Big Band Roulette differs from other Cambridge big bands in that the players change for every gigBolin Dai with permission for Varsity

Cambridge jazz can seem terrifying to those on the outside; if not terrifying, completely opaque. If you miss auditions at the start of the year – most of which have already filled their gaps before any fresh musicians arrive, wide-eyed and hopeful – it can seem impossible to find a way in. Everyone knows everyone. How are you going to be the hot pick for Cam’s next best saxophonist when your competition is mates with the Musical Director (MD)?

Big Band Roulette, “the big band with a big twist”, was established with this in mind. A group of randomly selected players from a pool of musicians are given one day to learn a whole set of themed big band arrangements. The music is emailed out at midnight so players can have a quick once over before rehearsals the next morning. A day of intensive practice ensues, with the MDs living in a constant state of anxiety, praying that everything comes together before a paying audience watches that evening.

“It is the perfect opportunity for players like myself who are classically trained to get stuck in with jazz”

What sets it apart from other Cambridge big bands is that the players change for every gig. Tim Hargreaves, one of the founders, explains that they host auditions all throughout the year to give players a chance to participate even if they missed the last round. They endeavour to make auditions unintimidating: “We try to let as many musicians in as possible. If we have a higher stakes gig coming up, we might try to put our more confident players in to handle the technical difficulties of a piece. Usually, we mix less experienced musicians with very experienced musicians so they can play with less pressure and learn on the job.”

Big Band Roulette has only been around for a year. Tim explains, “The existing big bands are great at what they do but they just don’t have the time to take on more interesting one-off gigs. We were going to start another big band focusing specifically on these novel opportunities but quickly realised that Cambridge probably had enough big bands already. Instead, the idea evolved into this ad-hoc, randomised approach.”

Bolin Dai, MD of the latest Big Band project, adds, “It is the perfect opportunity for players like myself who are classically trained to get stuck in with jazz. It really isn’t as scary as you think. You don’t have to know a million scales or be the next greatest improviser. As a woman, too, it’s hard not to notice that the jazz scene in Cambridge is quite male-dominated and that can be intimidating at times. Big Band Roulette is a great environment to grow in confidence and realise you are just as good as (if not better than) the more confident musicians who have just had more jazz opportunities than you.”

“It is the perfect opportunity for players like myself who are classically trained to get stuck in with jazz”

The most recent endeavour is a crossover with Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society: a night of jazzily arranged show tunes at the ADC on 14th June tastefully titled “All That Jazz: A Broadway Big Band Extravaganza”.

“The music is a mix of interesting arrangements we have found and student arranged charts from keen arrangers, many of whom we met at Freshers’ Fair. That is the great thing about BBR – you don’t necessarily have to play but could arrange instead,” clarifies Bolin, “We want it to be as big as possible and, without any spoilers, there are some classics you wouldn’t ever think needed jazzing up and, quite frankly, you might be terrified to know have been.”

Previous BBR gigs include a crossover with the Cambridge Dancers’ Club, a collaboration with Cambridge funk band Hot Content at Clare Cellars and a video game-themed gig at Fitzpatrick Hall. Finding venues that can host so many musicians seems to be one of the many sources of stress for Hargreaves, a stress neatly contained in Excel sheets.


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“He has a spreadsheet,” Bolin says, looking at Tim with eyes that say a thousand, quite dry words, “He likes to play it cool but there is this insane document with all his many weird and interesting ideas.”

“An MD has to be organised!” adds Tim, “I will say, our latest gig has been slightly the stuff of nightmares to orchestrate. 27 musicians, 7 singers and 3 Musical Directors make it our biggest concert yet.”

This will certainly be a gig worth watching. Whether you’re a jazz snob or “hate jazz” as so many people proudly proclaim, if you aren’t at a May Ball or giving your liver the night off, head to the ADC website and grab a ticket. Really, being hungover is not a valid excuse – the way to survive May Week is to keep drinking and head to Big Band Roulette’s next spectacular.