They are still going to grammar schools or high schools, and they rehearse only on Thursday evenings for two hours, yet they are possibly England's best youth jazz orchestra. Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra, from Walsall, a Birmingham suburb, recently finished the last leg of their American tour, performing here at the Hatch Shell.
Although it rained, the 15- to 23-year-olds played. A couple danced in the middle of the field, and other jazz fans beneath nearby trees tapped their toes to the band's jazz compositions and standard big-band numbers.
``We play a variety of stuff,'' said the band's director, John Hughes, a proven trombone player and bassist. ``People who come to hear us often want to see what they concede to be the big-band style -- the Woody Hermans and the Glenn Millers. The kids in this band want to play a more up-to-date program. So it is a bit of a compromise,'' he says.
The student musicians, uninhibited by the bleak weather, wore modest turquoise T-shirts and white shorts, with some wearing thongs.
Before coming to Boston they held a jazz camp for two weeks at the Hartford School of Music, and played gigs for the New Hampshire Jubilee Arts Festival. They also hit New York city, Rhode Island, and Portland, Maine.
The Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra, formed in 1975 by Hughes, is impressive in the scale of its success. They have cut two records, ``Alone Again'' and ``Head Over Heels.'' The second album established them as a serious group of talent. The Jazz Journal in England wrote: ``This Midlands band has achieved a remarkable degree of musicianship and has two excellent soloists in Martin Shaw and Julian Arguelles. Make a note of their names, because I am sure we will be hearing more from them and many other members of this splendid orchestra in the future.''
That review was in 1983, and their standards are still very high. Pianist Tom Porter won the award for the most outstanding young jazz musician in England. Adrian Bullers, former lead alto saxist for the band, and now a professional, accompanied the band for the American tour. The regular lead alto was recording in England. Mr. Bullers played with Lionel Richie in Monte Carlo the week before the band flew to the states and has shared musical company with Al Jareau.
The young musicians' commitment explains their success. ``They don't have the distractions of the big city,'' says Hughes. ``Their motive is entirely musical, and that helps to up the standard in a way.''
Their overseas excursion was financed through 12 months of fund-raisers, and their concerts are payment for the lodging.
But why was the band ever formed?
Director Hughes believes that jazz deserves more popularity among the predominately rock-and-roll-oriented public. ``I thought there was a need for a jazz orchestra,'' he says.
The band from the little city in England has produced musicians who are contributing to the jazz movement, partly because of sheer determination, but also because of Hughes and his attitude. With heavy English intonations, he delivers his final statement. ``We don't want to sound like everybody else.''