RBC Jazz Alumni: Twenty Years On


(L-R) Aidan O'Donnell (Alumni), Elvin Jones, Ed Johnston (Alumni and contributor), Percy Purglove (Alumni and contributor), Soweto Kinch and Julian Seigel (former RBC Tutor).

It has been 20 years since the first Jazz graduates emerged from the newly-established BMus Jazz course at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, had been running Jazz modules at the Conservatoire since the mid-Nineties, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Jeremy, along with former BMus Course Director, Mark Racz, created a completely bespoke course especially for jazz musicians.

To celebrate the anniversary of the first graduating class of the BMus Jazz course, recently appointed Jazz Lecturer and 2004 graduate, Ed Puddick, caught up with seven members of the class of 2003:

Lizzy Parks – Jazz Saxophone and Voice

Dave Holland, Ed Johnston and Mark Hanslip – Jazz Saxophone

Alcyona Mick – Jazz Piano

Ryan Trebilcock – Jazz Bass

Percy Pursglove and Sal Erskine-Furniss – Jazz Trumpet

Why did you choose to study on the brand new jazz course back in 1999?

Dave Holland: “After three years with NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra), it was an appealing option to study Jazz Performance and Composition away from London whilst benefiting from the same instructors.”

Alcyona Mick: “I followed my nose as I didn’t know a huge amount about Jazz at the time.”

Sal Erskine-Furniss: “I applied because of the mix of tutors who had been recruited to teach it.”

Lizzy Parks: “I just knew the Conservatoire had a good reputation.”

Ed Johnston: “I didn't really have any idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and since I played in the Dixieland Jazz band at school, my dad guided me towards doing a jazz course.”

Percy Pursglove: “Location and timing; a new jazz course emerging locally at the perfect moment.”

What were your experiences of Jazz, and music more generally, before attending the Conservatoire?

Dave Holland: “I’m grateful to have had a very strong jazz group at school, and we went on to win a great deal of awards and even perform at the Royal Albert Hall.”

Mark Hanslip: “I had grown up around folk music through my parents, who ran a club in the North West and took me to festivals. I had some prior gigging experience in big bands, soul bands and funk bands, plus the usual classical playing and concerts at school and sixth form college.”

Lizzy Parks: “I played the tenor sax and had done so since the age of eight years old. I had been exposed to Jazz through my previous musical education pre-university, performing in school and regional jazz bands and orchestras. I switched to first study singing in my final year of the course.”

Ed Johnston: “I switched from clarinet to saxophone when I was sixteen and focused mainly on tenor sax, but I had played in the Dixieland Jazz Band at school in the School Big Band. What I didn't understand before the jazz course though was how to read chord changes.

“All my improvising to that date was trying to embellish the melody, and I remember playing Charlie Parker's transcribed solo on Confirmation for my audition. Mike Williams stopped me after a few choruses and said, “That's great, but can we hear you improvising on it?”. I didn't know how to improvise on Confirmation, so he said, “Can you improvise on a blues?”. I knew the blues scale, so I just went for it. They obviously saw some potential in me and let me onto the course.”

What are your favourite memories from your time studying at the Conservatoire?

Mark Hanslip: “The more improv-oriented workshops left an impression. I have fond memories of playing with Tony Levin, Elton Dean and Tony Bianco. Receiving warm feedback from Peter King, Julian Arguelles and Jim Mullen meant a lot to me at the time. Hearing Liam Noble's Quintet with Stan Sulzmann and Chris Biscoe also left a mark.”

Lizzy Parks: “My fondest memory is the fact that the course allowed us time to develop our art individually and with fellow musicians in groups. All of the workshops were great. Socially, my Conservatoire experience was priceless. I met and connected with some many wonderful people, and I have only happy memories of my time at the Conservatoire.”

Percy Pursglove: “Masterclasses with Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas and Mike Gibbs. Crucially, at this time, was the curatorship of Tony Dudley-Evans, at both Birmingham Jazz and Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The many touring artists that Tony gave us access to had an unrivalled impact on my artistic development.”

Ryan Trebilcock: “Lots of memories, I loved the tutors’ bands at the end of the first year, the third-year workshops with Elvin Jones and Paul Motion, and the Randy Brecker residency at the end of the second year in Ronnie Scott’s on Broad Street. Our year group had a great vibe!”

Alcyona Mick: “Our year group had a special bond during the four years on the course that became more fragmented as people moved on from Birmingham after finishing the course. Golden nuggets of information that I carry with me today. Unforgettable workshops with legends Jack DeJohnette, Geri Allen and loads more. Thanks to Tony Dudley-Evans for organising free entry for us to so many incredible concerts!”

Ed Johnston: “One of my best memories was playing a blues with Elvin Jones. Elvin was playing a run of gigs at the Birmingham version of Ronnie Scott's. One of the days we got to go to Ronnie's for a question-and-answer session. When he walked in, he saw my sax case and he said something like “You've got instruments with you?” in a pleasantly surprised sort of way.

“I was very into to Coltrane at the time, especially his band with Elvin on drums, and I had already decided in my head that I was going to play 'Chasin the Train' with Elvin if the chance arose. At the end of the session he said, “I notice some of you have your instruments with you, shall we play a tune?”. I made a b-line for the stage and was probably the first up there, although it was not in my nature to be that forward and confident and when he said what shall we play, I said with 100% conviction, 'Chasin’ the Train' and then proceeded to count Elvin in. I mean, what was I thinking?!”

Have you stayed connected or even performed with any of your tutors since you graduated?

Dave Holland: “I have to say that Jeremy Price was and still is held in the highest regard. He created a course that rivals the London offerings. We had a brilliant relationship, and he advocated for me when the stress of year four was overwhelming. Mike Williams, Wiggy (Julian Seigel), Neil Yates, Martin Shaw, Hans Koller, Arnie Somogyi and Mike Williams were instrumental in shaping the future of my career.”

Sal Erskine-Furniss: “I'd have to single out Richard Iles and Liam Noble for thought-provoking approaches.”

Mark Hanslip: “I still remember a group composition lesson with Mike Gibbs. Mike Williams, Julian Siegel and Gene Calderazzo gave me confidence to pursue playing, as did Jeremy. After moving to London, I carried on playing with Julian and Gene in different formats - we played frequently, and made two albums, with Hans Koller's large ensembles as well as in more ad-hoc groupings.”

Lizzy Parks: “Liam Noble and Arnie Somogy, even though they were not my instrumental teachers. They were down to earth and easy to connect with. We are still in touch. I would have liked there to have been more female educators.”

Percy Pursglove: “Hans Koller, Richard Iles, Neil Yates, Gene Calderazzo, Liam Noble, Michael Gibbs, Jean Toussaint, Jeff Williams, Mike Williams and Arnie Somogyi. Various recordings and collaborations have taken place since graduation.”

Ryan Trebilcock: “Apart from my main teacher, Arnie, I had a great relationship with Mike Williams. We worked together doing the junior school for a few years and did the odd gig together too. I have occasionally worked with Julian Siegel and Martin Shaw in the Gareth Lockrane Big Band and see other tutors at gigs too.”

Alcyona Mick: “All of them were influential. I’m still in touch with Liam, who was very inspiring. Mike Gibbs was always rolling out unexpected, brilliant ways of seeing things.”

Ed Johnston: “I was lucky enough to have Mike Williams and Julien Siegel as my teachers. They were both incredible players and great teachers. Mike introduced me to meditation and Sufism, and this had a huge influence on me over many years of my life. I am forever grateful.”

In 2017, the now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire moved into its new building on Jennens Road, but what memories do you have of the old building?

Dave Holland: “Sneaking the Bari Sax past security…”

Sal Erskine-Furniss: “Running down the practice room corridors to listen to the mash-up of noises coming from each room.”

Lizzy Parks: “Everything was very localised, including the Conservatoire and the halls of residence. It felt very cocooning, and being so central in the city was great.”

Percy Pursglove: “The character and rustic charm of the building itself, not to mention the many memories of performances and rehearsals.”

Ryan Trebilcock: “The lack of space and there weren't enough rooms! Not enough windows! I have great memories of college, but I am envious of the fact that a brand-new building is now available.”

Alcyona Mick: “When I think of the Conservatoire, I still always think of the original building, and that never changes. That was where it all happened for me, and I have warm memories of that place that pop up frequently.”

Ed Johnston: “One of our practice spaces was called the Project Room. A stark space with terrible acoustics and no windows. It was on the top floor and at the end of the corridor. It did the job though and kept the racket we were making away from all the ‘real’ musicians.”

How has your time at the Conservatoire informed your lives since graduation, and what role does music play in your life now?

Dave Holland: “I’m deeply grateful to have been awarded the Golden Visa in Dubai from the Arts and Culture Department for my contribution to music and music education in this region. There are skills and life lessons you learn from professionals that set you apart from the rest and help to inspire young players. Mine have gone on to Berklee, Manhattan, Leeds and more.”

Sal Erskine-Furniss: “I now work as a Garden Designer. Being able to be creative within design and budgetary constraints, and to a deadline, are skills that I attribute to my studies. Rhythm, repetition, tension and release, mood creation and atmosphere are all part of my day-to-day work. I design and think in terms of chords, rhythm and a framework that comes from studying jazz.”

Mark Hanslip: “I still play saxophone and music, and it is still at the centre of my life. Whilst I still play in jazz-ish groups, I've branched out a fair bit. I've played a lot of free improvisation in the years since and I've co-organised gig nights. I'm also about to hand in my PhD in applications of machine learning to saxophone practice and improvisation, and I also make music and audio-visual work with computers. I also do a bit of 'AI consulting', which includes training audio, text and image models to generate new sounds, lyrics and artworks for collaborations with other musicians, researchers and sound artists.”

Lizzy Parks: “Studying at the Conservatoire set me up for a lifetime of music as my profession. I am a singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist having released several original albums. I’m also a music educator, leading several choirs and managing other recording projects. I have lived in the South of France since 2009.”

Ryan Trebilcock: “I'm still in music, and gig in some bands and freelance scenarios, but I'm pursuing composition for media more now. Living in London is unbelievably expensive, and with a young family, I have to earn a lot, so I'm doing a lot of teaching. Music will always be my life though.”

Alcyona Mick: “It was a time of being really knocked into shape, probably more than anywhere else for me, as I really was clueless about how to play Jazz when I arrived. These days, music is a really major part of my life, and my main source of income.”

Ed Johnston: “I continued living and gigging in the Birmingham area for two years after I graduated from the course. I was asked to be involved in a fair few projects, most notably with Steve Tromans and then my own commission from Birmingham Jazz.

“After moving back home to Poole, I now teach music in a school for nine to 13-year-olds and although it is an exhausting job, I feel it gives me room for creativity and a chance to do something giving and wholesome. My previous Head Teacher managed to secure £90,000 funding specifically for the music department, and we now have three purpose-built band rooms where I can send the kids off in groups. They love working in bands. We also have a strong choir and a 40 strong school orchestra which I do the arrangements for. I'm glad to still be involved in music and I am only able to do my job effectively because of what I learned on the jazz course.”

What advice would you give to musicians currently studying, or considering applying to study Jazz?

Mark Hanslip: “Make the most of your time at university to set you up for the future, whatever that looks like for you. Making a living from music is hard, especially if you don't have the stomach for function gigs or don't want to teach, so consider having a backup that allows you to make your music for its own sake.”

Lizzy Parks: “If music is your passion and you are dedicated to learning your trade, then there is no better environment to grow and nurture your art.”

Ryan Trebilcock: “Consider how you will make a living and be prepared.”

Alcyona Mick: “Jazz is a tough career choice but those of us who do it, know that it chooses you, you don’t choose it. While studying, make lots of mistakes. There’s no point trying to be too perfect, or you won’t learn as much. It’s better to spend time trying stuff out while you’re at university and to take risks. A Conservatoire will help you hone your craft, but the real work comes from listening to the music and being part of, and building, a jazz community. The other piece of advice I would give is that it is good to be open to playing many different types of music, as you’re more likely to work and it’ll challenge you more.”

Ed Johnston: “Pursuing Jazz is an amazing way to spend four years. It opened my mind to so many things, you meet incredible people, get to play music with your buddies every day and become the best you can be on your instrument. The business and self-promotion side of being a self-employed musician is something that isn't easy for anyone, but it's an important aspect to think about if you think it is for you.”

The BMus Jazz course is still going strong, and you can find out more about it here. You can find our upcoming Jazz events at our Eastside Jazz Club here.

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