John Pope — “This album was a big step up and it’s been a real learning experience”
John was a Peter Whittingham Development Award Winner in 2022
Introduction to jazz
John Pope began playing music from an early age but by his own admission didn’t start taking it seriously until he was in his mid-teens. “That was when I discovered the bass guitar and rock music in a very broad sense,” John explains. “It was only afterwards that I started listening to jazz and improvised music.”
He subsequently studied for a Master’s degree in improvised and avant-garde music, all the time developing his practice as a jazz musician. Jazz is not a genre that John ever studied formally but his interest was nurtured by attending jam sessions and playing with other musicians, figuring it out for himself.
“I didn’t go to a conservatoire but I’ve met loads of people who came through that system. If you’re a musician who listens and works in a flexible way, you can communicate with others very quickly even if you don’t have a formal connection.”
John also plays in a band called Archipelago, who won a Peter Whittingham Development Award from Help Musicians a few years ago. Having learned from that experience, in 2022 John was intent on making his own application.
“I had been in this sort of area before but this was the first time I’d made an application under my own steam, with my name on the banner. The Peter Whittingham Award is one of those things that is always spoken about in the jazz scene — word of mouth is a big part of it.”
After finalising his plans, John made a start on his application and found the experience markedly different from others he’d written in the past. He highlights the charity’s level of openness; whenever he had a question, someone was available for a person-to-person interaction.
“Help Musicians’ reputation extends before it. It’s a great organisation to be associated with. Even if I’ve had an unsuccessful application, I feel like there’s a level of care. People at the charity recognise that it can make you feel quite vulnerable to put yourself out there when you’re writing an application.”
Artist Development Day
Following his written application, John was then invited to attend an Artist Development Day at Shoreditch’s Strongroom Studio. Not only did participants audition in front of a panel for the Peter Whittingham Award, they were given advice and learnt things on the day that would be invaluable to them afterwards, regardless of whether they were eventually supported or not.
John’s proposal was multi-dimensional (involving a documentary as well as a live recording of his band) and he greatly enjoyed floating ideas back and forth with the experts he spoke to at the event.
The visual element of his plans intrigued the business adviser he spoke with, and he received the solid advice of sharing the visuals he captured on his social media platforms moving forward. He was also able to spend time asking questions of Strongroom’s studio engineer.
Despite being nervous for the audition itself, John recalls that it went as well as possible. “Those things are always a bit nerve-wracking but the panel didn’t feel too cold – they weren’t sat there arms folded, saying ‘let’s see what you’ve got’. They were really listening, leaning forward and interested in what we were doing, which I appreciated enormously.”
Moving plans forward
Receiving an email to say that he was a Peter Whittingham Development Award winner was an incredibly gratifying moment for John. “The fact we were recognised and received that vote of confidence was a real boost. It was brilliant to get things rolling right away.”
John’s plans involved recording an album with his working band, the John Pope Quintet, but importantly he wanted the record to be charged with the energy that the band generates live – “that is when we’re at our best, when we’re in front of a crowd.”
The band settled on a two-night residency at the Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne, with intensive days of rehearsal followed by two evening performances with an invited audience. The performance recordings were handled by Blank Studios, a vital studio run by musicians who are invested in Newcastle’s scene.
Critically John wanted to place a spotlight on the North-East and Newcastle specifically. “Newcastle is an interesting place to live as a creative artist. A lot of what I’ve been able to do as a bandleader has been down to having great relationships with community organisations like the Star and Shadow Cinema where we recorded, and Blank Studios who handled the recording.”
Reflecting on what he learned from the experience supported by Help Musicians, John is in little doubt that it has improved him as a bandleader. “It’s certainly stretched me because when we’ve made recordings or done tours in the past it’s not just me who has been running everything. This was the first time where I really had to keep a lot of plates spinning myself, which I wasn’t used to.”
On the creative side, support from Help Musicians allowed John to step into his craft and be present in a way that was truly enriching for him as an artist. There have also been numerous opportunities that have arisen as a consequence of the new album and documentary. Throughout the rest of 2023, John has performances lined up in Manchester, Newcastle and Lancaster, and will hopefully be taking the band on tour in early 2024.
When asked if he would recommend his experience with Help Musicians to others, John was unequivocal – “I’d say absolutely do it. My experience of working with Help Musicians has been so positive.”