Imagine if you could email your favourite players to check whether they’d be featuring at Wimbledon on a particular day. ‘Will you be performing on semi-finals day? If so, great, we’ll book our tickets and make our travel arrangements.’
John Mander receives lines to this effect every year from fans in the United States and Canada. As musical director of the Merton Youth Concert Band (MYCB) and the Merton Youth Jazz Orchestra (MYJO), he conducts two morning sessions of live music to entertain the All England Club’s Tea Lawn crowds every year on semi-finals days. Under the umbrella organisation of Merton Music Foundation, a registered charity, the MYCB has been a regular fixture for 21 years now, and the fan club grows by the year.
“People come over specifically on days they know we’re playing. I have eight to 10 enquiries each year, double-checking we’ll be here on Thursday and Friday of the second week,’ Mander says. ‘The musicians range from 12 to 19 years of age, but they play to a very high standard. They’re playing adult big band music. In 2009 they were invited to take part in the Montreux Jazz Festival.”
Whistles and applause rang out today as the Jazz Orchestra filled the air with a programme which inspired a lot of foot tapping, Sharapova-esque hip wiggles and the musical equivalent of a pumped-fist action.
It ended with a spirited rendition of the Pink Panther theme, then their signature tune, 'Birdland’, and finally – "a very special piece that only this band is allowed to play" – the BBC TV Wimbledon theme tune called ‘Purple and Green’. Mander allowed his musicians to take a bow, thanked the appreciative audience and signed off with a "Good luck Andy!"
While his players were packing up their saxophones, trumpets, drums and flutes, Mander explained that the dynamic of conductor and band is similar to that between coach and a tennis player. "To have Wimbledon on our events calendar each summer gives us something to focus on. It’s a superb way to raise the expectations of talented young people. We are all perfectionists and you want to come here and put on a great performance. I’m the coach, the Ivan Lendl. We have the same approach. That’s why they’re so good.”
During the redevelopment work several years ago, the musicians shared changing rooms with the players and Pete Sampras met all the kids. They no longer share facilities, but on-court interaction is still genuine with several young musicians doubling up as ball boys and girls as well. Half a dozen each year also work on the courts. With careful scheduling they can leave Ball Boy and Girl HQ to sit and play jazz in their Wimbledon uniform. 'Most go to the same schools that the ball boys and girls come from, so there’s great camaraderie.’