Originally from Yorkshire, jazz pianist Katy O’Neill now lives in Brighton. She sat down with SJM editor Charlie Anderson to talk about her playing career and her love of teaching.
How did you first get into playing music?
“When I was about seven or eight, a relative in my family died, and he was a classical pianist. He had a baby grand piano and it needed to go somewhere and luckily my parents were the only people in the family who had the capacity in their house to take the piano in. So I inherited the baby grand piano and that’s when I started having classical piano lessons. But my Dad is an amateur sax player and guitar player so I think he always had designs on me having some sort of instrumental lessons. And I suppose this piano kind of fell in his lap so he thought it would be great for me to learn and have lessons. I think he always had it in his plan for me to learn the piano because if you learn piano you learn the harmony behind things instantly. I started going for classical piano lessons and did my grades. My Dad also wanted me to learn jazz because he felt that it was the hardest form. He wanted me to understand how to improvise because he thought that opened music up a lot. And he wanted me to be able to read, so he would try to get me to play by ear and with other people. He always played in bands when I was little and when people came round he’d get me involved. Which I kind of enjoyed, but found quite scary–my ears were never very good as I learnt from a reading perspective. My sight reading is quite good because that’s how I learnt. You tend to switch your ears off when you’re reading so I always found it really hard and I found improvisation really hard as well because I’d just not practised that skill.”
“When I was about twelve or thirteen I had my first performance, with a singer friend of my dad’s who was playing at a little charity gig somewhere in Bradford or Leeds. She was really nice. So I played the keyboard part to Smooth Operator by Sade. That was my first foray on to the world’s stage!”
“When I was thirteen or fourteen my Dad suggested that I go for jazz lessons, so he tried to get me lessons with Nikki Iles who was living up in Yorkshire at the time but she was just so busy that it didn’t work out. There is a guy called Philip Hohner who was head of Huddersfield Music College at that time, and I went to him for jazz lessons. We started at the beginning with Jamey Aebersold and the basics of improvising. I was already into Bill Evans but he introduced me to Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. He would give me transcriptions of things to play, such as Wynton Kelly’s solo on Freddie Freeloader. I really like that. We looked at tunes like Confirmation and Rhythm Changes and getting my jazz vocabulary together and trying to play by ear a little bit more. And trying to transcribe a little bit more, but I didn’t do quite enough of that at that time. I found it really hard. When you find things hard, you tend to shy away from doing them. And getting your ears into shape is really tough, if it’s not something that you’ve done from being little or you come to it naturally. It takes time and can be frustrating.”
How did you find the whole experience of jazz at university?
“I knew I wanted to go to London because that was where everything was happening. I applied to the Guildhall and the Royal Academy of Music. I didn’t get into either of them. I quite enjoyed the application process as you got to play with people who were already there and you got to play some of your own compositions. At the Guildhall interview I got through to the second round and I had to play a classical piece. I prepared one of the Bach Preludes & Fugues but I couldn’t remember whether it was from Book 1 or Book 2. That was the first time I experienced a proper rejection/failure. I’d been quite a swot up to that point and always done quite well. Getting those rejections was the first slap in the face: life doesn’t always go your way. So I ended up going to Middlesex Uni, on the jazz course there, and actually got people who would have ended up teaching me anyway at the Guildhall or the Royal Academy. I got Nikki Iles for two years and Pete Churchill for one year. That was fantastic. Middlesex was really good in terms of the people lecturing there. Stuart Hall was really kind and encouraged me to play a lot. It was good and I met a lot of really lovely people. I think I still had that feeling that the Guildhall or the Academy would have been better because they have the prestige. I definitely wasn’t up to the standard they wanted, but it’s more about straight-ahead jazz which I was into at that point, whereas at Middlesex you’ve got the Loose Tubes crowd teaching there and their slant is a little bit more open and experimental which I think is fantastic–but at that time I think I needed to consolidate more. That was my interest, straight-ahead things, rather than expanding out to all the other things that are out there such as Django Bates. It’s good to be made aware of those things but now I wish I could go back to uni and do it all again. I didn’t have a lot of harmony down, I had it down in a theoretical sense but I’m still working on stuff now. I think that’s just a maturity thing. I expected just to get everything down at university and then go out and be a successful jazz musician. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Sometimes I found it quite hard to focus on what to practise as music is such a vast area that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what to work on to improve your playing. You feel that there’s so much and that you’ve got to be good at it all. And now I feel a lot less like that: it’s best to choose a couple of things, work on them for a few weeks and maybe move on to something else and do that for a couple of weeks. Gradually your building blocks all come together. But at the time when you’re in that hot house of music education at uni, it’s hard to have that clear-sightedness as you just want to be good at everything and then suddenly you’re good at nothing.”
“I chose the performance route at Middlesex rather than composition. Then I left Middlesex and was a musician for about three or four years gigging around London, teaching piano peripatetically and privately, doing function bands, gigs with singers, anything that came along including accompanying for grades , little shows, playing on a ferry or a boat on the Thames. You find yourself in lots of crazy situations that, when you’ve got an ordinary job, you don’t quite find yourself in. And that can be nice sometimes or awful, like freezing your arse off in a marquee in the middle of the countryside somewhere at two in the morning, for the fiftieth wedding that you’ve played in that year. And then you find yourself driving to somewhere near Downing Street and doing a private party in an amazing old building.”
“I got a little bit disillusioned with doing that sort of thing and struggling with having lots of free time and not feeling that I was using it to the best of my ability. I didn’t have my own trio or anything like that. I’d done a few duo gigs where I was playing and singing which was something that I really wanted to pursue. I found singing was something that I really enjoyed but I was never happy with my standard when I heard myself recorded so I’d get frustrated again. Also when you’re a singer there’s an element of fronting things and I felt a little bit shy about that. I would never self-promote, I’m not very good at it. I just can’t do that and especially when I was younger I could never do that. I kind of fell a bit out of love with music. It’s hard to measure progress sometimes when you’re a full-time musician. You’ve got to really have a clear vision of what projects you want to pursue and then you’re the only one who is going to get them off the ground so you’ve really got to believe in them. If you have any self-doubt then you don’t and you have to really push yourself to do that.”
“So I decided to take a break and I had the opportunity to move to Paris, which was a dream that I’d always had, when I was about twenty-six. Before that I played in a really lovely band, The Big Buzzard Boogie Band run by Andy Williamson. Loads of people have gone through that and we did the Edinburgh Festival and that was a lot of fun. Andy Williamson’s sister has a business in Paris so he put me in touch with her and I did admin things for her, part-time, and just enjoyed being in Paris for a while. And then through Andy I met a really fantastic sax player, Amy Gamlen who lives in Paris and at that time she worked at a little private bilingual school that was looking for a piano teacher so I worked there for a while and did a few gigs with bass players, doing singing and playing.”
“And then I moved to Brighton, two years later, as my boyfriend at the time wanted to move back. Then I got a piano teaching job at Ringmer College and decided it might be a good idea to do a PGCE as a way of balancing something sensible – the idea was to somehow balance teaching and music but teaching and not doing one-to-one lessons. I got bored with that, with people not practising. I wouldn’t want to do secondary, I can’t stand teenage apathy. At least in primary they’re up for it, they’re fun and they’re hilarious sometimes with the things they say.”
“I did a primary specialism in modern foreign languages. I then spent two years in Madrid hoping I could do some music there. But doing music and full-time primary teaching is just not compatible. It’s just not humanly possible.”
“Then I came back to Brighton a year ago to get my NQT year and I’m now teaching at a school in Lewes. I was hoping I’d be able to start my music up again. Now I’m in my second year at the school and coordinating French and Music so I’m doing a little bit more music teaching. And just recently I went to The Brunswick jam session the other week where I met Wayne [McConnell] and he asked me to host The Verdict jam session last week. I’m just trying to get back into music.”
“I do like the classroom teaching and I do think it’s worthwhile. I’ve struggled with it for a long time but I do think it’s worthwhile. It’s overwhelming when you’re a full-time classroom teacher. Ideally I want to be in a position where I can do some of that but also some music, but music that I want to do. Then I can pick projects and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make money as I’ll have the teaching to fall back on.”
What are your plans for the future?
“I’d like to just play more with people that I enjoy playing with. I would like to have my own project, maybe a trio. I’ve never done it and it seems silly not to. I like playing with singers. I love Blossom Dearie and I’m interested in people who play and sing.”
What are your best and worst moments in jazz?
“I have been to various jam sessions. I remember one in Paris where a guy asked: ‘Are there any piano players here?’ so I put my hand up and I could see him cast his eye over me and thinking (I’m assuming) ‘Oh, she’s a girl, she’s bound to be crap’, so he didn’t choose me. And later I did get up and play and he was surprised. And often when you get up at a jam session, people will say as you approach ‘Do you want to sing?’ And no, I’m not here to sing, don’t assume that I’m a singer because I’m a woman!”
“The best times have been just playing with people who listen and want playing to be a communication. In a conversation you just don’t want someone to talk about themselves. I’ve played with loads of different people in different settings and scenarios and the best ones have just been when people listen to what you’re doing and respond.”
Katy O’Neill will be hosting The Verdict jam session on Wednesday 11th December, 2013.
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson at The Verdict, Brighton.