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YolanDa Brown at Cambridge Jazz Festival 2023: ‘I put PhD on backburner to pursue my career in music’

Headlining the ninth annual Cambridge Jazz Festival is double MOBO award-winner YolanDa Brown, a highly-regarded saxophonist and composer who is also known for her extensive work in TV and radio.

YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global
YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global

YolandDa, a passionate advocate for music education, will be bringing her fusion of reggae, jazz and soul to Saffron Hall on the evening of November 17 – and there will also be a special show for children at the same venue in the morning.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from New York City, where she is attending meetings in her capacity as chair of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) – a role she “absolutely loves” – YolanDa says: “We’ve been on tour various places around the globe; we were in Turkey and Martinique, and then came back to Kent and Liverpool, and I’m enjoying just being with the band.

“We’re also working on the next album, which is really exciting. The album will be ready for release next year, and then of course we’re coming to you – so excited about that as well!”

YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global
YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global

The friendly musician, who has toured with the likes of Kool & the Gang, The Temptations, Jools Holland and Billy Ocean, notes that she’s played in Cambridge before, but this will be her first time performing at the Cambridge Jazz Festival, which is supported by the Cambridge Independent.

On what festival-goers attending her gig can expect, YolanDa says: “I love to mix the genres of reggae, jazz and soul, and so allowing the audience just to explore what that feels like and bringing them a new perspective on what their reaction might be to the music – I want the audience to come and just enjoy.

“Usually the reaction is dancing and lots of laughter and interaction, so yeah, looking forward to bringing lots of energy. We always have a great time and want the audience to be a part of it – and every show is different so we’re also looking forward to what that means.”

YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global
YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global

At 10am, YolanDa will be staging YolanDa’s Band Jam – a series on CBeebies – which is a show for children in Key Stage 1 (KS1).

“I sing for the younger audience,” she explains, “but for the, for want of another phrase, ‘grown-up’ music, it’s instrumental, so I love that juxtaposition of the two.”

YolanDa’s other TV work includes BBC Breakfast, The Wright Stuff, Sunday Brunch, Songs of Praise, Jools Holland's Hootenanny, House of Games, Celebrity Mastermind, and BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, while on the radio she presents YolanDa Brown on Saturday on Jazz FM, is a regular co-presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends with Clive Anderson, and also sits in for Vanessa Feltz and Trevor Nelson on BBC Radio 2.

The bulk of her ‘grown-up’ show is improvised music. “That’s why no two shows are the same,” notes YolanDa, “we have a setlist and we know what we’re going to do, but actually we react to each other in music, and I think it’s a great conversation – and the best way to do that, for me, in music is to improvise.

“I can see the audience, react to them, I can tell them how I’m feeling through music, and the whole show is based on improvisation. For me that’s really important.”

The Cambridge Jazz Festival takes place from November 12-26 at venues across the city and beyond, including Cambridge Junction, Saffron Hall, West Road Concert Hall, Jesus College, Girton College, Storey’s Field Centre, the Gonville Hotel, La Raza, and The LAB Cocktail bar. More than 350 artists and performers will be appearing.

Other top acts in the line-up include saxophonist Emma Rawicz (the festival’s artist-in-residence, who YolanDa calls “an amazing artist”), Incognito and A Certain Ratio.

YolanDa was studying for a PhD in management science in 2005 when she first decided to try and follow music as a career.

“I’d been playing the saxophone from the age of 13,” she recalls, “and music was always with me in my journey, but not necessarily as a career, and then I remember meeting my manager around that time and then I started to write my own music, built a band, and never looked back after that.

“I put my PhD on the backburner to accomplish a career in music. I absolutely love sharing my music and sharing my art with the world and seeing them relax into it and enjoying; you just feel that after a concert people have had a new experience.

“I think it’s a really lovely job to have, I feel very, very blessed and very lucky.”

YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global
YolanDa Brown. Picture: Black Grape Global

See YolanDa at Saffron Hall on Friday, November 17. Tickets, priced £16 for the evening show and £3.50 for the morning show (teachers go free), are available at cambridgejazzfestival.infoand saffronhall.com.

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