Jess Gillam has achieved a lot by age 23 — two number one albums on the UK Classical Charts, her own ensemble, a radio show, a Classic BRIT Award and even an MBE — but by the saxophonist’s own admission, it all began with a “failure”.
She was seven years old, at the Barracudas Carnival Centre in Barrow, a few miles from the Cumbrian town she grew up in. Her dad taught drums and percussion at the centre, so Gillam tried her hand at that first.
“No rhythm,” she remembers now. After working her way through everything from dance to costume-making, all to no avail, it was the saxophone that Gillam came to last. “I picked it up, and it was the sound — I think I was really lucky to make a sound straight away,” she says. “It was like a magnetic energy. I can remember it so vividly, the playing of the sound and being kind of surprised by the sound that came out of this instrument. And that was the moment where I thought, ‘ok, this is like magic’.”
The experience was so profound that, even though she remembers her dad playing music in the family home before this, Gillam can’t recall any particular musical memories pre-sax. “I think it must have just been such a defining moment that the before was wiped out,” she says.
She began playing regularly with the carnival band, whose repertoire ranged from Christmas classics to Basement Jaxx, and became enchanted by the “community and joy of everything that we were doing”.
“It was really about the sense of togetherness,” Gillam says. “We would travel across the country playing as a street band and as a group. I think my love of making music with people came before the love of the saxophone, if that makes sense.”
When she later realised the greater possibilities of her instrument — this was something that not only existed in the worlds of jazz or pop, but in classical music too — it “opened a whole new world”. And as she went off to explore it, with a career that’s taken her from a starring role in the Last Night of the Proms three years ago, to reimagining compositions by the likes of Brian Eno, Björk and James Blake on her latest album TIME, that love of playing with other people has remained.
This Saturday, the Jess Gillam Ensemble will kick off their inaugural tour at the Proms at St Jude’s in Hampstead, playing that new record live for the first time. “It’s quite scary actually, directing a project, and it being quite a personal project,” Gillam says. “But it’s one that I do feel very excited about.”
Another of Gillam’s convictions — that music can change young people’s lives, as it did for her — has also stuck. She’s a patron of Awards for Young Musicians and a trustee for the HarrisonParrott Foundation, both of which champion inclusivity and diversity in the arts. Her MBE, awarded earlier this month, was given in recognition of her services to music.
“I don’t think it’s enough now to fly into a venue, play, and fly home again,” Gillam says. “Every time I play somewhere, I want to try and make a positive impact, whether that’s speaking to young people in the area, or doing a workshop, or whatever it might be. We need to be looking at how we can make as big a positive impact as possible in communities, while respecting completely the infrastructure and grassroots systems that are already set off in each community.”
Is Gillam concerned that the pandemic, which has not only wrecked gigs but also blocked physical access to institutions for many young people, might prove a calamitous blow to music education?
“I think it’s been devastating to see the effects on education broadly, and society broadly, never mind music, because this whole year, of course, has been extremely difficult for so many reasons,” she says. “But, I mean, I can’t count the amount of times that people said to me, ‘when are you going to train to get a proper job’ while I was learning music. ‘Are you going to go into accountancy and have music as a hobby?’
“And now, my worry is that people will see the arts even more as an add on, as a luxury, as something that isn’t integral to the education of young people,” she says. Nobody wants “a society of professional classical musicians”, she adds with a laugh, “but now more than ever, as we shift out of this weird year, we’re going to need people who can think creatively, have multiple perspectives on things, and think outside the box”.
There are “countless” studies about how learning music can improve young people’s “academic skills, cognitive skills and interpersonal relationships”, Gillam says. “I believe it should be part and parcel of an education. It’s integral to how we live, but [currently] it’s not integral to how we educate.”
What’s needed is a “societal shift” in our appreciation of the arts, she says. “I would love to see a scene in classical music where young people are brought up listening to music and being exposed to live versions of classical music — so that throughout going to school, they’re given the chance to see this music live, to experience the physicality and emotional side of it, before we bring in all of the preconceptions of what’s cool to listen to and what isn’t cool.”
Gillam’s BBC Radio 3 show, This Classical Life, embodies a similar notion. It describes itself as something “for people who like classical and other stuff too”, with guests choosing a genre-spanning playlist of tracks that ranges from “The Prodigy to Prokofiev”. In July, the show will transform into a live concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks and soprano Soraya Mafi among the performers.
It’s bound to be an intriguing night, and follows a similarly interesting pandemic project of Gillam’s: the so-called Virtual Scratch Orchestra. Keen to resurrect a feeling of community spirit amid the lockdown, she invited musicians of all standards to record themselves performing different parts of songs, and send it in. Well over a thousand people got involved, and all the footage was stitched together to create one big collaborative creation.
“It was completely unexpected,” Gillam says. “I expected maybe a maximum of 50 people to think, ‘I might quite like to have a go at taking part in that’. But so many people want to be part of a group, and want to feel that sense of togetherness.”
It’s a sentiment that Gillam hopes to see continuing into our post-pandemic age. “The more that we can take music to people in a way that they can experience it viscerally, and personally, whether that’s listening or partaking, it just improves people’s lives,” she says. “The amount of people that you talk to who are in a choir or a community band — the togetherness and unity that it can bring, we’ve seen in the past year, we’re going to need it more than ever going forward.”
The Jess Gillam Ensemble tour starts on June 26 at Proms at St Jude’s, Hampstead. This Classical Life: Live is at the Royal Festival Hall on July 7 and is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on July 14 at 7.30pm