Interview with Jess Gillam: “Music is an integral part of our way of life, but not of our way of educating”


ess Gillam accomplished a lot at the age of 23 – two number one albums on the UK classic charts, his own ensemble, a radio show, a Classic BRIT Award and even an MBE – but by the saxophonist’s own admission, it all started with a “failure”.

She was seven, at the Barracudas Carnival Center in Barrow, a few miles from the Cumbrian town where she grew up. Her father taught drums and percussion at the center, so Gillam gave her a try first.

“No rhythm,” she remembers now. After making his way through everything from dancing to costume making, to no avail, it’s the saxophone that Gillam has come to last. “I picked it up, and that was the sound – I think I was very lucky to make a sound right away,” she says. “It was like magnetic energy. I remember it very well, the sound playing and being sort of surprised by the sound coming out of this instrument. And that’s when I thought, “Okay, it’s like magic.”

The experience was so deep that although she remembers her father playing music in the family home before that, Gillam cannot recall any particular musical memory before the sax. “I think it must have been such a defining moment that the front was wiped out,” she said.

She began performing regularly with the carnival band, whose repertoire ranged from Christmas classics to Basement Jaxx, and was delighted with “the community and the joy of everything we did”.

“It was really about a feeling of oneness,” says Gillam. “We would travel across the country playing as a street band and as a group. I think my love of making music with people came before my love of the saxophone, if that makes sense.

When she later realized the greater possibilities of her instrument – this was something that existed not only in the world of jazz or pop, but also in classical music – it “opened up a whole new world” . And as she set out to explore it, with a career that took her from a lead role in Last Night of the Proms three years ago, to reinventing compositions by Brian Eno, Björk and James Blake on her latest. TIME album, this love of playing with others has remained.

This Saturday, the Jess Gillam Ensemble will kick off their inaugural tour at the Proms at St Jude’s in Hampstead, playing the new record live for the first time. “It’s pretty scary actually, running a project, and it’s a pretty personal project,” says Gillam. “But it’s a subject that fascinates me a lot.”

Another of Gillam’s beliefs – that music can change the lives of young people, as it did for it – also stuck. She is a patron of the Awards for Young Musicians and a trustee of the HarrisonParrott Foundation, both of which champion inclusiveness and diversity in the arts. His MBE, awarded earlier this month, was awarded in recognition of his service to music.

“I don’t think it’s enough now to fly into a hall, play and come home again,” says Gillam. “Every time I play somewhere, I want to try to make a positive impact, whether it’s talking to young people in the area, or having a workshop, or whatever. We need to consider how we can have as positive an impact as possible in communities, while fully respecting the basic infrastructure and systems that are already in place in each community. “

Is Gillam concerned that the pandemic, which has not only destroyed concerts but also blocked physical access to institutions for many young people, will deal a disastrous blow to music education?

“I think it’s been devastating to see the effects on education in general and on society in general, not to mention music, because this whole year, of course, has been extremely difficult for many reasons,” says -it. “But, I mean, I can’t count the number of times people have said to me ‘when are you going to train for a good job’ while I was learning music. “Are you going to do bookkeeping and have music as a hobby?” “

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“And now my worry is that people see the arts even more as an add-on, as a luxury, as something that is not part of the education of young people,” she says. Nobody wants “a society of professional classical musicians,” she adds with a laugh, “but now more than ever, as we come out of this weird year, we’re going to need people who can think creatively, to think so. ‘have several perspectives on things, and think outside the box’.

There are “countless” studies on how learning music can improve “the academic skills, cognitive skills and interpersonal skills of young people,” says Gillam. “I believe that should be an integral part of an education. It’s an integral part of our way of life, but [currently] it is not an integral part of the way we educate.

What is needed is a “societal change” in our appreciation of the arts, she says. “I would love to see a classical music scene where young people are raised listening to music and being exposed to live versions of classical music – so that throughout their schooling they have the chance to see this live music, to experience the physical and emotional side of it, before incorporating all the preconceptions about what’s cool to listen to and what isn’t.

Gillam’s BBC Radio 3 show This Classical Life embodies a similar notion. It describes itself as something “for people who also like classical and stuff,” with guests choosing from a playlist of tracks spanning all genres from “The Prodigy to Prokofiev”. In July, the show will transform into a live concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks and soprano Soraya Mafi among the performers.

It’s bound to be an intriguing night and follows on from an equally interesting pandemic project by Gillam: the so-called Virtual Scratch Orchestra. Eager to resuscitate a sense of community spirit in the midst of the lockdown, she invited musicians of all standards to record themselves performing different parts of songs and send them off. Over a thousand people got involved, and all the footage was put together to create one. great collaborative creation.

“It was completely unexpected,” says Gillam. “I expected 50 or so people at most to think, ‘I’d like to try to participate.’ But so many people want to be part of a group and want to feel that sense of oneness. “

It’s a sentiment Gillam hopes to continue in our post-pandemic era. “The more we can bring music to people in a way that they can experience it viscerally and personally, whether it’s listening or playing, it just improves people’s lives,” she says. “The number of people you talk to that are in a choir or community group – the friendliness and unity that it can bring, we’ve seen over the last year, we’ll get it. more than ever needed in the future. “

The Jess Gillam Ensemble Tour begins June 26 at Proms at St Jude’s, Hampstead. This Classic Life: Live is at the Royal Festival Hall on July 7 and airs on BBC Radio 3 on July 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Corina C. Butler

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