On 8th June at All Saints Church, West Dulwich, South London Community Music held a gala concert to celebrate 25 years of service from Bob Bridges. Over that time, Bob has provided his passion, dedication and expertise as conductor and music director for the Southwark Concert Band (now known as South London Symphonic Winds), the South London Jazz Orchestra and London Sings! The following tributes are typical of the many paid to him at the concert:

“I remember when Bob first arrived at the Southwark Concert Band in 1995. We had 21 members, hardly any percussion, and huge gaps in instrumentation. We had only one trumpet - bad news for a concert band.” - JS

“When we first met Bob, he talked about a five-year plan. I was treasurer and was worried about simply paying the rent for our weekly rehearsals, and having to tell the band we did not have the funds for new music at the moment. Bob said he wanted a band of 60 players, a full percussion section, two formal concerts a year in prestigious venues, more engagement with the community and to spend at least £1,000 a year on new music.” - PM

Paul Millington, who co-founded the South London Jazz Orchestra with Bob, interviews him about his work and experiences with community music on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bob, these are just two of the many wonderful tributes from band members. You have left quite some legacy. When we first met some 25 years ago, you had a very strong commitment to community music. How did this come about?

I was very fortunate to have a family where music was a strong part of our heritage. My paternal grandmother was Ethel Bridges, a well-known composer. As a child, she was once invited to play the piano for a select group at a reception in San Francisco, and rather scandalised the high society audience by playing ragtime music. Her brother was the well-respected 20th century concert pianist Charles Cooper. I remember parties at the San Francisco home of Charles and his wife, pianist Marie Cooper, where, at two grand pianos, Great Uncle Charles played and discussed duets with renowned 20th century cellist Pablo Casals, who was a family friend.

At school, I was always studying music scores, which I found quite easy to memorise, so that from the age of 12, it was an easy step to conducting music groups at school. When my Uncle Ray, then a talent agent located in Beverley Hills, saw me conducting light operetta at the age of 14, he gave me introductions to various professional conducting opportunities. An association with the Deutscher Musik Verein (DMV) of San Francisco, which was a community organisation open to all ages and abilities, followed several years later. All this as I pursued the dual track of my education and professional conducting career. During those 15 years I developed my early sense of the unique issues of community music, which generally does not have the support resources of their professional counterpart. My connection with DMV allowed me to conduct many concerts with the band and I had extended experience with their string orchestra, and by affiliation with the northern California German and Swiss choirs.

While in high school, I wanted to conduct more large-scale symphonic band repertoire and took the initiative of forming the South San Francisco Summer Symphony, using university rehearsal and performance space, generously loaned to me. These large spaces were not in use during the summer months, and by leafleting many San Francisco peninsula communities, aided by publicity through personal contacts, a very large wind orchestra and several smaller music ensembles were developed. These groups performed to substantial audiences. I managed and conducted this summer season for eight years.

It was apparent to me that good organisation and sound finances were fundamental to any music group which aimed for long-term successes, and community groups were full of enthusiastic volunteers who were prepared to do what was necessary to organise the rehearsals and concerts. So, yes, the answer to your question is that I am a big fan of community music groups.

Did you listen to contemporary music?

Yes, of course. I regularly attended the Monterey Jazz Festival while I lived in California. I remember I was quite young when I talked to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald backstage and complimented them on the beauty of their music. In retrospect they were each very polite to indulge the fawning comments of such a young admirer.

I suppose your music career did not provide you with much of an income?

That’s right. During my teen years, I had virtually no expenses and a surprisingly substantial conducting income, but it was clear to me that my personal assets were not something on which I wanted to rely in the future. Anticipating the inevitability of a family one day, I included economics in my university studies, and so became a stockbroker in my 20s and later moved into investment banking. This began some years of a day career in finance and of evenings conducting community music.

When at last I had some financial comfort, I was persuaded by my children to leave this very high-pressure work environment and indulge my love of the performing arts again. I completed an MFA degree in Conducting at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles), which involved conducting many music ensembles. Also, as a lover of theatre, I took out a lease on a property in Melrose Place in order to run a fringe theatre, putting on quality productions with up-and-coming actors in front of small audiences, often including local LA and Hollywood celebrities.

How did you come to live in London?

Well, UCLA had a reciprocal arrangement with the Royal College of Music in London and regularly exchanged music staff. As the theatre lease was about to expire, my next move was to London where I was offered a teaching residency at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music, by the director Dame Janet Ritterman. Also, I wanted to do some research on a distant relation of mine also named Robert Bridges who was the British Poet Laureate from 1913 for 17 years until he died. This allowed me to hone and co-mingle my meagre writing, genealogy and cinema interests.

Soon after I arrived in London, I saw that the Southwark Concert Band were looking for a music director and conductor, and it was a community band, which seemed a good opportunity to work with amateur musicians in the UK.

I remember you impressing our small committee when we first met you. You had ideas for our expansion with a five-point plan to be achieved within five years. After the meeting, I remember reminding the others that Americans are inclined to exaggerate a little. But in fact, we achieved those objectives in under two years. Also, we kept having to change venues for our two formal concerts a year, in order to accommodate the size of the band and ever-increasing audience.

What were your ideas on repertoire at that time?

The concert band were playing quite a lot of popular tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan medleys, marches, and many arrangements of orchestral music, that sometimes did not work very well for concert band. We needed to spend at least £1,000 on new music every year. There is a lot of music especially composed for concert band, and better arrangements of classical music available. Also, we needed some instrumental features for particular players to play, and of course some American favourites.

Yes, we always groaned at rehearsal when you called out for the book of Sousa’s Marches, because they were quite difficult to play musically, especially up to speed, but they are extremely well-composed short pieces with lovely counterpoint melodies, and were great for encores. We always enjoyed The Liberty Bell and The Stars and Stripes Forever, and loved hearing the piccolo part trilling away over the top.

Had you always thought that our community band should be looking to start other ensembles?

Yes, that was always the way in the States - people wanted to play other types of music, and a community organisation with enthusiastic people was a great way to achieve this.

I remember, five years in, when we first talked about starting up a jazz swing band. We were standing at the bar in The Fox on the Hill after an SCB rehearsal on a Thursday night and I casually mentioned starting up a new band under the SCB community umbrella. You listed the issues to be addressed, and I told you that I had borrowed some charts, several SCB players were going to come along to rehearsal, a draft flyer was ready, and we just needed a grant to fund rehearsals for a few weeks, and did Wednesday evenings fit in with your diary? You were incredibly supportive and it really took off.

This November 3rd will be the 20th anniversary of the South London Jazz Orchestra’s first rehearsal, when 19 people showed up.

Nineteen tentative members! A far cry from today’s membership roster. It was no surprise to me that if sufficient people buy in to the project with excitement, then the enthusiasm rubs off onto others and anything can be achieved.

At the time our favourite motto was “Build it and they will come”, and that certainly happened.

Do you remember our first gig, the following May at The Half Moon in Herne Hill? It was packed with friends and the audience response was just unbelievable. We must have played American Patrol, Satin Doll and Splanky many hundreds of times since then, but that first time, the audience reaction was exhilarating.

What have been the highlights for you over these 25 years?

So many; it is difficult to pick them out. Many formal SCB concerts with 75 players in Dulwich College Great Hall, years of children’s concerts at the Dulwich Festival with guest celebrities such as Brenda Blethyn narrating Peter and the Wolf, raising funds for many charities, SLJO performing at the Stockholm Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival, and the concert band touring the Champagne region of France, and all the other foreign tours. Playing many 100 Club gigs for swing dancers, hearing the choir singing difficult arrangements, including in 2018 a multi-choir and intimate instrumental ensemble performance of John Rutter’s stunning Requiem - too many to list in full.

But actually, more than all these performances, the way band members have welcomed and encouraged new players who may never have played in a band before, and helped them improve as musicians, giving them confidence and new friendships. The spirit in all the groups has always been very uplifting. I have always hoped that my own ethos of group members welcoming, befriending and supporting each other would permeate each ensemble if they saw those characteristics from the leadership. I leave it to others to judge whether this has been achieved.

And you have been the catalyst for all of this. How have you handled ‘musical differences’ over the years?

We have always encouraged discussions about the musical direction of each band. There are always players who wish to play various musical styles, and over the years there have been many spin-off bands and smaller ensembles created by musicians who first met in our community bands. Quite often, they also continue to play in SLCM. I can think of at least a dozen other groups that would probably not exist if the players had not met in SLCM bands - not to mention several marriages, and many close friendships.

How have you managed to keep all the people involved in performances? In particular with SLJO, who have around 80 regular players at rehearsals and around 120 subscribed members ?

For the bigger venues, it is not too big a problem because not everyone is available for every gig in any case, although the SLJO rhythm section do have to work out a rota amongst themselves, because six drummers, guitarists, keyboard players or bassists all playing at the same time would be rather overpowering! For the smaller venues, we organise a rota so that everyone gets a chance to play in a 17-20-piece band, and sometimes we send out a smaller band where just background music is required. It is a lot of work for the committee but it keeps everyone involved. We are playing gigs most weekends and normally have a couple of tours in the diary, so everyone gets to play quite regularly if they want to.

So, having stepped down from some of your responsibilities in SLCM, what will you do with your time now?

I will still be conducting London Sings! and hope to maintain close connections with the other bands. I have always been involved with social charities in the USA, in Switzerland and the UK, most recently with issues such as homelessness and housing shortages, substance abuse, fair treatment of refugees, and mental health. These are still very worrying social issues that need support. I will have more time for concert going and art exhibitions, and will be able to more regularly visit my family in the States and my three young grandchildren, in particular.

Bob, you deserve to have some leisure time now, as you have worked tirelessly over the last 25 years and established a formidable legacy. Many thanks again from all of us who have found our feet as musicians - sometimes against all expectations - and have played prestigious venues and festivals, have made many friends, and have had a lot of fun in the process. Thanks, Maestro.

Thank you!

The New Conductors of SLCM

Dimitri Chrysostomou became conductor of South London Symphonic Winds in August 2018. Born and raised in London, Dimitri read music at the University of Birmingham, studied classical saxophone at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and has conducted the University of Birmingham Wind Band. He has conducted many string quartets, wind bands, symphony orchestras and choirs, including performances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and seven European tours. He is also currently assistant musical director with the John Lewis Partnership Music Society.

James Keirle was appointed conductor of the South London Jazz Orchestra in September 2018. James plays piano, trombone and tuba. He has a Masters in Composition at the University of Manchester, where he conducted the University Brass Band for three years, winning the National University Brass Band Competition two years running and also being named Best Conductor. James also led the University Big Band for three years and founded a 10-piece jazz ensemble in his native Guernsey. He is also currently conductor of the Holborn Community Orchestra and works as a music teacher, composer and performer.

The South London Jazz Orchestra celebrates its 20th birthday on the evening of 9th November at the Wheatsheaf Hall in Vauxhall.

Other upcoming Concerts can be found at the websites of:
South London Community Music - limited company, registered charity
South London Symphonic Winds
South London Jazz Orchestra
London Sings!