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Three jazzy decades
WAYJO musicians Jesse Byrom-Carter (left), Nicholas Di Gregorio (right) and (centre) WA Youth Orchestra musical director Mace Francis and founder Patrick Crichton. Picture: Simon Santi / The West Australian.

Nearly 30 years ago jazz fans were intrigued by the talents of England's National Youth Jazz Orchestra during their concert visit to the Festival of Perth. The mostly school-aged English musicians demonstrated the kind of Big Band professionalism that the newly-formed jazz studies course at the WA Conservatorium was hoping to emulate.

Might it be possible to take the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as the model for a Perth-based youth jazz orchestra?

Music educators Pat Crichton, from the Con's new course, and WA Education Department music administrators Neil Boon and Roy Rimmer, certainly thought this was a possibility.

The trio was soon involved in discussions with the WA Education Department and the Con (later part of the WA Academy of Performing Arts) as to how a youth orchestra, inspired by its English counterparts, could be set up and run as a training ground for talented young Perth musicians.

It did not take long for the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra to hold auditions for places in its big band, and for Pat Crichton to become its founding musical director.

For those school students aspiring to a professional jazz career, WAYJO would be their earliest training ground. And for those who wanted simply to experience the joys of jazz, WAYJO was the ideal place to learn musical teamwork while gaining a sense of achievement.

This scenario has remained mostly unchanged as WAYJO prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. It has put out a call for its alumni to be part of the anniversary celebrations and share their reminiscences.

"We certainly didn't imagine that WAYJO would still be going after nearly three decades," says Crichton, who led the orchestra for its first 14 years.

The New Zealand-born jazz musician had been working as an arranger and writer for Sydney big bands and the Mike Walsh Show when he decided to try his luck in Perth in the early 80s.

He found some part-time work in the new jazz studies course and after about a year became the inaugural head of department as the WA Conservatorium expanded its horizons.

"A lot of people got behind the idea of a youth jazz orchestra in those early days," says Crichton. "At the start we really had no funding, and the orchestra was largely built from a base of parents who became interested in helping us get off the ground. What surprised us from the beginning was the high standard of musicianship from the young people."

As WAYJO expanded from one to three bands - and sometimes four or even five ensembles - it found the resources to invite professional American arrangers and composers to rehearse their material with the young musicians.

"One of the highlights was the visit of the North Texas State University Lab Band, one of the best university big bands in the world," says Crichton. "Each player in the Lab Band mentored a WAYJO member, and it was a great experience for everyone."

Another early highlight was the decision to take up an invitation to attend the Aberdeen Music Festival in Scotland only two years after the orchestra's formation.

"We really needed sponsorship for something like that to happen," recalls Crichton. "At the time we had been talking to Denis Horgan who was interested in getting WAYJO to perform at his Leeuwin Estate winery.

"When I mentioned to Denis that we were interested in going to Aberdeen for the music festival, he immediately asked how much it would cost."

Crichton recalls he really had no idea, but plucked the figure of $60,000 out of the air.

The WAYJO team walked out of the former merchant banker's office with a cheque for $60,000 so they could go to Aberdeen. "Funnily enough, the amount we needed turned out to be pretty close to that sum," says Crichton.

When Crichton relinquished the musical directorship to Graeme Lyall, another passionate jazz educator, the orchestra continued to build its reputation.

Under its current director, Mace Francis, WAYJO will present its latest concert on August 24 with vocalist Sarah McKenzie and Adelaide saxophonist Mike Stewart. Melbourne-born McKenzie joined the orchestra while studying at WAAPA and has since been carving out an impressive recording and performing career, with a new album just released.

WAYJO is at the State Theatre Centre on August 24 and Ellington's Jazz Club on September 9. It plays works by composer- in-residence Andrew Murray at Ellington's on October 18.