Amy Winehouse is a former member and their skills are in demand at festivals across the world, but who are the National Youth Jazz Orchestra? BARRY O'SULLIVAN meets the founder member and learns about its history

CELEBRATING the 44th year since its inception in 1965 the Harrow-based National Youth Jazz

Orchestra (NYJO) is going from strength to strength. Founded by Bill Ashton MBE, the orchestra draws gifted young musicians from all over Britain with the aim of developing and nurturing their talent.

The story of its founding is quite an interesting one, says Bill. "I was working as a teacher in a London school and one of my pupils happened to be Frank Ricotti. Frank was an exceptionally talented musician and my aim was to build an orchestra around him to aid and develop his talents."

Frank went on to become a world famous studio musician, while the NYJO has grown into one of the most renowned jazz orchestras in Europe.

Along with nurturing young musicians, NYJO also strives to promote and increase awareness of jazz among as wide an audience as possible. Bill recalls: "The peak of our exposure was most probably in the 1970s, when we had a spot on the Royal Variety Performance. In general however, the popularity of NYJO and jazz, on the whole, has continued to grow."

One glance at NYJO's 2009 calendar would seem to confirm this. Even at this early stage of the year, the orchestra has a near-full schedule, with one notable date being a July tour of Provence, in southern France.

Most of NYJO's music is written specifically for the orchestra by British composers, some of whom include past and present members. Bill says: "The repertoire is enormous."

"We cover a wide range of styles so that diverse occasions can be catered for." Through the years many famous faces have passed through the orchestra, including Simon Philips, Richard Burgess and Amy Winehouse.

The Rehab singer took on occasional vocal duties with the orchestra, before finding fame with her second album.

She sang numbers made famous by Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Petula Clark.

As a result of the troubled diva's past association with the orchestra, Bill has been much in demand. Bill says: "I personally have been on four American documenataries about Amy Winehouse. However I gain much more enjoyment when I see our band playing on television or at major jazz festivals and concert halls."

And given that Bill always seems happy to have former members drop in for a show, an appearance by the big-voiced Back to Black star can never be ruled out.

* The NYJO will be playing at The Bulls Head, Barnes, on Sunday, from 8.30pm. It is sure to be a show not to be missed. For further information on NYJO visit www. nyjo.org.uk or contact its Harrow-based offices on 020 8863 2717.