to play music in a Jazz Orchestra?

 Thomas Heck:

There is something like a wish list for the years to come. You can imagine that for all the steps forward one needs time and money. To organize workshops, band exchanges and guest concerts one not only requires ideas and creativity but also a lot of time.

In a world of wishes, we would like to face problems such as choosing two or three Bass and guitar players or five trombone players out of at least twenty talented young candidates!  Know what I mean?

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Inspiration to newcomers – Andreas Theobald this year with his own band in Dottendorf

Finally – what awaits us musically on June 16th? 

Thomas Kimmerle:

On June 16th, at our anniversary concert, you can expect a colourful mix of arrangements of recent years as well as new ones. Stylistically, it is again very varied from the jazz tradition up to contemporary compositions.

We are very happy that some of our former members have the honour to participate in this special concert – 5 years Youth Jazz Orchestra Bonn, and you can be sure that the band will turn this evening into an event for all visitors with a lot of (SERIOUS) FUN and energy!

P.S.: We are always looking for new members!
If YOU think this ensemble is interesting for yourself or your children don’t hesitate and contact us any time:

https://jugend-jazz-orchester-bonn.de

The JJOB 5th Anniversary concert is at Pantheon in Bonn on 16 June.  Details HERE

 

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