Newcastle Jazz Festival brings together past and present

NEW VOICE: Acclaimed singer Steph Russell performing recently at the Generations in Jazz competition. Picture: Supplied
NEW VOICE: Acclaimed singer Steph Russell performing recently at the Generations in Jazz competition. Picture: Supplied

WHEN Doug Saxon was the principal of Jewells Primary School in the early 2000s, he encouraged his students to embrace the performing arts.

He knows that at least one pupil was listening. 

On Saturday night, acclaimed singer and former Jewells school student Steph Russell will be performing at the 31st Newcastle Jazz Festival.

“I’m definitely going to see her sing,” says Saxon, who is the festival’s music coordinator. “Although I’ve told her to call me ‘Doug’.” 

Steph Russell is in the final year of a jazz course at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and she has recently been awarded the national Generations in Jazz vocal scholarship.

Russell is looking forward to performing at the festival, and in front of Doug Saxon.

“He kind of got me started with performing really,” Russell says. “The school facilitated my singing.”

Having demonstrated her singing voice as a kindergarten student, little Steph was placed out the front of the school’s senior choir for a performance in Sydney. Mister Saxon was there at that show. 

Singer Steph Russell. Picture: Supplied

Singer Steph Russell. Picture: Supplied

More than 15 years on, Steph Russell will be out the front of her septet at the festival, performing original songs, some jazz standards, and a few neo soul numbers.

“Neo soul is a new kind of hip fusion of soul and jazz,” she explains.  

The Steph Russell Septet is one of 45 acts performing at the three-day festival.

More than 200 musicians are participating, ranging from local artists, such as pianist Terence Koo and the Hunter School of Performing Arts Stage Band, to visiting acts, including the George Washingmachine Quintet. 

Doug Saxon notes the Newcastle festival is one of the great survivors of the national jazz scene. 

Where other festivals have come and gone, he says, Newcastle’s has adapted over its three-decade lifespan. 

When the festival began, Doug Saxon explains, traditional jazz dominated.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve survived is we’ve broadened the outlook of music,” he says.

“There are different styles in different rooms at Wests [Leagues and Bowling clubs]. So if you don’t like the type of jazz in one room, you can go on to another.” 

Doug Saxon says one of the festival highlights will be a jazz gospel performance on Sunday (August 26) at 10am, complete with a New Orleans-style umbrella parade. 

“It will feature a seven-piece jazz band led by Geoff Power with one of the best jazz gospel singers in the country, former Novocastrian Lee Gunness,” Saxon says.

Looking beyond the performance in her hometown, Steph Russell is hoping to  perform in the US, “perhaps New York or Los Angeles”. She is also planning to record an EP or album of her music. 

But on Saturday from 8.30pm, she will be mixing new music with old school memories. 

“It’s definitely nostalgic,” Russell says.