History of the NYJF

The NYJF began in 1992 as the idea of Mike Skipper, head of music at St. Andrews College and Diocesan School for Girls, who invited teachers and pupils at selected high schools to attend a three-day festival where Darius Brubeck would give some guidance in jazz education focused on high school jazz programmes. The festival started with 43 students and three teachers, and was so successful that it rapidly attracted large numbers of participants such that now there are over 300 students from all over South Africa, along with 50 teachers, 100 lecturers and performers, with a full administrative staff as well. Alan Webster, from Stirling High School, East London, took over as Director of the festival in 2001. Lesley McQuaid was Administrator of the NYJF from 2001 to 2004/5; Donné Dowlman was Festival Administrator from 2005 to 2013, and has since been Festival Manager; whilst Matthew Boon became Production manager in 2014.

A National Schools’ Big Band was selected in 1995 for the first time, and from 1998 students from tertiary institutions began to attend, with the selection also of a Standard Bank National Youth Big Band. A third band – the small Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band – began to be selected from 2001, drawing the cream of the improvisers, and playing South African jazz written and arranged by the conductor of the band: Marc Duby (2001), Barney Rachabane (2002), Darius Brubeck (2003), Carlo Mombelli (2004), Zim Ngqawana (2005), Brian Thusi (2006), Andrew Lilley (2007), Neil Gonsalves (2008), Feya Faku (2009), Mike Campbell (2010), McCoy Mrubata (2011), Paul Hanmer (2012), Marcus Wyatt (2013), Mark Fransman (2014), Concord Nkabinde (2015), Carlo Mombelli (2016), Buddy Wells (2017), Amanda Tiffin (2018), Afrika Mkhize (2019). Many of the young players selected to these national bands have gone on to forge significant careers in professional jazz, providing a critical foundation for the strengthening of South Africa’s jazz heritage.

Standard Bank took title sponsorship of the NYJF in 1998, and has continued to be the central, naming sponsor over the past decade. Additional funding has come from SAMRO, Mmino, ProHelvetia, and the governments of The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, the US and Switzerland. The NYJF has also had a multi-year exchange programme with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra through the Swedish-South African Culture Partnership Programme, through the Department of Arts and Culture and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency whereby Swedish students and musicians have performed in Grahamstown and the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band has performed in Sweden.

The festival, sharing the audiences of the National Arts Festival, has become the most significant jazz development programme in the country, and its reputation for innovative performance from across the South African jazz spectrum – established and youth – is also becoming renowned. The NYJF is now incorporated within the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, Grahamstown and forms the official Main Jazz Stage of the Festival, with three top-class performances per night. Professional jazz performers and educators from around the country acknowledge its importance and happily agree to be lecturers, making the NYJF a vibrant, professional barometer of South African jazz and its future. The festival attracts the best jazz musicians in South Africa, and has hosted musicians from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Mozambique, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the US and Zimbabwe.