Here at Birmingham, Solihull & Sandwell Jazz Festival we’ve always prided ourselves on taking live music to the masses, by putting bands into public places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. Often this leads to great moments for both musicians and audience alike – and sometimes unintended consequences.
In the current issue of The Jazz Rag magazine, festival favourite Simon Spillett looks back on 10 years straight of playing in Birmingham. Read the article in full here:
JAZZ IS WHERE YOU FIND IT
SIMON SPILLETT reflects on a decade of Birmingham Jazz Festival appearances.
It’s lunchtime and the phone rings in my flat.
‘Hello, is that Simon Spillett?’
‘Hello. This is Tim Jennings from Big Bear Music in Birmingham. We wondering if you’d like to come and play this year’s jazz festival?’
Can it really be ten years since that call – a whole decade of annual appearances at the Birmingham festival? Indeed it is. In fact, my diaries tell me that it’s been close to thirty gigs, in over a dozen different venues, working with over forty different musicians.
Reaching this significant anniversary also prompted me to wonder whether now is the ideal time to write something about what the Birmingham Jazz Festival means to me as a performer, to provide some reflections on how it feels to move from green-as-grass neophyte to festival regular, and, more generally, to take a look at how its traditions and trademarks have endured over ten years in which the very music it aims to present has undergone some provocatively radical rebranding.
At the time I first answered Tim’s call, I had just been nominated on the Rising Star Category of the BBC Jazz Awards, the results of which were open to public vote. Maybe Big Bear saw – or even knew – something I didn’t as rather fortuitously my initial BJF gig was booked for the Saturday afternoon immediately after the BBC awards ceremony. To my total surprise – and ten years on I’m still staggered about this – I won my category. News travelled fast – early on the Saturday afternoon, the results had been broadcast on Radio 3, an event that I still think may have had more than a little influence on the crowd that jam-packed the Brasshouse for my first ever BJF gig. I’d been working my way across the UK as a soloist for three years or so and was used to a certain amount of curiosity from those to whom I was a total unknown, but this – this was different. The Brasshouse was heaving, veteran fans crammed tight among curious Saturday afternoon drinkers. And as if to add to the sense of occasion, we were late starting. The sound system hadn’t arrived – it was somewhere en route from another festival venue, lugged to and fro by one of Big Bear’s army of volunteers. I vividly remember explaining this to one pint-toting man stage-left. ‘I can’t go on yet because the PA hasn’t turned up.’
‘Wow, you’re gonna wait until your Personal Assistant gets here?’, he shot back. “Ooh, that’s a bit posh.’
Trouble was, he wasn’t joking.
The gig itself was a hoot. Three lively sets in the company of John Patrick’s trio. This was my first meeting with John, who I’ve appeared with countless times since, but even back then on this our initial meeting we had a connection, albeit a somewhat vicarious one.
Nearly forty years earlier he’d offered my father a job in his band, the story of which I thought would make for a nice ice-breaker between us. And so it did. Back around 1970, JP had been touring the country as part of a Musicians’ Union initiative parachuting professional players into the rehearsals of local semi-pro big bands, in one of which – Johnny Morgan’s in Oxford – my father was playing trombone. I mentioned this to John and to my amazement he actually remembered the night in question! We were off and running. Unfortunately, Dad never pursued the offer, but I’ve often wondered what might have happened had he done so – perhaps we’d be now be sharing a BJF stage together, who knows?
That first day in Birmingham provided me with what was in essence a blueprint for every BJF appearance I’ve made since. The Brasshouse gig – and its evening follow-up, a two-tenor joust with Alex Garnett, at the Mell Square shopping centre bandstand – revealed a cunning modus operandi, the very thing that I soon learned was at the heart of Big Bear’s thinking – that of taking jazz and delivering it – no holds barred – in places that otherwise would give it nary a glance. This musical/cultural exchange has long been a talking point among the players booked for the festival – there are plenty of stories of gigs in department stores, bowling alleys and on garage forecourts, no less – and it often proves to be a two-way street, usually delightfully so, just occasionally resulting in awkward moments of discomfort on both sides.
Thankfully, my gig with Alex fell into the former category; in fact, there’s a photo somewhere of the pair of us guffawing away on-stage which captures – at least partially – a particularly magical moment in time. What you can’t see is what we’re laughing at – a Hen Party dressed in basques and stockings, an audience demographic I can’t remember playing to before or since, more’s the pity.
Taking jazz to the unsuspecting public at Birmingham has its pitfalls too, though. I’m still not sure what some people thought of my appearance on New Street Station a few years back, a gig utterly sabotaged by being staged immediately beneath a public-announcement loudspeaker which nobody bothered to switch off! (‘Thank you, ladies and gentleman, and for our next number we’d like to play’… ‘This is a passenger announcement, the 13.45 from Crewe is now delayed…’) And I still shudder at the thought of the tattooed and shaven-headed numbskull who rounded on me for daring to return the coins his child had thrown on-stage thinking I was a busker.
This last incident is the one and only blip in what has transpired to be something or a festival residency for me – a gig each year on the plaza at The Mailbox. To those who’ll counter that bebop and Saturday morning shopping don’t mix, I’d cite this gig. Every year, we seem to draw a crowd mixing aficionados with casual listeners – perhaps itself the perfect balance for a jazz audience – and I make no secret of my abiding affection for this particular slot in the festival. Indeed, breakfast outside on the mezzanine overlooking the plaza has become something of a tradition for me, gazing down to see who’ll be sharing the bandstand with me this time around.
There’s another Birmingham tradition I’d like to mention too, that sometime at some point each year I’ll be captured by the lens of resident festival photographer Merlin Daleman. The first time we met, he whisked me all over the city, posing me for a series of stills in unlikely environs like the Bullring Indoor Market. This was a more formal shoot obviously, but more often than not, Merlin will be found lurking somewhere around a gig itself, catching some of the most natural jazz imagery I’ve seen from any photographer. He was there at the Mailbox again this year, causing me to enquire if e now has a stroboscopic photographic record of me ageing in exactly same spot year in year out. “Oh yes’ he replied ‘You know, more notes but less hair…’
One of the nicest aspects of the BJF experience is its hint of musical surprise, a factor that may go some way to dispelling the altogether grim image of me as a ‘gunslinger’ as portrayed within these pages recently. The festival has sometimes paired me with other horn players but more often that not I’ll be heading a quartet, occasionally with no foreknowledge of who I’m working with – the surprise bit – and in this sax and trio setting I’ve got to know and work with some fabulous players – pianists Keith Bill and Paul Sawtell (and John Patrick, of course), bassists Tom Hill, Len Skeat, Ben Markland and Bill Coleman, drummers Miles Levin, Ian Palmer, Mal Garrett, Ray Price, Gary Allcock and Neil Bullock.
Very often these gigs are as much social reunions as musical performances, and it’s true to say that some of the best times I’ve had at Birmingham over the last ten years have been during the festivals off-hours, tearing across town to another venue to catch a set by one of your colleagues, bumping into yet more familiar faces at your hotel (the bar at Broad Street’s Hampton-by-Hilton can sometimes resemble a mini Archer Street), doing the whole jazz ‘hang’ Brum-style. Sometimes even ‘gunslingers’ have fun!
Birmingham has also been the scene of several welcome musical introductions. It was here that I first met and played with American bop-maestro Greg Abate, for example (a sit-in with Tad Newton’s fine band), and I’ve virtually lost count of the number of pianists, bassists and drummers whose acquaintance I’ve initially made via a festival booking. Some of these introductions are the stuff of legend; I remember one outdoor afternoon set with John Patrick’s trio during which a taxi drew up by the bandstand out of which emerged a beaming man holding a trumpet. ‘Mind if I join you, dear chap?’ This was my first meeting with Digby Fairweather. Then there was a pub gig somewhere near the outer limits of the city on which I was paired with a quartet led by the late and very-much-missed Mike Burney. ‘We’ve got a dep on piano tonight,’ he said, ‘but I think you’ll like him,’ a statement followed almost immediately by the flustered arrival of an electric piano, wheeled in by a small man looking for all the world like a Hispanic Austin Powers, all cuff-links, crushed velvet and flashing grin. Thus I met Venezuelan virtuoso Edgar Macias for the first time, forging a musical partnership that I positively luxuriated in and which I’ve missed deeply since he headed into international waters.
It would, of course, take a piece much longer than this to detail all the gigs that I’ve notched up at the Birmingham festival over ten years. Perhaps it’s also a sign that I’ve reached a certain stage within my life – as well as career – that my affectionate memories of the festival are now equally bound up with a certain melancholy. Some of the audience that I’ve got to know at Birmingham are no longer with us, in fact, some of the musicians themselves are now gone too, and, for my own part, I make no secret that the way things have panned out career-wise hasn’t quite matched the wide-eyed expectations that characterised the young(er) man who burst into the Brasshouse on that Saturday afternoon a decade ago. He’s musically older, for sure, but wiser? The jury’s still out on that one.
No, it’s far better to concentrate on the future of the Birmingham
Jazz Festival. As we all know, the very DNA of jazz is changing, the music morphing generation by generation into a quite different beast to that many veteran fans would recognise. BJF reflects much of this change, bringing in performers whose take on jazz shows that the word itself still has no definitive meaning – it might just as likely be appended to music redolent of Eastern Europe, France of even India as American model bop, mainstream or trad.
Yet, while it may be hard for a bluff old Luddite like myself to concur fully with all of BJF’s programming, I remain 100% appreciative of the forum the festival gives me and others to fly the flag for straight-ahead. And, should anyone doubt that there is anywhere else to take that particular brand of jazz, I’d mention a couple of the gigs I played on this year’s festival – the Oak House Museum in West Bromwich, a venue whose oak timbers, I’ll wager, have never shaken to Oleo before (and whose inclusion shows the ever-widening geographical outreach of the festival), and The Shakespeare in Lower Temple Street.
This last named gig was a totally unexpected festival highlight, one proving that even a jaded cynic like myself can be moved when confronted with genuine moments of enlightenment. John Patrick’s trio and I were booked for an early Saturday evening appearance, a time which I’d imagine the Shakespeare’s regulars usually reserve for the kind of merry making that doesn’t involve four men playing acoustic improvised music based on compositions written half a century ago.
As we prepared to go on, sardined into a tiny corner bandstand, you could see the double-takes – no singer, no guitar, a bloke wearing a tie? – what on earth would they make of us? Mincemeat was my bet. And yet two hours later, there they were cheering – I kid you not, cheering! – for more, even demanding an encore. We hadn’t played a thing that could remotely be called populist, hadn’t skewed our programme to fit the vibe, we had just played, doing what we do how we do it. In these days of dwindling jazz audiences and gigs falling by the wayside, it was hard not to be touched by a response like that. This wasn’t a sterile arts centre lined with po-faced, dyed-in-the-wool record collectors who’d heard and seen it all before – this was a airless, noisy, city-centre pub full of people who appreciated the music as what it should be above all else – entertainment. I know who I’d rather play to.
And maybe that’s the real lesson to learned from the BJF – and the real key to its ongoing success – that it takes jazz music in its many varied strains and puts it in front of those who may well have no other experience of it. To me that’s no small victory – and it’s one definitely worth shouting about. I suppose you could call it Flash-mob jazz, if you like, but whatever you chose to dub it, its net effect is healthily invigorating, supporting my own pet theory that the only way to keep jazz alive is to take it to new audiences, whether they think they like it or not. Maybe there’s a festival strap-line right there – jazz is where you find it.
Same time next year, anyone?