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First Person: Paul Bullock on making BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Paul Bullock on making BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020

First Person: Paul Bullock on making BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020

The BBC Young Musician executive editor on the challenges of making the competition work for TV in lockdown

Alex Clarke performing at the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 final with Nikki Yeoh’s Infinitum© Doug Peters/ PA Wire

Producing music programmes for TV with live performance during the past few months has not been without its challenges, but somehow doing so right now feels more important than ever – both for the pleasure it brings audiences and as support for the performing arts. 

As we entered the first national lockdown, we’d just completed filming the Category Finals of BBC Young Musician – the classical edition. Immediately we had to reconfigure our edit schedule to deliver the series remotely. Everyone agreed it was important to broadcast the programmes as planned in the spring. And that’s where we left it for now – on a real cliff hanger! Currently the Grand Final where the finalists perform a concerto with orchestra is scheduled for Spring 2021. (Pictured below, Paul Bullock, BBC Young Musician Executive Editor/courtesy of the BBC)

Paul Bullock, BBC Young Musician Executive EditorSo what of the Jazz competition…

Well, we took the decision, together with the Head of BBC TV Music Commissioning Jan Younghusband, to launch the Jazz talent search also during the first lockdown, with the Final planned for this November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. This would be the second time we’ve collaborated with the Festival and back in the spring we were, like many, hopeful that things would improve come the autumn. The smaller number of musicians on stage (compared to the classical final) always felt more possible even if social distancing and all the other health and safety considerations were still required. That said, we launched with a variety of contingency plans in place.

What we didn’t expect, given the circumstances, was the largest number of entries we’ve ever received for the Jazz edition. The first stage is always held as a virtual process – video submissions from the entrants are judged and a shortlist complied for the Semi-Final.

This year, the judges involved in the first round selected 21 applicants to go through to the Semis which were held as live auditions in London in the early autumn. Planning for that was detailed to ensure that the venue and set-up on the day would allow for everyone to maintain social distancing, working to the government and industry guidelines. At every stage the safety of the musicians and crew was paramount. It was a really positive day at the end of which our panel of brilliant Semi-Final judges – pianist Zoe Rahman, saxophonist Tim Garland, and trumpeter Byron Wallen – selected five competitors to perform in the Final, which you can watch on Sunday.If planning for the second round was complex, the work required to put everything in place for the Final was on another level again. Thankfully we have a great collaboration with the organisers of the EFG London Jazz Festival and I’m full of admiration for their commitment to putting on the Festival this year given all the challenges.

Up until the announcement of the second national lockdown in England, the plans for the Festival included audience. The venue for the Final was Cadogan Hall and its team had detailed plans in place for opening up to audiences as one of the test venues working with the DCMS. Nevertheless, the complexity of building-in an event like BBC Young Jazz Musician – with all the additional crew required for TV – as well as running the event itself took months to plan and work through. Almost inevitably the news of a second lockdown came just a couple of weeks ahead of the Final and initially we wondered whether we would be able to go ahead at all.

Fortunately, it became clear that we could proceed but without an audience in the hall. Social distancing, one-way systems, masks… I guess we’re all getting used to the rules but it doesn’t make it easy on location. And not having an audience in the hall to play to must have been strange for the Finalists. What will certainly stay with me from the day itself was the real sense that everyone was in this together. That the chance to make and hear live music played by young people at the very start of their careers meant something to all involved – a moment of hope of better days to come.

It was such a joy to see the Finalists performing with Nikki Yeoh’s Infinitum (we were so pleased Nikki agreed to lead the band for the Final this year – thank you). It was every bit as joyful to see how euphoric Nikki, bassist Michael Mondesir and drummer Mark Mondesir were at the end of the evening after three days of working with, mentoring and performing with such exciting new talents. And throughout the performance our judges – Guy Barker, Nubya Garcia and Orphy Robinson – applauded, encouraged, offered words of wisdom and seemed to thoroughly enjoy hearing live performance by these young people. Overall, a real sense of the jazz community coming together to support one another and celebrate the art form.

It was interesting to watch the programme back last night with Martyn our producer as we reviewed the final pictures and sound. Despite the lack of audience and the slightly greater spacing between the musicians on stage, the performances are of real quality and the communication between the finalists and the band was as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The interactions have been beautifully captured by our director and you get a real sense of music being made in the moment. You only really notice that something is missing when the music ends and the only applause is that of the judges.

It’s all too easy to fall into clichés when comparing musicians from different musical worlds like the two represented in the BBC Young Musician talent searches – classical and the jazz. Yes, there are differences both in the musical language and approach, as well as the personalities of the musicians. But what struck me at this year’s Jazz Final were not the differences but the similarities. The simple truth is that we were listening to musicians that were excited to share their voices and their craft with us and one another. At the beginning of the programme Nikki talks about how well all of the finalists had prepared and that’s something that occasionally gets forgotten when we think about jazz. It’s all about improvisation, isn’t it? Yes, that’s important but behind that, as with the young musicians we see in the classical contest, all of our Jazz finalists have spent years honing their craft, studying the music and understanding its heritage. In a year when so many performers have been silenced, this was a chance for our finalists (not to mention Nikki and the band) to speak to an audience, albeit an audience at home, and it was a chance they embraced wholeheartedly. A chance to be heard and to tell us who they are as musicians. It was thrilling to see and hear.

A huge well done and thank-you to all five finalists: 22-year-old pianist Deschanel Gordon, 18-year-old double bassist Kielan Sheard, 20-year-old saxophonist Alex Clarke, 21-year-old saxophonist Matt Carmichael, and 21-year-old guitarist Ralph Porrett (pictured above, from left, in the composite photo by Rosa Sawer)

And a special thank you to Xhosa Cole – the 2018 winner who returned to give a special performance. His success and growth as an artist since the last competition is a brilliant reminder why staging the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 Final has been so important for all of us involved in this very challenging year. 

  • BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 Final will be broadcast on BBC Four on 22 November at 7pm, then available on iPlayer for 12 months. The winner will be announced during the BBC Four broadcast.
Overall, there was a real sense of the jazz community coming together to support one another and celebrate the art form

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