“I’m an optimist,” says Yolanda Brown. “You have to be if you’re expecting people to listen to you playing the saxophone for two hours!”
The bright and bubbly Ms Brown has been doing rather well in getting people along to hear her play lately. Back in February she hired the HMV Hammersmith Apollo, with its standing capacity of some 5000, for two nights to launch her debut album, April Showers, May Flowers, and sold out both nights. And she’s been clocking up the miles as she tours the UK and abroad. Her upcoming Glasgow Jazz Festival gig is her second trip to Scotland since the album’s release, and it means a welcome return not just to the festival - she appeared at the Tron Theatre in 2009 - but also to her lucky city as Glasgow is where she was presented with her second MOBO award that same year.
Hiring one of London’s top venues, as opposed to having a promoter book her into it, gives one clue to Brown’s businesslike approach to her musical career. She gained a first class degree and two masters in Operations Management, went on to study for a Ph.D in Management Science at the University of Kent and might well have become a high flyer in the corporate world had it not been for the saxophone.
“A lot of musicians don’t like the business side of the music business, and I can totally understand why,” she says. “They’d rather play and be creative than get involved in contracts and promotion. But I find it useful to have a business background. I can wear two different hats and it helps because I might want to lock myself away and write music but I then think, how am I going to pay for that. And because I’m an independent artist, working for myself, I know there are certain things I have to do, like advertising, to make the music viable – and I get the benefits, because if it works, it all comes back to me. If it doesn’t work, all the bills still come back to me but I’m okay with that. It drives me to make sure everything’s taken care of.”
Music and advertising run in the family. Her dad works in advertising and was – still is, she says – her music guru.
“There was always music playing in the house and every Saturday morning when I was growing up my dad would play me the latest album he’d bought,” she says. “It might have been reggae, latin-jazz, soul, R&B, folk, anything; he loved all sorts of music, still does. And I think that eclecticism is reflected in the music I play.”
Her parents don’t play but they were keen for Yolanda to take up an instrument. She tried piano, drums and violin before finding her match with a tenor saxophone brought home from school for the Christmas holiday when she was thirteen.
“I found if I wanted to practise, I was better with something portable,” she says. “With drums and piano, I had to go to them, couldn’t carry them with me, and I didn’t really get on with the violin. I actually wanted to play the oboe but there wasn’t one at school, so they gave me a saxophone and I spent the entire holiday with it. By the time I went back to school I’d worked out how to put it together, how to get a sound, where to put my fingers. The teacher was amazed and wanted me to sit my grades but I said, I don’t want to do exams, I want to play.”
At university she joined a band during the summer break, thinking she could earn extra money to help with her studies. Within a couple of weeks the band had imploded but their manager said he could find her work as a solo saxophonist, and he was as good as his word. Playing fifteen minute spots in comedy shows and “anywhere else they would have me, including churches, clubs, functions” she built up a repertoire and an audience. Her first proper concert, in Blackfriars, London in 2007, sold out all six hundred seats. This music career, she thought, might just work.
“I think what worked in my favour was that I connected with people,” she says. “I loved jazz but I loved all sorts of other music, too, and I didn’t learn the saxophone just from listening to the great jazz saxophonists. For me, it was more about the rhythms and how you interpret music. I listened to Candy Dulfer, the great Dutch alto saxophonist, and I really loved Ben Webster with his mellow, moody tenor tone, but I also loved Monty Alexander’s piano playing and the way he brought Bob Marley’s music into jazz. I think if you listen to music as a whole and interpret it in your own way, you’ll develop your own tone and style and your own way of communicating.”
Communication remains key and as musician playing largely instrumental music, it’s the challenge and driving force of her work onstage and in the studio.
“I sing a little bit on the album but I’m really a saxophone player and I’m always looking to find something emotional to give the audience or to show them that whatever they want to do, it’s possible,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be an artistic ambition, you can go out and get it. I’m the living proof: if you play an instrument, don’t keep it under the bed or get stuck behind a music stand, play it and express yourself. And somewhere in all this, if me and the band can turn people onto jazz, let them see that it’s not scary, that it can be fun and they can have a good time, then that’s even better.”
From The Herald, June 21, 2012.