Jazz orchestra’s history of success

28 October 2020

Garry Lee, the first administrator of the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra, goes behind the scenes to discover the organisation’s secret to 37 years of success.

The West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra is unique in Australia. It is the only youth jazz orchestra named for its state and, since its establishment in 1983, has witnessed the development of many of Australia’s greatest jazz musicians.

WAYJO’s formation was inspired by a visit from Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra who performed as part of the 1982 Perth Festival. A year later the new Perth big band exploded onto the scene, securing within two years the sponsorship of Denis Horgan (owner of Leeuwin Estate Winery) who donated $60 000 for WAYJO to tour England and Scotland in 1986.

As WAYJO’s first Administrator (funded half a day per week), I was required to liaise with Horgan for a concert at the winery. This concert featured WAYJO with legendary British saxophonist, Ronnie Scott, a youthful James Morrison and the larger than life vocalist Rickie May and provided a template for the highly successful annual Leeuwin Estate concerts.

Building artistic strength

This set the template for WAYJO to become one of WA’s most successful youth arts organisations. As the years have passed the greatest testament to the organisation have been the careers of its alumni. A 30th anniversary concert at the Astor in 2013 brought together internationally renowned musicians Troy Roberts, Mat Jodrell, John and Carl Mackey, Jamie Oehlers and others for a mind-blowing concert that demonstrated the strength of WAYJO’s vision.

Troy Roberts and Carl Mackey face off at WAYJO’s 30th anniversary concert in 2013. Photo supplied

Part of the organisation’s strength derives from its leadership. In its 37-year history WAYJO has had only three Artistic Directors – Pat Crichton, Graeme Lyall and currently Mace Francis who took over the role in 2008. The stable artistic direction has enabled a successful vision and allowed WAYJO to progress in a logical and prosperous fashion.

Today WAYJO has expanded to three training orchestras that rehearse weekly at their Maylands base in the old town hall. Francis takes the leading band and he is ably assisted by Ricki Malet and Marty Pervan who lead the other two. All three are WAAPA graduates and have formerly played in WAYJO. The Simon Lee Foundation sponsors an Assistant Music Director (currently Chris Musitano) providing the organisation with succession but also the greater WA jazz education community with emerging jazz orchestral directors.

Mace Francis has been the Artistic Director of WAYJO since 2008. Photo supplied

The key to fiscal success

In recent years the organisation has achieved a healthy blend of a combination of government funding and corporate sponsorship, which has underpinned the artistic growth. It also enabled WAYJO to weather the challenges of COVID-19.

Triennial funding from the Department of Cultural and the Arts underscores a relationship with state government that commenced with funding in 1989. This year Lotterywest has supported WAYJO due to the restrictions created by COVID-19 but under normal circumstances Healthway/Lotterywest has supported two annual regional tours to the south-west as well as regional centres like Kalgoorlie and Geraldton. Significantly there are currently members of WAYJO originally from regional WA who have moved to Perth for tertiary study.

Perth legal firm MinterEllison sponsors the Monday night band. The orchestra also has an international exchange program thanks to sponsorship from North West Shelf Gas which connects WA musicians with jazz musicians in Japan where the jazz is of a very high standard.

The tradition of inviting world-leading jazz composers/arrangers and instrumentalists has continued since WAYJO’s inception. The guest artist program is currently supported by the Forrest family’s Minderoo Foundation. The visiting artists are invariably shared to the greater jazz community via workshops and public performances. This year’s guest artist Linda May Han Oh will perform with the Wednesday Night Orchestra in November as part of the Perth International Jazz Festival. Oh is currently the bassist for the Pat Metheny Quartet, one of a burgeoning number of WAYJO alumni to find success internationally.

Marty Pervan conducts on of the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Quarry Ampitheatre, 2018. Photo supplied

WAYJO’s vision continues to expand under the direction of Francis, with a focus on two areas in particular. Firstly WAYJO is striving to encourage secondary and tertiary age females to play jazz. Saxophonist/composer/band leader Gemma Farrell leads the Young Women in Jazz program and this is already showing significant success, attracting interest from girls playing in school big bands throughout Perth’s metro area. Secondly WAYJO is looking at ways to create more opportunities for all young people to play and experience jazz including the presentation of regular jam sessions, workshops and open rehearsals. Although many WAYJO members study Jazz at WAAPA, there are also many who are intent on careers outside music. However WAYJO is keen to keep these young people involved in jazz in perhaps more of a “hobbyist” capacity.

WAYJO will perform at the Perth International Jazz Festival with Linda May Han Oh at The Rechabite and at Hyde Park on Sunday November 8.

Pictured top: Pat Crichton directs the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra in 1986 just prior to their international tour to the United Kingdom. Photo supplied

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Author —
Garry Lee

Garry Lee has played jazz vibraphone and guitar for over 50 years. He was a founding jazz teacher at WAAPA has also been a jazz writer, jazz composer/leader, Churchill Fellow and artistic director. Born in Essex soon after WW2, his favourite playground equipment was dismantled tanks and cannons.

Past Articles

  • Master leads apprentices in style

    Having conquered the world stage, legendary jazz guitarist Frank Gambale brings out the best in some of WAAPA’s rising stars, writes Garry Lee. 

  • Perfect pairing in full swing

    Sassafras and Jessie Gordon jazz up a delightful autumn afternoon with a sophisticated and swinging set, writes Garry Lee.

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