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JAZZWISE: "Reinventing the big band with visuals, interactivity and crowdfunding"


Strictly Smokin Big Band perform Ella & Ellington at Sunderland Fire station

SSBB: Reinventing the big band with visuals interactivity and crowdfunding


Attracting new - and especially younger - audiences to jazz is a problem the music has wrestled with for years; and getting your stuff out there at a time when the London-centric media and record industry seems increasingly insular and timid, is more difficult than ever.


But one North-East of England artist and his big band group have a solution - and they're succeeding on both counts. Michael Lamb, trumpeter, founder, leader, and chief arranger/composer, set up the Strictly Smokin' Big Band (SSBB) back in 2004 as a high school project; now in its 21st year, it took on new life during the Covid lockdowns - the band produced several full-scale videos to keep the musicians going and audiences engaged.


Their forthcoming album, The Strictly Smokin' Big Band & Friends (released 17 May on CD, as well as the usual download and streaming services), will be launched with a prestigious show at the Fire Station in Sunderland; other shows nationwide will follow. The new album joins the SSBB's previous releases, Harlem 58, an album based on Art Kane's iconic 1958 photo ("A Great Day in Harlem") of 57 jazz greats; and Strictly Smokin' Big Band Sings Ella with Alice Grace, a tribute to the great singer Ella Fitzgerald. All three albums have the strong 'interactive' element SSBB has become known for - if you want to do more than just listen, charts and 'playalongs' are available to download from the band website; so, you too can join the band!


"I've got a good contacts book, and so I knew plenty of soloists who wanted to get involved," says Michael. "The challenge is to create new arrangements and keep things fresh. Many people have this image of big band music being stuffy but it's often wild and experimental, there's places for musicians to cut loose. I love the big band format, there's so much you can do with it.


"We've also worked for years to bring in a younger audience, and more recently our use of visuals on our Harlem 58 and Ella & Ellington theatre shows has attracted another demographic - it's not necessarily the kind of jazz you play that keeps new audiences away, but how you present it; how you defy expectation and prejudice.


"The regions of the UK get left behind in general, this is especially so with jazz, and even more so with big bands! Part of the drive behind this album is to prove that big band jazz can thrive outside London."

Given how difficult it can be to fund recording projects, Michael set up a slick crowdfunding site and supported his efforts with social media and YouTube campaigns. The result was that they raised the money needed in just 56 days; this money was match-funded by a North East arts organization.


"We created a funding and reached out, via word of mouth, social media, or email [we'd built up a 2,000-strong mailing list locally and internationally], to people we knew, or who we thought might be interested in purchasing an album in advance. And they were! It was important to offer them something as a reward, whether it was exclusive tracks, early downloads, mentions on the sleeves, and so on; what you get depends on what you give.


As for the music, "I like the element of surprise, drawing people in with something familiar and then throwing in a few curveballs," comments Michael. "This is borne out by both the choices of tunes on the new album and the way they're presented [see review in next issue].


"I hope we'll surprise everyone with The Strictly Smokin' Big Band & Friends, and we're looking forward to everyone hearing it and presenting our music to some live audiences!


~ Kevin Whitlock



The SSBB will be launching their new album at the Fire Station, Sunderland, on 17 May.

Special guests include Paul Booth, Bruce Adams, and Alan Barnes. A nationwide tour follows - see www.strictly-smokin.co.uk


Strictly Smokin' Big Band's feature in Jazzwise Magazine

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