Norman Langford
Roger Lawrence

The founder of the Essex Youth Jazz Orchestra.


Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Crissy Lee

Roger Lawrence

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It's 2013. How old are you now Roger?


I’m 78 on Sunday, June 30th.


So are you actually a Jazz musician yourself? 


No, but I was born in 1935 and the swing band era & Jazz was very much part of my upbringing, Not that my parents were – they thought it was awful. When I came to Felsted school where I was director of Music for nearly 20 years I started a Swing Band among many of the other things I was doing, choral & orchestral but I did have quite a good Swing Band going in the school, with good sax section, trumpets, always a bit of a shortage of trombones but just about managed. I’ve played it myself occasionally.


You play the trombone do you?


I mess about on everything – I’m an oboist really and a singer. I was woodwind tutor for the second Essex Youth Orchestra for about 10 years from the 70’s into the 80’s and in March of ’82 we were planning for this trip to East Germany but Dennis Wick couldn’t make the course that we had at Easter so he sent in a dep.


Who was Dennis Wick?


Dennis Wick was principle trombonist for LSO and he conducted the Second Essex Youth, as it was called in those days, and he sent in a dep to do the rehearsal for him – 4 or 5 days at Hockerill College over at Bishops Stortford. He sent in a very nice chap who was a cellist and when he started with the orchestra he decided he didn’t want to do any full rehearsals with all the wind until he had sorted the Strings out. Well, we had a four day course and the middle of day three, he still hadn’t allowed the Wind to play with the Strings and the Wind were getting pretty fed up with it, so I had a quick word with the Brass tutor, whose name I hope I’ll remember in the next few minutes. Nipped back to school, got the school Jazz band pad, took it out there and started giving the Wind & Brass chance to play that because they’d got fed up with practicing Beethoven 5 wind parts on their own, they wanted to so it with the strings and put the whole thing together. By the end of the course we’d established quite a nice little band and come the summer when we were touring East Germany Dennis Wick decided that he wasn’t available for that – I think he knew too much about East Germany at that time – so I got the job of conducting the Orchestra, and so it was decided with myself and Joan Collins, who was the administrator at the time – wonderful lady, who ran the Youth Orchestras for decades I think. She was absolutely superb. So she said to bring all the Swing Band stuff along as well, which we did, so once or twice we were able to put down the orchestral instruments and give them a bit of In The Mood and Take The A Train and things like that. It was great fun and we had a wonderful evening in Berlin when we went a huge Youth Camp and we played under an awning in the rain but we were under the awning so we were alright, the audience were all sitting in the rain listening to Beethoven 5 and other things we were doing and at the end we said “If you hang on a moment we’ll give you something different” and we got out the swing band music and that absolutely sent them into heaven. They were dancing around and it was a great moment for East/West relations I tell you – it was terrific.




So after that tour Joan Collins said to me “Would you like to do this on a regular basis and it will become the Essex Youth Swing Band? “ – so that’s what we did, and for a couple of years it worked very well. I still can’t remember the chap’s name who helped me with the brass players – he was very helpful and very good and I’ve got a memory like a sieve – nothing to do with my age of course! So we had these courses at Clarence House in Thaxted and we did concerts all over the place throughout the county. But the Youth Orchestra had been moved from the direction by the County Music adviser, Eric Stapleton, who was a fine musician & conducted the Orchestra quite a lot of the time. It has been moved into the Youth Department because they had money – basically to fund the tours and things. Unfortunately, not just me found it very difficult to work with the bloke who was in charge of that, whose name I also can’t remember.


Yes, his name shall not go down in History! (Laughs)


Absolutely not! Anyway, as a result of that, shortly after filling in for Dennis Wick again, to another tour to Algeria where I conducted Sibeluis 1 in Algiers, not many people can say that, we took a bit of Jazz band with us there, though we didn’t get much chance to play it because the arrangements in Algiers were not good at all. After that, the bloke in charge took a dislike to me and I got a letter saying “Thank you very much for all the work with the swing band. We’ve decided to put it on a more permanent basis and have engaged Mr Scott Strohman to come & run it “. Well no doubt he was much more of a professional and a Jazz man it was very good for the band but it was a bit narking after I’d done all this off my own bat and got it going really well.


So was it the actual Council that took it off you then?


Well he was in charge of it you see at the end – He was in charge of the Youth Orchestra, it was part of the Youth Department because of the money.


Oh I see yes.


I managed to keep going for a year or two with certain band members who had played with me and were quite happy to carry on playing with me but without the backing of the Youth Orchestra organisation and whilst I was working full time anyway running the music in the school, and it was very difficult to get a complete band out and I’m afraid I gave it up in the end. I did four or five concerts with them after it was 'pinched' off me.


I see, yes. Was there an actual crossover at any point? Did you actually meet Scott Strohman?




So you just finished the four or five engagements that you still had and then from then on…


Well the tour was - we did a concert here at the end of the tour to Algeria and I conducted some of it as well as the rest of the programme. That was great fun and the next I heard was that they’d moved the Jazz band onto Scott Strohman. And shortly after that other people started being asked to do the woodwind tutoring but there you go – that’s life isn’t it?


So you still stayed working for the council?


No. Well I did for a few years. They didn’t actually sack me but I used to go in sort of two days out of the four and nobody quite knew why I was there you know. Its one of the great things if you want to get rid of someone, you employ them but you don’t give them anything to do. I did do a few bits. I enjoyed it because I’d been friendly with all these kids for quite a few years. I used to do all the additions for the woodwind so knew them all and there’s one of them playing bassoon now who auditioned as a flautist and she’s a pro playing on authentic instruments on the bassoon. She only took it up because I said you’ll never get in on the flute because there are far too many of them. She was jolly good but if you are half as good on the bassoon, you’ll get in the orchestra – which she did and now she’s a pro bassoonist, Sally Jackson, lovely girl.


So slightly before you were involved, you had the orchestra playing the classical stuff and so was there already a swing band there?


No it started with the course when the chap who didn’t want all full orchestra practices, and the wind & brass were, and of course in Beethoven 5 the trombones don’t come in till the last movement so on the fourth day when he waved to the trombones, they’d all gone home! (laughs) They’d got fed up. So he never did.


So that’s the story then is it Roger? Before we finish,tell me more about yourself – your musical background?


Well I started to learn the piano and the oboe and the violin at an early age but I produced lumps out of my chin to stop me playing the violin and the piano is the one instrument I’ve since discovered that I will never be able to play because I just don’t work that way. I taught myself the recorder for some reason or other at the age of 14 became really quite good at it – I remember playing Handel’s sonata at the age of 16, quite difficult one and then I took up the oboe at the age 17 and I discovered that if an instrument had one note at time, I could play it and since then I’ve messed about on everything. The following term I played the bassoon in quite a good orchestral concert, in fact I played second bassoon in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and the year after that I was first oboist in the school orchestra and we played the Mendelssohn Concerto. I had to go in National Service. Two years flogging around the skies burning on one day at least 900 gallons of Avgas . That finished 2 years later and I went to Oxford where I studies maths for a year and then engineering for 2 years after that. Whilst at Oxford, I did a huge amount of music, singing & playing. Didn’t really get round to conducting much, very little conducting though I ran a small singing group of 4 singers. Then I got a job teaching maths just up the road at St Edward’s School. There I started doing a lot of music with the kids just because I wanted to do it and eventually the realised that that’s what I was quite good at so as a mathematics teacher to conduct the orchestra and to conduct the Choral Society and run another little choir and all sorts of Chamber Music. And although I have no musical qualifications apart from an ARCM in Oboe teaching which I got at the age of 35, I managed to get a job at Felsted as Director of Instrumental Music and that’s how I came to be around and got taken up by the Essex Youth Orchestra which I did for about 10 years doing all their auditions and coaching the woodwind and conducting 2 tours. Got quite heavily involved really and then started the band. That’s about it.


How many were in the Swing Band?


Well we certainly had all 5 saxes, usually a bit more because we actually bought a nice baritone sax so there was always one for the band because you couldn’t rely on a kid to have a baritone sax but tenors. We found bassoonists & viola players and all sorts of people, particularly who learned the recorder when young discover they can play the saxophone really quite well, quite quickly and we has some fantastic trumpets, one was called David Shead, who was a damn good trumpeter, classical trumpeter, but they all joined in. Trombones we were always a little bit short of because there were only three of four in the orchestra and they didn’t all want to play that sort of thing. Think they felt a bit threatened if they were asked to improvise. Orchestral players are not very good when it comes to improvising, they like to have the dots.


Yes, that’s right.


They might decorate them a bit but they‘ve got to start from those dots. I know, I was very much the same I’m afraid.


So it was more or less like a 20 piece then was it?


Yes, rhythm, Bass, piano, drums. 16 – 20 most of the time.


So you continued conducting music until 1990 was it ?


At school yes. Since then I’ve conducted the Brentwood Phil (harmonic) for 10 years. I do Felsted Choral Society which has 90 members, we usually perform with about 70 strong and it’s a very good choral society . I’ve just finished my 35th season with them and I’ve run other choirs and I play for other people and sing for other people. Its great music and you can just go on doing it.


I’m surprised you have time to do anything else.


Well when you haven’t got to do a job its quite a lot easier. Being retired is the best job I’ve ever had.


Laughs – yes indeed