BlueJam Arts is a dynamic hub for intergenerational music and arts in rural Cumbria which puts young people in the lead of its programmes and operations, and their own creative potential.
Jilly Jarman, a composer, jazz improvisor and teacher, founded BlueJam in 2002. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for young musicians in the Cumbria region, she wanted to create an inclusive place where the local community could make music together. However, Jilly did not want this to look like a conventional music group or orchestra, whose formal nature can exclude people who are neurodivergent, from disadvantaged backgrounds or who want to play non-traditional instruments. Accordingly, BlueJam was initially designed to help children who were disengaged from music at school or who wanted musical experiences that schools couldn’t offer.
There is a strong can-do ethos at BlueJam, where everyone is seen as a leader. As a participant-centred organisation, young people are given opportunities to initiate projects that interest them and get involved in the running of the organisation. Some join the board of directors; others lead workshops, mentor their peers, or take part in musical demonstrations at events. All the board of directors have taken part in BlueJam activities as participants before becoming board members. Of the seven core freelance staff that run the community business, most are aged under 35.
Jessica Boatright, aged 33, helps to manage BlueJam’s fundraising, operations, and strategy. Like many younger people who move into leadership roles within the business, Jessica started out as a participant. She attended an improv choir session and was asked if she would like to take her interest further by co-facilitating a workshop, which then developed into her role today.
“As you walk into the BlueJam Arts Space, it’s really clear that they take the opportunity to invest in people in the local community,” says Jessica. “If you’ve got an ability or an interest, they will start with that and give you the opportunity to see where it goes. There’s room for a lot of progression and, when they see your potential, they put you out of your comfort zone in order for you to grow, with your best interests at heart. You walk into a room full of kids and it’s very much about jumping in and just doing it. Improvisation is about thinking on your feet, not only in music but as a leader as well. BlueJam will take a chance with you and that’s how we’ve developed the strong team of leaders that we have.”
Young people benefit from peer-to-peer support at BlueJam. Jessica had previously set up her own arts charity and other young people tend to work on their own creative projects outside of the organisation. This cross-pollination of skills, talent and expertise is helping BlueJam to grow and thrive.
“Even though I’ve got ten years of experience, I still feel it’s hard being in a position of power as a young person over others that are older than me,” he says. “But the people I work with remind me that I have that wealth of experience behind me and that I’m capable. It’s helped to reframe the situation and show me I’m sharing my knowledge with people, and it really doesn’t matter what age they are.”
Asha Nicholson, aged 25, also runs workshops as a singer, songwriter and pianist. After returning to Carlisle from university, she came to BlueJam to rediscover her love of music. Having access to a space where there is the freedom to experiment has been particularly important for her.
“It’s been really beautiful to be in this organisation and watch people gain their confidence in terms of improvisation, and just letting their voice go,” she says. “There’s a really relaxed attitude to try things out. I would never have been able to do what I do if it wasn’t for the way people support each other here.”
Josh and Asha are excited about a new youth music-funded project called Music From The Wild, in which they and other young leaders will mentor local young people aged 18 to 25 to produce their first EP alongside developing their business and marketing skills, especially centred around the music industry. They look forward to providing more creative opportunities for young people in Cumbria and to creating a space where people feel like they can grow.