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Jazz sensation and University of Kent graduate YolanDa Brown has won two MOBOs and entertained the Queen – not bad for a self-taught saxophonist. Jo Roberts reports.
YolanDa Brown hardly had time to catch breath let alone blow a saxophone in the 10 years that she lived in Canterbury.
Not only was she excelling at a business degree, followed by a Masters degree and then a PhD at the University of Kent, but in her ‘free time’ she was also setting the international jazz world alight with her saxophone playing – unbelievably, self-taught.
Now the two-times Best Jazz MOBO Award winner, 31, leads a jet-set lifestyle performing around the world to people in high places, lobbying parliament for better music education in schools, and touring with long-standing A-listers like The Temptations to bring jazz to a wider crowd.
YolanDa, who returned to her native London after leaving her studies in Canterbury, is set to enjoy an emotional gig at the city’s Gulbenkian Theatre on the site of her alma mater this Sunday, June 29, ahead of appearing at the Hop Farm Music Festival on Saturday, July 5.
She told What’s On about her unconventional route into a top-flight music career and why all that business education hasn’t gone to waste.
How did you come to music?
“I started playing the piano aged six, and came to the sax at 13, which was quite late. I had the music theory background from playing the piano so I learned the sax for a year at school but I was a bit of a rebel and I quit the lessons and went my own way. I was listening to the radio and deciding, ‘I like that tune, I’ll give it a try.’ I packed my sax when I came to Canterbury to study, and joined a band in the summer of my PhD. My first solo concert was in 2007, so it’s been a whirlwind!”
Your studies all seemed destined for a career in business, though?
“I thought I would go into management consultancy or events, that was the closest idea I had to music. My degree was in management science. I had a lovely graduation ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral – I actually had two graduations there, because I also did my Masters, but I put on hold my PhD. I left Canterbury in 2010. It was a hard decision whether to continue with my PhD or follow the music. I was playing for the Russian president at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia, when I thought, ‘This double life can’t work anymore!’ I love to travel so the fact I get to do that with my work is amazing.”
There must be classically trained musicians who envy your relatively quick route to the top. What do your put your success down to?
“I think people come to instruments in different ways. There are conservatoires and music schools, but that’s my business side. I’m an independent artist and have built up a team. I pushed myself out there and garnered my own audience and have kept in touch with that audience. The marketing and branding training hasn’t gone to waste. I have a music manager – you can’t do it all yourself, you need people to bounce ideas off. I have a PR agent and a booking agent, that is the fundamental team.”
What have been some of your personal career highlights so far?
“I think winning the MOBO two years running, meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace, lobbying at the House of Commons and Downing Street about making music more prominent in education – these have been fantastic. And then touring with The Temptations was a high point. They have been in the industry for so long and yet their dressing rooms were open to me and on the final night they invited me on stage. It was about how they relate to people and have the time for new musicians.”
How do you feel about returning to Kent for gigs at the Gulbenkian Theatre and at the Hop Farm Music Festival?
“A lot of old friends and old teachers will be at the Canterbury gig, it will be emotional. And a festival takes the music to a whole new crowd. I’m a rebel in the jazz genre, you’ll hear reggae, rock, folk songs, it’s a freer atmosphere. I love it when people get up and dance and shake off all the cobwebs.”
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