History of the National Youth Jazz Festival

The NYJF was established by Mike Skipper in 1992 who was at the time the Head of Music at St. Andrew’s College and the Diocesan School for Girls. Skipper invited teachers and pupils from selected high schools to attend a three-day festival where Darius Brubeck would give some guidance on jazz education that focussed on high school jazz programmes. The festival began with only 43 students and 3 teachers. Its success has resulted in a festival that hosts over 300 students, 50 jazz educators and 100 lecturers and performers – including a full administrative staff and crew. Alan Webster – from Stirling High school, East London – took over as Director of the festival in 2001. Webster first attended the NYJF in 1993 as a jazz educator and has been an attendee every year since. The position of Festival Administrator has been taken on by Lesley McQuaid (2001-2004/5); Donné Roebert (neé Dowlman) (2005-2013); Matthew Boon (2014-2021); and Kyle du Preez (2022-present). Donné Roebert has had the ongoing role of Festival Manager since 2014.

The National Schools’ Big Band was selected in 1995 for the first time. Conductors of the band – who were selected annually – have included: Johnny Mekoa (1995); John Davies (1996, 1999, 2000, 2008); Darryl Andrews (1998); Mike Skipper/Jeff Robinson (2001); Brian Thusi (2002); Merlin Julie (2003); Mike Rossi (2004); Graham Beyer (2005); Shannon Mowday (2006); Mageshen Naidoo (2007); Felicia Lesch (2009); Terrence Scarr (2010); Fredrik Noren – Sweden (2011); James Bassingthwaighte (2012); Ian Darrington – Britain (2013); Mike Campbell (2014); Mark de Kock (2015); Dan Shout (2016); Kelly Bell (2017); Gordon Vernick – US (2018); Justin Sasman (2019).

A new version of the Schools’ Band was introduced in 2021 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic regulations. Online auditions were required and the band was converted from its original big band format to an 8-piece ensemble – similar to the Youth Band. While the change was originally a practical move, the adaptation has meant that the NSJB is an ensemble of distilled talent and quality. The first conductor of this band was Shaun Johannes (2021), followed by Hein van de Geyn (2022), Marc de Kock (2023) and Natalie Rungan (2024).

Students from tertiary institutions began to attend from 1998 during which the National Youth Big Band was selected annually over a period of 7 years. Conductors included: John Davies; Hotep Galeta; Mike Campbell; Darryl Andrews; Kevin Davidson and Bruce Cassidy. The big band format was adapted to an 8-piece ensemble from 2001 in order to draw from the very best of the country’s improvisers and players to perform compositions written and arranged by the conductor of the band. Conductors over the years include: Marc Duby (2001), Barney Rachabane (2002), Darius Brubeck (2003), Carlo Mombelli (2004, 2016), Zim Ngqawana (2005), Brain 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), Buddy Wells (2017), Amanda Tiffin (2018), Afrika Mkhize (2019), Nduduzo Makhathini (2021), Mandla Mlangeni (2022), Bokani Dyer (2023) and Sisonke Xonti (2024). 

Many of the young players selected for these national bands have gone on to forge significant careers in professional jazz both nationally and internationally, providing a crucial foundation for the strengthening and continuation of South Africa’s jazz industry and heritage.

2002 National Youth Jazz Band led by Barney Rachabane

While attracting the best jazz musicians in South Africa, the festival has also hosted international musicians from Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the US, and Zimbabwe.

The festival – boosted by its relationship with the National Arts Festival and the audience it draws – has become a fundamental mechanism for the development and continuation of quality South African jazz. Professional jazz performers and educators from around the country acknowledge its importance, making the National Youth Jazz Festival a vibrant, professional barometer of South African jazz and its future.

The NYJF has been funded over the years from sources such as SAMRO, Mmino, ProHelvetia (Swiss Arts Council), and the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, the US and Switzerland. Standard Bank was the festival’s name sponsor for a total of 24 years and its input has undoubtedly played a big role in supporting the South African jazz industry. The festival has had a multi-year exchange programme with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra through the Swedish-South African Culture Partnership Programme, as facilitated through the Department of Arts and Culture Agency. This connection has led to Swedish students and musicians attending and performing at the NYJF, and the National Youth Jazz Band performing in Sweden.