Is Doncaster the UK’s New Orleans?

Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra.  Picture: Malcolm Billingham
Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra. Picture: Malcolm Billingham

New Orleans, New York, Kansas City, St Louis - all cities synonymous with the history of jazz. Doncaster? Not so much.

But the town has been at the heart of the jazz acene now for 40 years, producing players that have gone on to become figures on the UK’s burgeoning scene, as well as many other professional musicians who, while they may have left the blues behind, ply their trade across the music industry.

Dennis Rollins

Dennis Rollins

The Doncaster Youth Jazz Association is in the unique position of having produced two of just 12 Freemen of Doncaster – both leader John Ellis and the band’s most famous alumnus, trombonist Dennis Rollins, have the right to graze cattle on Crimpsall pasture (now Doncaster prison) and Low pasture (now the Dome and Lakeside) should they so wish.

Dennis told the Free Press: “The orchestra was a fundamental part of my upbringing and continues to give voice to young musicians. Doncaster is very lucky to have it and I hope in the future it gets the support it deserves.”

But it’s not just the musicians who made it that are part of the orchestra’s story – the project has mattered a great deal to many others who chose not to blow their own trumpets.

One letter from an ex-member who didn’t take to the stage, says it all: “I was badly bullied at school and had very low self esteem. Being part of something like the jazz orchestra helped me enormously.

Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra. John Ellis.  Picture: Malcolm Billingham

Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra. John Ellis. Picture: Malcolm Billingham

“I suspect you positively affected a lot of other people who now learn their living doing other things. Thank you for doing what you did.”

“I got that letter from a chap I met just after we came offstage at the Wigan Jazz Festival, I didn’t remember him at first,” John said. “He said to me ‘I just wanted you to know how much I got out of it.’ It was a lovely moment.”

That this unlikely scenario has come to pass is mostly down to the vision of one man – John Ellis MBE, who founded the Doncaster Youth Jazz Association 40 years ago.

John says: “I was working as a teacher and started a small jazz group in Doncaster.

The first meeting of the Youth Orchestra Band in July 1973.

The first meeting of the Youth Orchestra Band in July 1973.

“It became so popular I was asked to stop.

“Apparently it was having an adverse affect on the attendance of the other after-hours groups – no one was turning up to them.

“The students were angry that it stopped, so the then new head Keith Jowett asked me what I needed to carry on – I said a room and a piano, and he got them for me.”

DYJA’s early years were very much a case of making do and mend – or as a jazzbo might have, improvisation.

“There was no money at the time,” John said. “It was very difficult to find instruments for the kids – you’d see them trying to get a tune out of the most awkward things.

“We’d do anything short of larceny. We repaired what we could and built the rest, my garage was full of bits of instruments.

“How times have changed – these days nearly everyone turns up with a brand new instrument.”

The orchestra quickly built up a reputation and within a few years the brass section of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra featured so many Donny players that it was nicknamed the Yorkshire Heavy Brigade.

“I still don’t know what it is about Doncaster and jazz – I always felt there was something in the water,” John says.

“We’ve been lucky to have some really special youngsters come through the bands over the years.

“I’ve often been asked why I didn’t do this somewhere like Leeds or York or somewhere more ‘promising’ but I’ve never had any thoughts of being anywhere else – nor have I ever had any regrets. There’s a really special spirit about Doncaster.”

Former members have since gone on to have worked with, either live or in the studio, with major musical names as Prince, The Temptations, Mark Ronson, Radiohead, Kaiser Chiefs, the Spice Girls and many more.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Recent years have seen the orchestra feel the pinch, along with everyone else in the country.

“The last three or four years have been a real tough ride,” John said. “Our funding was cut by about 50 per cent and that was very difficult.

“We were determined we wouldn’t fold. We had to tighten our belts and close one of the bands down, but we’re still standing.”

The association, which rehearses at the Jazz Centre in Beckett Road several times a week, also reached out to former members for help and the response was amazing, particularly from former trombonist Andy Cato, now best known as half of dance floor masters Groove Armada, who raised £44,000 for the cause.

As befits a bandleader, John is keen to acknowledge the contribution of others to the development of the DYJA as the cultural jewel in Doncaster’s crown.

“The success isn’t because of me, it’s because all the people who have supported me over the years. I’ve realised that particularly in last few years.

“People have been amazing and I’m very grateful. I’ve been very fortunate.

“I’ve got the best job in the world – I just stand in front of a group of kids who are playing their hearts out. Isn’t that fantastic?”