Saturday, 4 April 2020

Remembering Jeffery Babb

Jeffery Babb
Jeffery Babb
In music, as in many other subjects, an inspiring teacher can make the world of a difference to the way children, and adults, approach a subject. The death was announced this week of the conductor Jeffery Babb, perhaps not a name well-known to everyone, but if you were involved in music-making in North Lincolnshire then he was someone who almost certainly touched your life.

When I was in my teens (in the late 1960s) I joined Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District Youth Orchestra (GCDYO), playing first in the intermediate orchestra and then from 1971 in the senior orchestra. Through this organisation I came into contact with Jeffery Babb who was principal music director of GCDYO (a post he held for around 40 years). He was an inspirational conductor, managing to make young players not only want to perform, but to perform new and interesting works to the best of their ability.

One of my first exposures was sitting on the back desk of the violas in the senior orchestra, and opening a new piece of music, planned as part of the orchestra's concerts during the Vaughan Williams' centenary year in 1972. I had never played anything like 'The Dance of Job's Comforters' from RVW's Job, with its shifting harmonies and almost sleazy saxophone solo. In fact, I had never come across a saxophone performing in classical music, and had no idea that music could sound like this. We went on to perform a good half of Job, touring it to Germany and it inspired in me a love of RVW's music which persists still. More than that, it made me realise that classical music stretched beyond the Bach, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky that I heard at home.

There were other amazing pieces, symphonies by Edmund Rubbra and by William Boyce, a cassation by Malcolm Williamson called The Stone Wall which called for audience participation.

I was only exposed to Jeffery Babb's conducting for a limited time, after all he shared the conducting honours in GCDYO, but even so his charismatic and inspirational leadership made a significant difference to my musical outlook.

Jeffery Babb was head of music at Wintringham School, Grimsby from 1962 to 1988, he conducted the Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District Youth Orchestra for 40 years, the Grimsby Bach Choir for 22 years and the Youth Music Weeks from 1972 to 2003. The youth orchestra's Facebook page has a fine tribute to Jeffery Babb from the present chairman and musical director, Leo Solomon, who knew him far better than I.

His 90th birthday was celebrated in 2018 with an amazing concert at Grimsby Methodist Central Hall, I went along with a cousin who had also performed under his baton, and he was present. It was a wonderful way to remember him.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Robert..I was a contemporary of yours and enjoyed those interesting works we met through Mr Babb's enthusiastic leadership.Like you Job was exciting and has stayed happily in memories from that time.
    I can still sing the audience ostinato patterns from The Stonewall..must have been well-taught!
    As a teacher of music myself I have the greatest respect for all that Mr Babb achieved.RIP
    Jenny (Bateman)

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  2. Thank you very much for this warm tribute to the very unforgettable Jeff Babb. I was principal viola in the GCDYO Senior Orchestra but before your time! It was a huge pleasure to spearhead and appear as piano soloist in the very successful 90th birthday concert and, with the current restrictions on attendance at funerals, at least we can all feel that we paid tribute to Jeff during his lifetime rather than after it. We all have such amazing, wonderful memories of him.

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    1. Richard, in fact we shared the same viola teacher!

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  3. This comes very late in the day – regrettably I have only just heard of Jeff’s death. He was a unique and inspirational personality and all of us in N Lincolnshire who came into his orbit should be grateful. My first memory of him when I was about twelve is hearing a rehearsal of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a piece new to me and which has remained a favourite ever since. Then there was the Childhood of Christ for the Grimsby Bach Choir in which I was a wobbly treble Unseen Angel up in the organ loft of All Saints Church(?) – again, music I had then never heard of which has been with me ever since.

    May I add some memories of his quite extraordinary operatic achievements at Wintringham Grammar School? I have never heard of anyone else achieving so much operatically with resources so limited. It started in the late 60s with the relatively sane project of The Beggar’s Opera. Then, roughly between 1970 and 1974, he masterminded and conducted full productions of Nabucco, William Tell and Macbeth, all pieces which a professional opera company would treat with wary respect, let alone a school in North Lincolnshire.

    The school orchestra, stiffened with local pros and peripatetic teachers, was in the ‘pit’ (created by lining up athletics hurdles in front of the stage and covering them with curtains); the entire sixth form was dragooned, sometimes unwillingly, into being the chorus; smaller roles were taken by local luminaries and the principal ones by current students at the London Opera Centre (now the National Opera Studio) – I remember Robert Carpenter Turner and Stuart Kale amongst others. The stage directors were the Heads of English of the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools, and the sets and costumes came courtesy of the two Art Departments.

    Everyone at the time initially said that these projects were mad and over-ambitious and doomed to failure, but they were wrong, and due to Jeff’s drive and enthusiasm (and the sterling if bemused support of the Headmistress, the late and great Dorothy Dean) they were triumphant successes. They brought together disparate people from across the school and community, and I am sure they planted the seeds of a life-long love of opera in many of the participants. For myself they enabled my first faltering operatic steps (I was repetiteur for William Tell, as well as a truly dreadful leader of the cellos) and I shall ever be grateful for that.

    Thank you Jeff.

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    1. I well remember that Macbeth (my cousin was in the double bass section), probably my first proper live opera

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  4. Thanks for the hospitality of your blog Robert - I just felt that someone should write it down somewhere!

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    1. My pleasure, that's what its for!!

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