Richard Michael/FYJO - swing from the kingdom


More fun than Kylie. Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra doesn’t stretch to heraldry but as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary with the release of a new, slightly delayed CD, the orchestra might be tempted to commission a crest bearing this testimony from former bassist Andy Hamill.


Hamill, now plying his trade in London and who expressed the above sentiment on a postcard to FYJO musical director, Richard Michael, while touring with La Minogue recently, is just one of over a thousand musicians who have sat behind FYJO’s music stands.


Not all of these musicians have gone on to play with household name pop stars, of course. FYJO alumni are prominent and plentiful on the Scottish and UK jazz scenes, though, and include drummer Tom Gordon, recently returned to Dunfermline but still busy in London. Current Scottish National Jazz Orchestra bassist Calum Gourlay is another ‘old boy,’ as is young saxophonist Fraser Campbell, who is now making a big impression at home and in the US through the exciting new trio Secret Architecture.


A search of the orchestra’s old roll books would also turn up at least four other Michaels. Richard’s son Robin, now a freelance cellist, and musician daughters Joanna and Hillary have "put up with their dad’s old jokes on the bandstand" and even their mum, Morag, has sat in with the horn section on occasion.


Richard Michael himself has been present at every one of the orchestra’s weekly Thursday night rehearsals, innumerable concerts and sundry broadcasts, workshops and recording sessions since the day in 1976 when Kirsty Adam, the organiser of Arts in Fife, suggested he start a schools big band. The seeds of the ‘more fun than Kylie’ line were thriving even then.


"Music, for me, has always been all about communication," says Michael, who has become endeared to listeners of BBC Radio Scotland’s Jazz House as its Jargon Buster in recent years. "And because I was used to working in jazz and therefore without written music, as a teacher I was able to do something with the kids who couldn’t read music. So word got round that the kids at this school in Cowdenbeath were really enjoying music. We were actually playing rock music, because I could play a bit of rock guitar and drums. But we were getting results and the whole thing was creating a buzz."


Michael actually started out playing piano in his father’s Scottish country dance band, playing the village halls around his native Stonehaven and watching how his dad always got a response from the audience. He graduated, if that’s the word, to accompanying drunks as a student in Aberdeen. Great experience, he says, in learning how to play in all twelve keys, sometimes during the same song.


Drawn to jazz when his own school music teacher let him hear a Dudley Moore album, Michael went on to seek out Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk et al in a voyage of discovery. When he moved on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, he found himself feeling like a square peg in a round hole. Jazz hadn’t entered the corridors of academe, let alone secondary schools, at this point. Years later, by a strange quirk of fate, Michael would become involved in devising the Associated Board grades for jazz piano and has been responsible for introducing the criteria of ‘swing’ and ‘groove’ into the syllabus.


Before that, however, he tried to get a toehold on the London jazz scene which at the time, the early 1970s, was going through a particularly lean spell. By now married and needing to earn a decent wage, he was lured back to Scotland by the promise of two jobs – assistant principal teacher of music for him; piano teacher for Morag - at the school in Cowdenbeath where the head of music just happened to be … his father-in-law.


"I know, I know, it sounds like the Mafia but if you think that was jammy, things got even better," he says. "I was given a free hand to develop as a teacher and the head of the school, the late Eric Gray, was terrific. He saw that, through my methods, I was attracting pupils into the department and they were doing better at music, exam-wise, than they were at other subjects."


Michael’s involvement with Arts in Fife began with a jazz night class. Soon, though, he and Colin Thompson, a lecturer at St Andrews University, were preparing to audition the first FYJO line-up. Thompson, who would help steer FYJO through its first three years, had experience of running jazz big bands that Michael found invaluable.


"I had big band charts and I knew how they sounded but I didn’t know how to communicate how they should sound to the players," says Michael. "So with Colin’s help and by process of trial and error I became the bloke who stands in front of the orchestra, waving my arms about."


He remembers the first FYJO session at Kirkcaldy Tech well because the philosophy he used then – mistakes are cool - remains in practice.


"Most of the kids who turned up were terrified," he says. "They’d been given saxophones but only one of them could actually play, so he was helping the others. But I wasn’t expecting them all to be virtuosos and I’ve always said, if you’re only going to play one of these notes that are written on the page, as long as you play it at the right time, that’s okay. My policy from the start was inclusive. I simply wanted them to enjoy themselves and to feel good about being part of something."


Rather than teaching music or even jazz appreciation, although these come with the territory to an extent, with FYJO Michael sees his role as giving his charges confidence. Parents often come up to him after concerts and remark that their sons and daughters have become much more assured through their involvement in the orchestra.


"Standing up to take a solo for the first time can be really scary but once you get over that initial fear, it can feel great," he says. "All I really ask is that kids come along willing to have a go and we have a great example of that at the moment in Magnus Pickering, who’s twelve and has no fear whatsoever. He just shuts his eyes and plays whatever comes into his head. Now, not all the notes he plays will work but as he gets older and his ear develops, he’ll improve and be able to concentrate on the notes he wants to play. Put that together with his fearlessness and he could be dynamite."


Having led FYJO into its fourth decade, Michael has no intentions of passing on the baton. He loves seeing and hearing the results of his labours too much. Those asking what his favourite FYJO line-up has been will always get the same answer: the current one (because it’s where the promise lies). Last year he took early retirement from teaching, thinking that this might give him more time to concentrate on his own playing and composing. Other things – including broadcasting, Associated Board seminars and outreach work with Dundee Schools Jazz Orchestra – have conspired to get in the way, though.


"I thought I’d have my own website by now – I was going to call it ‘make it up as you go along dot com’ until I noticed that somebody got there first – but I’ve been really busy and I’m back, quite happily, to the struggle as a pianist," he says. "Saying ‘struggling quite happily’ probably sounds perverse but I’m determined to keep up because pride won’t let me say, That’s too fast for me. It’s also good for my credibility with the kids in the orchestra because while I’m exhorting them to practise and be as good as they can be, they know I’m still trying to get better myself."


From The Herald, April 2008.


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