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An interview with NYJO saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael

1 year ago

Chelsea Carmichael

Chelsea Carmichael is a composer, arranger and saxophonist from Manchester in the UK.

As part of our partnership with the UK’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra, we’re supporting the NYJO Jazz Messengers, a new sextet which reflects the diversity of the NYJO family and engages children and young people in listening to and learning jazz through inspirational concerts in schools. We caught up with saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, leader of the Messengers, to hear about her musical journey and how this initiative will take shape.

Can you tell us about your background as a player – how did it all begin for you?

I had friends at school who started playing instruments, and as a typical 10-year-old I didn’t want to miss out. After a failed attempt at persuading my dad to let me play the violin (like my friends), I started playing classical piano and later picked up the saxophone aged 12. It quickly became my first instrument. When I finished the graded exams, I had to make a decision about what came next - my teacher at the time was very much a jazz player, so I started to learn jazz from there. I got involved in local big bands, and began to investigate the possibility of making a career out of music. Eventually I went on to study jazz at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

What challenges did you face when you were learning?

Looking back, where I was in Warrington there wasn’t as much opportunity for developing musicians compared to London. Great organisations like NYJO or Tomorrows Warriors, and the various other music services, residencies and projects/workshops for young people all over London weren’t so accessible in Warrington, or were few and far between. Finding the right advice and other young people to play with was difficult – but not impossible. I was lucky to get involved with Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra which really opened my eyes to what playing an instrument can involve. However, things are changing - there are some really great opportunities for developing musicians now up North and I’m glad to see young musicians benefiting from that.

Where do you want your playing to take you?

Something I really enjoy about being freelance is the variety. Every day is different. I meet and play with a lot of different people and getting the call for something new is always exciting. I’d also like to develop my own music and projects more, which I’m currently working on. Watch this space!

Why is the NYJO Jazz Messengers project important?

It opens up opportunities for young people countrywide. Giving them the chance to listen to and meet people they may end up taking the same path as is incredibly important. Sometimes an opportunity like that is the difference between being inspired and not even considering something in the first place. The rich diversity of people I’ve met in music since moving to London has been so refreshing and we need to show that to young people up and down the country. For the NYJO Jazz Messengers I’ve picked some incredible musicians who I’m excited to work with.

What do you think you’ll learn from the Jazz Messengers project?

It’s exciting for me to lead a project like this. It’s going to allow me to explore composition some more, which has been incredibly important to me. I’m looking forward to seeing this project through, seeing how it develops and what direction it goes in.

Who are your musical heroes?

It’s difficult to define the term musical heroes, but Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins are players I’ve always been influenced by since I first started getting into jazz – Dexter because of his huge sound, and Sonny because of his language. Joshua Redman’s album ‘Elastic’ got me excited when I was getting into jazz because of the grooves and the possibility of integrating jazz with other genres that I also loved. There are so many artists who are changing the landscape of jazz and what jazz actually is – like Laura Mvula, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, to name a few. They have helped in lifting the image that jazz is an alienating, inaccessible art form that can’t be enjoyed by everyone. I’d say that rejecting that mentality has influenced me a lot as a player too.

Who is the most inspiring musician you’ve ever played alongside?

I was incredibly lucky to take part in the Artistic Directors Series run by Brighter Sound in partnership with Band on the Wall in Manchester. We spent a week rehearsing and performing with Terence Blanchard. I took away a lot from his philosophy about improvised music. He gave us some really honest advice which has had an impact on how I write music and improvise.

What is the one piece of advice you’d give to a young person just starting out on an instrument?

Could I give two? Throw yourself in at the deep end, and music is supposed to be fun – don’t forget that.

Find out more about our work with NYJO

Discover the ABRSM Jazz syllabus

Read more about the NYJO Jazz Messengers


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