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Swinging into the roaring 40s

22 May 2023

The West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra has been nurturing local talent for 40 years. Ara Jansen gets in the groove with some illustrious alumni ahead of a weekend of birthday celebrations.

When a 23-year-old Libby Hammer played one of her first shows with the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra, she clearly remembers being on stage at Rottnest and thinking “wow, I’m a singer in a big band. It doesn’t look like the photo, but it happened”.  

The photo she’s referring to is a black and white shot of Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra in a coffee table book of big bands she had at home. That particular photo captivated Hammer and it was the one she used as a focus to imagine her own success.  

Since that gig in the early 90s, those powers of manifestation – and lots of hard work – have undoubtedly contributed to Hammer becoming a successful jazz singer in her own right. She says the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO) also had something to do with it.  

Libby Hammer says WAYJO welcomed her with open arms. Photo: Ammon Creative

“WAYJO was great,” remembers Hammer. “They welcomed me with open arms. At first, I thought this was the way for me to get into musical theatre, but once I got there I knew jazz was where I needed to be. 

“They gave me the chance to improve and WAYJO continues to give so many young musicians that opportunity. It has such a great reputation for that. They strike a fantastic balance between creating that opportunity for any young kid to take it on, caring about who does and doesn’t get in and are very encouraging, while holding musicians to an exacting standard.” 

Like a lot of people who hold WAYJO close to their hearts, Hammer credits the group with not only supporting her (and many others) in a solid musical start, but with a grounding in the business of being a professional musician – being on time, learning your music, dressing suitably.  

You could say it’s a well-loved institution in Perth and a rite of passage for the thousands of young jazz musicians who have passed through WAYJO’s bands.  

This week WAYJO celebrate their 40th anniversary with a series of concerts on May 26 and 27 at Studio Underground. The shows will feature current WAYJO players as well as special guest alumni, including Hammer, trombonist Catherine Noblet, saxophone players Jamie Oehlers, Gemma Farrell, vocalist Lucy Iffla and rapper Zero Emcee.  

From 4pm on Saturday, WAYJO transforms Studio Underground and the foyer into a festival hub with a relaxed atmosphere of in-conversations, small group jazz ensembles, historic photo displays, projections of performances spanning four decades, alumni appearances and big band performances.  

Founded in 1983, the original West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra was made up of students from specialist music secondary schools, young local musicians and original students of the inaugural jazz studies course at WAAPA. Less than a decade later, WAYJO had grown to two bands and by the late 1990s was three bands strong. Each had their own music director, a tradition which continues today.  

Mace Francis is the third artistic director in the 40 years since WAYJO begin. Photo: Jessica Carlton

Since its inception, WAYJO has only had three artistic directors – Pat Crichton, Graeme Lyall and Dr Mace Francis, who has been in the role since 2008.  

A transplant from Geelong in 2000, Francis had gotten into WAAPA for guitar and started with WAYJO in 2001. He was bitten by the big band bug and it changed the course of his career. Today he’s more likely to noodle on the guitar than play, instead focussing on the bigger musical picture at WAYJO as well as composing (usually on piano) and arranging. Being artistic director and musical director still allows him to be highly creative, just without the hours of practice.  

“It’s so exciting when someone comes to an audition and they blow your mind with their ability and you can see they have a huge hunger and passion for it,” says Francis.  

“Then you get to see them grow and work with other musicians. I think the really satisfying moments are when you see someone audition and they are keen and passionate and then they work hard to become really good.   

“I love seeing people who were in the band 10 years ago doing really amazing things. WAYJO is a group of people really nurturing their dreams and being encouraged to do so.” 

WAYJO has about 50 musicians aged between 14 and 25 who play in the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night orchestras. Each has their own musical director and a specific repertoire which builds on the existing skill levels of the musicians. 

Mace Francis playing in WAYJO in 2004. Photo supplied

Each musician in WAYJO has to audition annually to retain their spot before they naturally age out at 25. While most people who play in WAYJO have their sights set on a music career, the group also contains talented musicians who just love to play. Past members have included those studying law, architecture and engineering.  

WAYJO bands perform publicly and privately as well as having a strong teaching program, including Progressions which encourages female and non-binary identifying instrumentalists to play and learn more about jazz. WAYJO’s Northern Corridor is focussed on developing young musicians in that area of Perth who have an interest in jazz and contemporary music.  

Francis says he gets great satisfaction from seeing slightly awkward or even arrogant younger members join the bands, really find their confidence and authentic strength and go on to be great contributors to the music scene.  

“This is a big group and everyone needs to be disciplined, look out for each other and listen to each other. These people are your peers and when they are looking for a trumpet player, you want to be who they call.”  

One of the reasons the bands work so well is that WAYJO believe in young people mentoring other young people. It’s a way to help younger members mature and land better in a professional setting and gives older members added responsibility. 

As well as having notable alumni performing regularly in Perth and around Australia, WAYJO also counts several international jazz luminaries amongst their ranks, such as 2023 Grammy winner Linda May Han Oh, Dane Alderson, Troy Roberts and Mat Jodrell.  

Jamie Oehlers says WAYJO set him on the path to his profession. Photo supplied

Recognised as one of Australia’s leading jazz artists and saxophone players, Dr Jamie Oehlers is the associate dean of music at WAAPA. He says WAYJO was his training ground prior to going to WAAPA.  

“Each week I met people from around Perth who were like minded, who I exchanged music with, learnt from and developed with,” he says. “Getting to play public concerts, work hard on the music and learn new skills in improvisation set me on the path to being a professional musician. WAYJO is where I found my people.”   

These days Ben Franz is best known as bass player with much-loved folk-rock band The Waifs. He spent a year playing with WAYJO in 1994 and says while clearly he didn’t go onto a career in jazz, the general musicianship from playing every week has never left him.  

“You are playing with a large amount of people, so you really have to be able to open your ears while you play and hear each of the different sections of the band, how the sections play within themselves and how they then play as a section with the rest of the band,” says Franz. “Also, being right beside the horn sections and hearing the arrangements and how the harmony of the tune is being utilised. 

“Being in a big band means being dependable. You learn a certain amount of professionalism – being on time, listening when the conductor is talking.  

“The feeling of playing with 18 other people is a phenomenal thing and hard to describe. A jazz big band can sound impressive when you’re an audience member, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re sitting amongst it. It’s certainly something I don’t get to experience much anymore, playing in much smaller format groups.”  

As to WAYJO’s future, Francis says they plan to continue their core business of inspiring and giving opportunities to young people to pursue their passions through jazz music. They hope to continue to find inspirational and aspirational guest artists for their musicians to work with and expand their pathway programs to create clearer paths into the music industry.  

Francis would also like to be able to create a program that works more closely with high school-aged kids, promoting the power and value of playing an instrument not only from a technical perspective, but for the mental health and social benefits as well — even if they don’t have any dreams to become a musician. 

WAYJO’s 40th Anniversary Concert on 26 May is sold out but you can get tickets to the 40th Anniversary Festival on 27 May at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA. 

Pictured top: Mace Francis and the WAYJO Wednesday Night Orchestra, with singer Lucy Iffla. Photo: Josh Wells

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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