In collaboration with the Royal National College for the Blind and Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, The Story of Books organised this exciting project led by three blind young people. Eleanor Wait, Sam Obigbesan and Rachel Starritt – all former students at the Royal National College for the Blind, travelled to London to take in live performances at the famous jazz club in Soho, London and learn about 1930s and the 1940s jazz. Back in Hereford they worked with Cara Tivey at RNC Hereford to prepare for performing as the Blind Bookworms Jazz Band to set the mood for a theatrical performance in Hay-on-Wye.
Eleanor, Sam and Rachel travelled to London for a packed weekend of research and a multi-sensory experience of the world of jazz. First stop was the ‘Rhythm and Reaction: 100 years of jazz in Britain’ exhibition at Two Temple Place. Exhibition Coordinator, Becca Hone, gave an in-depth audio-described tour to the group, with opportunities to touch and feel objects.
They also travelled to east London to the National Jazz Archive where David Nathan, Research Archivist, talked through the History of British Jazz exhibition and books and music from the archives.
The group were treated two live performances at the world famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, and Rachel enjoyed a jamming session with Pete Long, Director of the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, and young people taking part in a Big Band in a Day workshop.
With all these experiences under their belt, the group headed to Hereford where they rehearsed under the expert direction of Cara Tivey. Ellie, Sam and Rachel had drawn up a song list, based on their research in London. Cara worked with them on the treatment of the music and to develop their confidence both individually and as a group as the ‘Blind Bookworms Jazz Band’.
The band played before special performances of Unicorns, Almost – a play by Owen Sheers about the life and work of WW2 poet, Keith Douglas and produced by The Story of Books. Producer Emma Balch said, “Students from RNC Hereford have been involved in projects at The Story of Books since we began, and we wanted the play to be a multi-sensory experience. Having the band play live jazz from the WW2 period before the play helped set the mood for a VI audience. It also encouraged all the creative team to think of how to make the theatrical experience as accessible as possible.”
Sam Obigbesan with playwright Owen Sheers
Local teenagers, Jake Price and Carys Kramer, accompanying Sam Obigbesan to the bus after a Blind Bookworms Jazz Band performance in Hay-on-Wye.
Residents and carers from Cartref Care Home in Hay-on-Wye were treated to a special performance from the Blind Bookworms Jazz Band before Unicorns, Almost, thanks to generous sponsors The Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye.
Sam Obigbesan with stage manager, Halla Karradottir, actor Dan Krikler, and director John Retallack from the production of Unicorns, Almost.
Thanks to Berrington Press for designing these letterpress printed cards with a deep impression on cotton paper so they were beautiful to touch and feel.
Ellie, Sam and Rachel performed a set of four songs along with additional instrumental improvisation from Rachel on the piano. ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie’, ‘Carelessly’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, and ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’.
Ellie Wait reports: “Being able to play jazz live in order to set the scene, create some atmosphere and support Unicorns, Almost was far more rewarding than I expected. I had been comfortable and happy in the idea of being ‘mingle music’ or ‘background noise’ but we weren’t. The audience were continually supportive and responsive with our performances. With each performance our confidence grew which allowed the free spirited nature of jazz to shine through.”
The Blind Bookworms Jazz Band gave an extended performance for the local care home, WW2 veterans and local residents with dementia. They also performed to 110 Year 9 students from Fairfield High School, Herefordshire. Then, over two weekends overlapping with Hay Festival, the band played before each performance of Unicorns, Almost – 15 performances in total.
Ellie again, “I have had quite a lot of performance experience before but never to such a wide range of ages. I noted is that the reactions were mostly the same despite the age differences. People enjoyed the live music. It reinforced to me that I adore jazz, the accessibility of it and the opportunity for enjoyment it gives the audience and performers alike.”
Emma Balch would like to thank Andrea and Clyde Starritt for their time and support. Without them the Blind Bookworms Jazz Band project would not have happened. Many thanks too to Fatine at Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, to Lucy Proctor, Linda Hellyer, and Cara Tivey at RNC Hereford, to Adrian and Vanessa Wilson at The Swan Hotel.
Listen to Rachel Starritt talking to Ellie Wait about how she reads and learns music:
£4350 Grant awarded to the Blind Bookworms Jazz Band project
The Blind Bookworms Jazz Band is a project that brings together blind and visually impaired (VI) young people for an exciting group learning and performance experience focused on 1930s and 1940s jazz.
We are absolutely delighted that Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation have awarded a grant of £4350 to bring this project to life.
Led by Ellie Wait, Sam Obigbesan, and Rachel Starritt, all former students at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), and supported by The Story of Books and RNC, the Blind Bookworms is a three-month project that involves:
- research and learning about 1930s and 1940s jazz
- creative input from professional experts
- rehearsals and recordings to be shared with a wide audience
- performance of live jazz as part of a multi-sensory theatrical experience
The project will culminate with live performances by the Blind Bookworms Jazz Band as part of UNICORNS, ALMOST – a new one-man show by Owen Sheers and directed by John Retallack, about the life and poetry of Keith Douglas, that premieres in Hay-on-Wye in May.
Ellie Wait (piano, saxophone, vocals), 26 years old, registered blind from birth:
‘As a needlessly competitive child, music was the only subject that I felt I had a playing field in. I couldn’t see enough to excel at sport, and reading the blackboard was difficult in lessons meaning I felt as though I was playing catch up with the other kids. Music – particularly improvisation which provoked my love of jazz and blues – was the only subject that was inherently accessible to those with a visual impairment, and I fell in love with it. Since then, my adoration of music has grown and now encompasses many art forms, but the seed of my creativity will always be rooted in music.’
Aims and purposes of the project:
- To offer blind and visually impaired young people with hands-on experience in planning and presenting live jazz performances to a diverse audience.
- To use jazz and live music to give blind and visually impaired young people a multi-sensory theatrical experience.
- To empower blind and visually impaired musicians through learning about the jazz of the 1930s and 1940s and to co-create a live performance.
- To break down barriers for young people with disabilities to access live music and theatre by involving them in the creative process, including the planning and the delivery.
The Blind Bookworms Jazz Band will perform live at special performances of UNICORNS, ALMOST.
The Blind Bookworms project also received a small grant from the Reading Agency under the ‘Reading Hack’ initiative. The recordings that were produced