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A love supreme

One of the UK’s top jazz musicians, Nikki Yeoh, is Clerkenwell born and bred. Here she talks about why we need more music in our schools – and in our homes

By Oliver Bennett

Nikki Yeoh
Nikki Yeoh. Photo: Nick White

One can see how Nikki Yeoh became one of the UK’s pre-eminent jazz improvisers. Words tumble out of her as if she can’t contain them, and watching her play is similarly captivating.

Now Nikki, 49, is leading Guildhall School’s Music Education Islington team to develop jazz and improvised music for Islington’s young people – a role that is, in a sense, giving back. For Nikki grew up in St John’s Street, Clerkenwell in a modest household. She’s spent most of her subsequent life in the area, lives here still, and thinks EC1 is “one of the most brilliant places in the world”. Indeed, with her help it may well become one of the country’s music hubs.

While Nikki ’s story started inauspiciously it shows the benefits of true family support. Her late father was Malaysian while her English mother’s antecedents go back into Holborn for generations. She started playing music at three years old when her grandmother bought her a Fisher Price xylophone which her nan, noticing her talent, soon upgraded. “Exmouth Market was different then, with lots of shops,” says Nikki. “In an antique shop my nan found a little blue toy Victorian piano which she gave me when I was about five years old.” She took piano lessons and by the time she was seven, “was playing really well.” Then her granddad, a black cab driver, took out a loan of £300 (“a lot of money in the 1970s”) and bought her a proper upright piano.

A serious breakthrough occurred when Nikki played a key gig – on the hardworking piano in the now-defunct Royal Mail pub on Joseph Trotter Close. “I was outside with crisps and a soft drink, and was encouraged inside to show off my skills,” says Nikki. “So I played Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. This guy came over to me with a big smile on his face.

“He’d collected loads of money for me in a beer glass. He handed it to me and said, ‘Now you’re a professional’.” Little did the pub-goers know that a few decades hence Nikki would be winning awards as a pianist and composer, and playing everywhere from the Royal Festival Hall to Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Nikki went to Hugh Myddleton school and continued playing, with good results, encouraged by her mum who had left school early. She then went to Islington Green School where the music room became her “refuge”. She developed a lifelong aversion to racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of bullying. At the same time, Nikki attended the Interaction Jazz Workshop in Camden, learning from pioneering British jazz musicians Don Rendell and Ian Carr who tuned her onto the classic jazz of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Talking them out from Finsbury Library, she gave herself a “sonic protection of armour that then made me super-focussed.” Afterwards came Islington Sixth Form College, then in Holloway, where jazz and improvisation workshops ensued, and culminated in Nikki playing to legendary avant garde composer John Cage, who was visiting London. “He sat down and listened to the whole thing. I was amazed. Then he was whisked off to the East West Centre in Old Street for a macrobiotic lunch.”

In the 1990s, a resurgence of British jazz took place with artists like Julian Joseph and Courtney Pine. Nikki found a natural space in this world – and had another fortuitous twist. At a concert at the Jazz Cafe, Courtney Pine needed a pianist and she raised her hand. “I thought, ‘I’m not ready yet’ and had impostor syndrome,” she said. “It bought up stuff about being a woman and working class. I felt awkward.” But “an almost out-of-body energy” took over and after she played, to huge applause, Pine asked for her telephone number. Two months later she was playing with hip-hop band The Roots and Nikki was on the circuit.

The rest is history. Nikki has now played with jazz, soul and pop icons from Cleveland Watkiss, Neneh Cherry, Billy Cobham, Sir George Martin to Nigel Kennedy, and formed groups including Infinitum, with bass guitarist Michael Mondesir and drummer Keith Le Blanc, noted for his work on hip-hop label Sugar Hill and as she says, “one of the most sampled drummers ever”. Her musical travels have taken her across the world including New York and Cuba and as well as playing, Nikki is also a composer. “Composing is a gift for me, because it comes so naturally,” she says. “I always start writing at the piano and have just been commissioned by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra to write a massive piece which will premiere this year.”

With all this going on, Nikki has long been a staunch advocate of music in education. She teaches piano at The Camden School for Girls, runs jazz ensembles for Camden Music and is a mentor for Music for Youth. The Guildhall School initiative adds to that but she’s adamant that she’s a musician who teaches, rather than a teacher who plays music. “I treat it like a skill that you can learn. Some people believe in a ‘gift’ and worry that they won’t be good enough. I always tell them: rehearse. It’s the best way.”

But she’s dismayed by the Government’s attitude, placing music so low on the curriculum. “Education has become so regimented and music and art are being squeezed out,” she says. “There’s a distinct hierarchy from subjects like Maths and English at the top, then the sciences and humanities and right down at the bottom is the arts, with drama first, then music and dance. “Why is that? It’s disabling young people’s self-expression. I always say, self-expression begets creativity and creativity begets freedom.” Also, argues Nikki, ”the music industry brings in so much revenue to the country. It’s short-sighted as lots of other jobs are attached to it.” And it brings pleasure. What could be better?

Nikki’s Music Education Islington course is called ‘Jazz, Funk, Fusion, Afrobeat, Experimental and beyond band practice’. Based at Elizabeth Garret Anderson School every Monday term-time from 4.30–6.30pm, it is open to anyone aged 6–18 confident enough to play all 12 notes on their instrument. Discounts are given to those who live or attend school in Islington and bursaries available for those in need of assistance. Visit gsmd.ac.uk/studywith-guildhall/children-and-youngpeople/music-education-islington

This article is from the February/March 2023 edition of Ec1 Echo. Click here to download your copy.

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