A new jazz era for Birmingham from 2012?

So, a cursory glance through the West Midlands arts organisations that have been lucky enough to find themselves within Arts Council England’s new Portfolio scheme and can, from 1212, expect regular funding for at least three years, would not reveal the name of our most conspicuous local jazz provider: Birmingham Jazz.

BJ has been a regularly-funded organisation for a while and three years back received a large boost in funds from the Arts Council to give them a bit of security. So where are they now? Don’t worry, they’re there. Look not for Birmingham Jazz on the list but instead for Performances Birmingham Ltd.

Who they? Well, they are the people who run Symphony Hall and Town Hall – thsh to the web-surfers – and from 2012 they will get £80k or about that, that they never had before. And the reason they are getting it now is specifically for contemporary jazz and education and, as we understand it, under the banner Birmingham Jazz.

Will jazz by any other name swing as sweetly? Well, BJ put a buoyant press release up on www.birminghamjazz.co.uk and www.thsh.co.uk did the same. Tony Dudley-Evans, BJ’s artistic director, assures me this is good news for jazz and the city. After all, BJ and thsh already collaborate on the regular free Friday sessions in the Symphony Hall foyer.

It would seem logical that, with the two organisations coming together, some core costs (like separate offices, etc) can be reduced, and we would like to think that money could then be redirected into a bigger or better programme of jazz.

Tony also assures me that collaborating with a venue-based organisation won’t stop BJ using the venues like Rainbow, Jam House and Hare & Hounds that it currently uses, in addition to the CBSO Centre. (though speaking personally, I cannot abide the Rainbow, but that is another matter…)

The big question that all this begs is will it mean more jazz for Birmingham and, more specifically, more jazz in Symphony Hall and Town Hall. And to answer that question we will have to wait a year.

Now, venues have been much on my mind in the last few weeks. Venues and bigger jazz names. Because while I like to hear the fare that BJ is currently offering us, I am also aware of what it isn’t offering.

A few weeks back I travelled to The Edge at Much Wenlock to see the great acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner, and a fabulous concert to a jam-packed, sold-out room it was, too. Why wasn’t he playing Birmingham? Well, he was originally, but then the tour dates changed and no venue in Birmingham could be found for the new date. So that was Birmingham’s loss.

I went down to London recently to hear Kurt Elling with Richard Galliano and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Elling and the band had done three nights up in Scotland previously. It would have sounded great in Symphony Hall. Another trick missed.

While I was in London I noticed there were two great jazz players doing gigs at the Union Chapel: guitarist Mike Stern and his band one night and bassist Avishai Cohen another night. How wonderful, I thought, would it have been to have them play in Birmingham? Well, dream on, I guess.

Joe Lovano - saxophonist sans venue

Then I noticed the great, great tenor player Joe Lovano was playing with his US Five band up at The Sage in Gateshead and then down in London, at Ronnie Scott’s. And you know what? He played in Birmingham as well. You didn’t know? Well, I’m not surprised, because he did a workshop for the students at Birmingham Conservatoire on a Monday afternoon, but somehow he couldn’t do a gig here. The word on the Birmingham Jazz website is, and I quote: “Sadly it proved impossible to find a suitable venue in Birmingham that was available in the tour period.”

And that’s just what we have missed out on in the past month.

So the question I am asking myself now is: given that from 2012 we have a jazz organisation inexorably tied by the Arts Council to a company which runs two vital venues, will it still “prove impossible to find a suitable venue” for the big names from over the water that are currently playing down in London and up in the North East, but nowhere in between?

And does the Arts Council’s “Strategic Framework for the Arts” and its vision of “achieving great art for everyone” even address the issue of big jazz names from over the water. Isn’t it just worried about British jazz for British jazz listeners? Well, judging by the large amount of money it gives to the production company Serious, which has something of a stranglehold in this country on the really big names in jazz and world music, one would think it does have a vision beyond this island. But the question still remains: how are these other cities able to manage what we cannot?

Now, in case you should think I am being unappreciative of homegrown talent, of course I am not. I have written enthusiastically enough about loads of British jazz musicians and bands, and I support the local scene with every hair in my jazz beard. But I have not been short of opportunities to hear British jazz over the last few years. Tony Dudley-Evans and Birmingham Jazz have given me ample opportunity. And repeated opportunities to see the same bands, too.

What they haven’t been able to supply in any quantity – in fact, ever since the Contemporary Music Network died some years back  – is a sufficiently varied menu of foreign jazz. Yes, I know BJ provides some, but it tends to be from a more restricted niche. Now I guess that it is well within the rights of the man doing the programming to go with what he prefers to listen to, though it should perhaps also be remembered that he is spending your and my money.

I believe strongly in the global art form in its widest range of styles (and so does thsh judging by some of the excellent world music that has been appearing in their brochures of late), so I would prefer not to have national borders and programmer’s preferences restricting what I can get to hear. I also believe that Birmingham is big enough and has (surely!) enough venues, if only they are looked for, to be able to accommodate a wider range of visiting players.

But let’s finish with a positive. The good news is Birmingham Jazz in the person of Tony Dudley-Evans and Performances Birmingham in the person of programmer Paul Keene have a year to, in a rather crude manner of speaking, get their shit together for this new jazz age. Will it be a brave new world? Or more of the same? I shall be watching with interest.



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24 replies

  1. Pete, I think you might be being a little unfair here. I don’t think the issue is quite as Black and White (or UK v US/Europe) as you suggest. Looking through my Diary the following musicians have played in Birmingham since mid November as a result of Birmingham Jazz: Dan Weiss, Thomas Morgan and Jacob Sacks (US); Christian Scott (US); John Tchicai (Denmark); Mark Turner with Phil Robson (US); Uri Caine (US); Mathew Shipp (US) and the Steve Lehman Octet (US). Therefore it’s not really true that Birmingham Jazz concentrates on UK musicians.
    There’s probably a debate to be had about the sort of musicians we’d like to see on Birmingham Jazz platforms but I am pleased that Birmingham Jazz promotes so many young bands and british bands. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see more of the bigger names play Birmingham. However there is a limit to how far Birmingham Jazz’s budget stretches. I am not party to the maths of it but it must be the case that putting on bigger names more often will lead to us seeing less Birmingham Jazz gigs overall. There must also be problems finding venues of the right size that are available when jazz musicians change or book tour dates at shortish notice.
    One thing I am absolutely clear about is that I am glad that the funding for Jazz in Birmingham has been protected over the next few years. Let’s not forget the level of cuts that are going on around us. I was appalled yesterday to see on the BBC website an article about cuts to Arts funding that was followed by lots of comments suggesting that the Government shouldn’t fund the Arts at all!
    Yes the next few years will be challenging and there might be a need to discuss the sort of jazz gigs that are promoted in the city in the coming years but let’s not be too critical of what went before. After all unless we get rid of this Government we might be having too fight off even more attacks on Arts funding.

  2. hi Peter
    A good article
    I think most musicians would agree with you on that score, BJ is ok, but like all things, there is room for improvement. If people would work together more, with what they have around them, then things could improve exponentially. For example, if in general, organisations run away from the resources on their doorstep, that might indicate there are problaems a) with the resourses themselves (ie the local players in this case), or b) the attitudes of the organisation itself (in this case Birmingham Jazz).
    The question is, who’s got the means to do the most good? Surely those that have the potential to employ musicians..and dare i say it, that’s surely the remit of any regional arts/music organisation. Or is it?
    As well,Is there enough impetus amongst those who are trying to pay bills ( ie working jazz musicians) to set up things themselves, to support a body that has to maintain a niche style of jazz..or should the two ‘worlds’ stay well away? – often entrenched in an idealogical slanging match, some of which is paid for by the tax payer!
    As for international acts, i agree, but i really think we should encourage an exchange of some sort. Steve Rubie, of the 606 club, who does exactly this sort of thing, told me he cant understand why people dont do this, as i ‘opens the scene up’.
    Cuts are not good per se, but this country’s got itself into an economic mess, and we all have the opportunity to start new things up; but only if we would work ‘together’!

  3. oops! sorry about spelling error, on problems!

  4. Very well put Russ …

    I think it’s very positive that BJ is not simply cloning the programmes of other towns, large concert halls or bigger London venues (who have significantly greater artistic and marketing budget/resources, catchment and pull). It will always be impossible to please all tastes all of the time – but, from a personal point of view, I like much of the programme, especially the fact it doesn’t always have to promote big or safe commercial names, yet balances that by occasionally doing so, along with interesting local players. Sure, we could all happily curate our own preferences into an artistic programme given limitless audiences, funds and venues. Probably the dream of most music lovers! I think it’s impossible to have every sell-out jazz gig from London/Much Wenlock/Smethwick duplicated in Birmingham – some will be, others won’t – and where’s the originality in that anyway? Isn’t part of the adventure going to new places or venues, hearing new and old music, in and out of your comfort zone?

    I saw one of my favourite jazz players on the planet here last year, in the shape of Lee Konitz, which my friend from Liverpool came down to see – possibly his only UK date?

    Equally, an important point – Birmingham’s handful of suitable medium-sized venues could be way more supportive to ‘the art form’ and not insist on charging £1000’s to hire their spaces, especially for non-commercial ventures. Will the new concert hall at Birmingham University help things next year?

    MAC, for example, and against the trend, are being a great support to the Harmonic Festival in Birmingham this coming autumn – incidentally, a fine case in point of being pro-active in doing something positive and inventive – getting off their backsides and making it happen, regardless. The festival is independent, not strongly affiliated or answerable to anyone, and funded by several different sources. It’s run by musicians, putting on music with an interesting artistic direction, at no material gain or individual profit, which also really compliments the BJ programme and enhances the local and even national scene. Ditto, on a smaller scale, regular sessions set up by musicians at The Spotted Dog, White Swan etc.

    Birmingham, in the public sector, unfortunately suffers from an archaic system of cultural leadership. Look at the brilliant Manchester International Festival, and the massive support it’s given by the council there, both financial, in resources and in outlook. We have Artsfest. Imagine what input and impact Tony/Birmingham Jazz/The Jazz Breakfast/Harmonic/Trevor the Triangle Player .. whoever .. could have on Birmingham both culturally and economically if presented with comparable scope and support to that given in Manchester. We could have more amazing world music, more jazz from Ljubljana, new original collaborations, exposure on an international level for local artists, new and sustained audiences feeding into everything else …

    Yet, I saw a lady from the MIR festival in Greece speak last week – they don’t have a regional jazz body, an arts council or hardly any public subsidy – yet she single handedly made this particular festival happen, grow and develop.

    Rarely seen in a public spotlight, but the emphasis on more education work has to be a good thing too (albeit in context of the sad cut in funding to Sound It Out) – I was lucky enough to have virtually free guitar lessons right through school which was my intro/path into music. Opening up new music, sounds and improvisation to anyone at school or as a therapeutic/behavioral aid can bring so many benefits. I’d substitute £20K of that work for a couple of big American names in a concert hall any day. A balance has to be achieved, as ever.

    BJ also nominated for Best Promoter/Venue Parliamentary Jazz Award, for what it’s worth 🙂

  5. Thanks for opening the debate Peter; what you have said needs saying. This is no time for sycophancy but hard headed planning and organisation to cope with this new era – one I profoundly dislike. But out of adversity the art continues and Jazz is a lifelong passion to cherish and preserve.

    So how can we preserve and develop the art form of jazz and not let it atrophy in Birmingham into a formulaic fixed (high cost) venue driven promotion. You raise the debate over venues and bands and hint at the other part of the triangle – the price we charge for entry. On the last point BJ has to resolve the conflict over who is a band to charge entry for and who is not. In my book so many bands are promoted for free that should not be and also so many gigs are now free the audience in hard times themselves will opt for the freebees. Kit Downes, Chris Biscoe and Alan Barnes immediately come to mind….

    Your first point Peter is over the accessibility of bands that the Greater Birmingham population what to see and hear; who are not appearing in the City – because the face of the BJ promoter only books what he wants not what the audience wants. The number of attendances and ticket sales continue to plummet for Birmingham Jazz gigs whilst the cost of individual concerts continues to rise. This contradiction has to be resolved for the future of Jazz in Birmingham. Lets get back to a stong programme appealing to many not the few.

    Secondly the issue of Venues has a large bearing on the programme. Two venues that are now seen as the showcase for events, but are so badly attended they are not worth the bother. I totally agree over the Rainbow, I will not go there anymore. That venue does BJ a disservice because if that’s the first gig you go to from us then you will not go to any more. The core audience for Jazz has totally disappeared because of the combination of the wrong bands and the wrong places.

    I believe that Birmingham can (should/must) host the Jazz that people want in suitable venues run on a semi-commercial basis not just reliant on wasting public money on gigs and events so few people want.

  6. If things are as bad as Mr. Rose suggests, I wonder why Birmingham Jazz has, in partnership with Symphony Hall/Town Hall, been placed on the Arts Council’s National Portfolio of Organisations when many have been cut and has been nominated for the Venue/Promoter of the Year for the forthcoming Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

  7. Peter, I’m baffled by the statement that you don’t want national borders and programmer’s preference “limiting what you get to hear”. The simple answer is, they don’t, as your trips to Much Wenlock and London to see music that you love prove.

    Looking a little further afield, I don’t know the ins and outs of the Lovano situation but I doubt that “Sadly it proved impossible to find a suitable venue in Birmingham that was available in the tour period.” means Tony glanced at his diary, shrugged and let it go! I guess it’s actually a subtle way of saying it was downright impossible this time. Good promotion is an often thankless task with hours of work behind the scenes.

    And good promotion is exactly what we have in The BJ team. Tony is known by musicians everywhere as “one of the good guys” and the nomination for a Parliamentary Jazz Award is well-deserved. If he just decided to up sticks tomorrow we’d really be up the creek. If you ask me his shit is well and truly together and his programming is excellent.

    Did you know there’s no such thing as a jazz niche? Really, there isn’t! Statistically speaking that is. To clever, cultured so-and-so’s like us, of course there is. I mean you wouldn’t catch me confusing post-bop with hard-bop, nosiree! but if we step back and look at the bigger picture for a second, jazz is such a small part of this country’s overall cultural consumption that I think we’d do well to stop bickering about detail and just be bloody thankful that the funding’s secured!

    It seems to me that whilst other areas of the country are losing out massively right now, cherishing whatever cultural morsels they have left, we’ve stuffed ourselves stupid and can’t see what a good feed it was.

  8. There’s a danger that this debate just polarises into those who like the music that Birmingham Jazz presents and those who would rather it did something else, possibly more mainstream. I think there’s actually a wider issue involved which is how do Arts organisations (and particulatly Jazz ones) survive in an era where public spending is being slashed every where we look.
    In the days running up to the Arts Council’s announcement about funding I more than once heard representatives of the Arts Council saying publicly that in future they were looking to fund organisations that were doing new and path breaking things. Birmingham Jazz, to my mind, are doing this. Look at the bands that have played in Birmingham that have only played in London and Birmingham and wouldn’t have played in this country at all if it hadn’t been for Birmingham Jazz putting tours together. The Steve Lehman Octet springs to mind here but they aren’t the only ones. Bands like this might not be to everyone’s taste but the sizeable audience there loved it and I have a feeling that in a few years time we might be looking back recognising that a composer who went on to be very influential played his first gigs in this country because of Birmingham Jazz.
    Falling back onto promoting mainstream gigs that ( in theory) might attract larger audiences but that only replicates what goes on elsewhere will both limit the pool of stuff we are able to hear and may well not attract Arts Council Funding either.
    I don’t agree that the Rainbow as a venue does “BJ a disservice”. I like it and think that the bands Birmingham Jazz put on there fit well with the venue.
    Jazz is not a single genre that appeals to just one particular sort of audience. All too often Jazz gigs have audiences that are predominantly white, male and middle aged. Audiences at the Rainbow are far from this and the venue and the music that Birmingham Jazz puts on there pulls in an audience that isn’t the stereotypical jazz audience. This can only be a good thing.
    Phil complains that the core audience for jazz has disappeared because of the wrong bands and wrong venues. I don’t accept that this is the case but surely if promoters like Birmingham Jazz don’t carry on the good work of branching out to newer, younger audiences then the core audience will certainly shrink as those white, middle aged, male audiences will eventually be dying off!
    For me one of the really positive things about the work that Birmingham Jazz does is it’s educational work, not just through links with the conservatoire but through links with schools. Last nights Rush Hour Blues concert by The Hang Project ( a band comprising of youngish school kids) and the Birmingham Jazz Ensemble ( a band that’s a bit older but with similar roots) was a wonderful example of this. Part of the grant that Performances Birmingham Ltd got was to develop this work. I’m glad about that and I’m sure they’ll do a fine job.
    If you were an outsider reading some of the threads on this post you could almost believe that the Jazz scene in Birmingham is poor and getting worse. That just isn’t the case. Birmingham is one of the best places in the country to live in regards to live Jazz and whilst Birmingham Jazz isn’t the sum total of that scene it is a major contributor. Let’s celebrate what we have got and be thankful that the public funding for Jazz has been saved for a few years more.
    There’s always a need for promoters to assess what they are doing and whether or not the exact blend is right for current circumstances. As far as I’m aware Birmingham Jazz have been doing this and will continue to do so. As I understand it Tony doesn’t work in a vacuum he has a board to answer to. Yes, contribute to a debate, but let’s keep a sense of perspective and not make it sound like the jazz scene here is awful. If it’s as bad as Phil suggests then why did the Arts Council give the funding earlier this week? I’m extremely grateful for the work that Tony Dudley-Evans and others at Birmingham Jazz do. Long may it continue.
    A final point. If Tony hadn’t been in Birmingham over the last twenty years or so doing the work he has for Birmingham Jazz (largely unpaid) would we have the scene we have now and would we have had the chance to see all the wonderful artists that Birmingham Jazz has promoted over the years? I’m pretty clear about what my answer is to that.

  9. I’m not certain that Peter is actually bashing Birmingham Jazz here. Is he not saying that as the country’s second city, Birmingham should be hosting the “big names” like Lovano, and be the place [as well as London] to which big touring shows go? And no matter your tastes on the matter, Lovano is a big name in the music. Sorry if I’ve mis-read your point, Peter.

    But in support of Birmingham Jazz, I’m sure they didn’t just ignore all the calls and e-mails and then fob off a gig with Lovano. If Tony said it was impossible then it probably was – BJ doesn’t OWN a venue, and programming is a long-view art. Having played at the Rainbow, I have to say that although the stage at the time was tiny, the atmosphere in there was really good, so I think that’s a personal preference thing.

  10. Just thought id mention a plug to all the great, top bands in the local area:
    K2 on a wednesday (with either Edgar Macia’s band; featuring the excellent Chris Bowden, Miles Levin, Ian Muir and Edgar plus ANY guests who want a jam)..a great training ground, despite all the noise complaints, and the refurb of the place isn’t very popular, but its a venue all the same. On the alternate wednesdays is Tim Amann- an excellent pianist, which features Sam Rogers on sax, me, Pete Hammond, Adam Gilchrist and Tim himself plus guests!
    There is Freddie Pirotta’s ‘hip operation’ at the crossroads blues club cotteridge on the first sat of the month, plus guests, often including the excellent young trumpeter Nick Dewhurst. Also,dont forget the ‘Nuvo’ bar, three nights a week jazz, (mon-weds).
    There is a big, independently subsidised jazz/live music venue coming up in town soon too, God willing, but i cannot divulge too much as yet about this! I will keep you posted!

  11. Russ, you make such good points there. Thoroughly agree, and there’s not much more anyone can add.

    Just in response to a couple of aspects of Phil’s comment, which I don’t think is written in a very amiable spirit …

    Free gigs … I think BJ has just the one free weekly Rush Hour Blues gig on a Friday, and the occasional free Jam House gig midweek in a different part of town? Not exactly over doing it. Can this not help get people along to other gigs if they enjoy it? To help musicians and bands gain support in the area or sell a pile of CDs, come back and do a larger ticketed gig later on? To reach people who usually wouldn’t bother with jazz, opening up the programme to new audiences? And is it not good that people who can’t afford a festival ticket or a weekly night out at Town Hall get to see something of an equally high standard?

    The Rainbow – seemingly like marmite. I like it. It attracts a younger crowd, as opposed, to say, Rush Hour Blues, which pulls an older audience. Nothing wrong with either. Both have good music. It works well in a programme – not just more of the same, but something different, with both the programming, timing and locations appealing to a more varied demographic. The Rainbow had such a good vibe and was packed for the recent Tony Levin tribute gig with Paul Dunmall. Or for someone like Cuong Vu last year, the ideal venue.

    I don’t feel that the music necessarily has to be commercial or cater for the masses to be deemed as successful. Does art have to make a profit to be a success? Is the music less worthy if it doesn’t generate an audience of 400 and 264 ice cream sales in an air conditioned suite? Bach hadly had the crowds flooding in consistently during the 1700s, and wasn’t recognised as being that great until around a century after he died. Not sure if he ever played the Rainbow though.

  12. Hi All,

    I think the main point Peter is making is fair enough. We have big venues and should be able to put on big names. I really enjoyed seeing Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau in Symphony Hall, it’s worth noting that there were still some empty seats though. I saw Herbie Hancock there and that was enjoyable too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to see Christy Moore, that’ll be great. I wouldn’t expect BJazz to host Herbie or Metheny any more than I would expect them to host Christy Moore. I think it would be a good idea if Tony “advised” THSH on what big names could be good there and then the commercial potential that they evidently have would make it all happen, with a little help from THSH coffers too.

    The work of Birmingham Jazz is a different thing altogether. If people don’t get that then where have they been? It’s like asking the Ikon Gallery to do an exhibition of Jack Vettriano because you want to take your granny on a nice day out or emailing Banksy and asking if he could knock you up a nice watercolour of your recently deceased labrador. The international reputation of Birmingham Jazz is based upon its support and development of the innovative and cutting edge. To start demanding that it meets the demands of a mainstream majority is crazy. Not all of the stuff BJazz puts on appeal to me personally but I wouldn’t expect them to change that. If they were to change it I would ask for more out there music, I’ve been wanting to hear John Zorn – Classic Guide to Strategy live since I bought the CD, maybe now is the time to put pressure on Tony to make this happen? AMM are still going too, any chance?

    Going back to the point of “big names”. This is not a two sided debate I do agree big names would be great. Leave Birmingham Jazz alone and instead lobby THSH. If there is the demand there then I’m sure THSH will continue to put those types of gigs on. Birmingham Jazz can co-promote and in turn it will help mainstream audiences discover the type of music Jazz BJazz promotes.

    It’s good to have debates about things and put ideas forward and I’m sure everyone here is doing so in the knowledge that Tony and Birmingham Jazz are an incredibly positive and creative force for the Birmingham music scene.
    We should continue to debate but be conscious to always respect the boundaries and not become interfering, this will help nobody.

    Finally, we should not underestimate how BJazz in its present guise influences the decisions of musicians to live in the city. If it were to change to being run on a semi-commercial basis you would also have to consider how many musicians would begin to leave the city taking with them all the music they provide be it in jam sessions, pub gigs, private parties, functions, community events, club nights, teaching, schools etc etc etc…. maybe the occasional trip to London is worth it?

    Sid

  13. Hello all

    Having been a professional jazz musician for over 10 years now I can see how much Birmingham Jazz has changed during that time. It’s interesting that Peter mentions CMN as I’ve been thinking about what an extraordinary organisation that was; when I was studying at Birmingham Conservatoire between 1998 and 2002 the students were able (for free! it was amazing) to see some of the most adventurous new music, often before the artists became more widely known – Aka Moon, Frank Gratkowski, Dave Binney (with Uri Caine), Jim Black, Ellery Eskelin come to mind – and for a studying jazz musician this was incredible and invaluable.
    The reverse of the above-mentioned Lovano incident was sometimes true – these bands didn’t always pass through London.

    Back then BJ’s support was broadly split between these adventurous, risk-taking programmes mostly at the CBSO Centre, and straight-ahead jazz at local venues with local bands. Now though, they support a much broader spectrum of music, from straight-ahead through to all-out improv, and all the various shades in-between. While I do agree that it’s a shame that CMN no longer exists, and that no organisation performs quite the same function now, I think BJ do a very good job in what is a very different climate, and have adjusted to the times remarkably well.

    We all have opinions about what we’d like to see funded and programmed – personally I find it baffling that, with the growth of the EU, there still isn’t a Jazz Services-style system, at least that I’m aware of, for funding European tours, which would also allow us to hear more bands from mainland Europe, and encourage collaboration – but in the meantime I think we should all breathe a sigh of relief that Birmingham Jazz still have access to funding for contemporary jazz so that they can carry on the good work.

    Re The Rainbow (might as well stick my oar in as I’ve played there a couple of times) I think it works better for the rockier end of jazz (groups that need amplification anyway), rather than imposing a large PA system on bands which are used to playing acoustically. Also the feel of the room is kind of festival-y, which lends itself better to that sort of thing. Personally I like it (though maybe not when a fire-breathing go-go dancer barges past you straight after your set, to a much bigger round of applause than anything you did in the previous 90 minutes of difficult modern jazz managed to elicit… ;_) )

    Mark Hanslip

  14. I’d like to thank all those who have contributed comments so far and encourage others to do so. That is the whole point here.
    I am especially grateful to Russ Escritt for calming things down a little – it was a slightly hysterical exchange initially.
    Just one clarification and one observation:
    1 If you want to know in more detail what I think of Birmingham Jazz’s contribution to jazz in general and to Birmingham in particular, you only have to read what I have been writing on this blog since I started it and in The Birmingham Post since the early 1990s. If you can find a more dedicated public champion of the organisation in print I would be most surprised.
    2 Leading on from this, there seems to be a subtext in some of the comments that to voice any dissent at all is to somehow be disloyal to BJ in particular and to jazz in general, that we should all stick together against the big bad non-jazz world out there. I’m as against bickering as the next person, but I strongly believe in a healthy debate and the right of everyone to express their opinion, just so long as they keep it relatively polite. The alternative is very dangerous indeed.
    If jazz were a country what kind would it be? A social democracy? An anarchic one that celebrates difference and diversity? Not, I hope we can agree, a police state.
    There is more to say on what BJ’s function is, how much should be spent on education, how much fostering the local scene, and how much spent on bringing important jazz from elsewhere to the city.
    Does there need to be more said on why public scrutiny of publicly-funded organisations is quite within our rights? Maybe not.
    There might even be more to say on the context of the comments made on this blog: for example, it can be useful when trying to interpret the views expressed to know the identity and background of the person stating the view. I know who these people are, but some readers might not.
    In the meantime, my plea is quite simple: keep the opinions coming!

  15. Thank you for that response, Peter.

    I’d love to offer my thoughts on many of the points that have been raised over the course of this thread but I’m not sure that would be particularly helpful at this stage. To agree with others, I think Russ in particular has added some particularly well-tempered and balanced opinions that address the issues well.

    What’s left for me to add is a response to the second point in Peter’s latest post and some of the context that he asked for.

    “… there seems to be a subtext in some of the comments that to voice any dissent at all is to somehow be disloyal to BJ in particular and to jazz in general, that we should all stick together against the big bad non-jazz world out there. I’m as against bickering as the next person, but I strongly believe in a healthy debate and the right of everyone to express their opinion, just so long as they keep it relatively polite. The alternative is very dangerous indeed..”

    Firstly, given that I spend most of my working life in the thick of the big bad non-jazz world, I had no intention of this subtext being present in my earlier post. What I want to stress is that there is a bigger picture to take in here, of which jazz is a part. An important part, if not necessarily a very large part. Personally, I feel that this isn’t the time to be scrutinising such an obvious success story as BJazz, in what to me seems like an unfair way. As for the “relatively polite”, it was predominantly the conclusion that Tony and Paul need to “get their shit together” and some of the particularly negative comments made in response that motivated me to reply.

    A little personal context: BJazz has been invaluable in my development as a professional musician. Alongside this, two years running jazz nights at The Yardbird and elsewhere, often in partnership with Tony, means that I feel particularly strongly about jazz promotion and I feel that I have a little insight into the way that BJazz fits into both the national and local scene. Working as a professional musician, across genres, means that I feel very strongly about arts funding. Now, believe me, I really don’t want this to come across as posturing (!) but I am currently living the life of a professional musician in the most literal sense – I am living off income from music – and I do an average of 120 professional, public gigs a year, some jazz, most jazz-related. Firstly, as a slight aside, I would never have got here without arts education funding. Secondly, this situation means that the art of good promotion, the running of venues and the health of the arts in general are issues that mean a lot to me and have a real impact on my livelihood. Spending a lot of time on the road and seeing firsthand how the recession has impacted on venues, promoters, arts organisations, audiences etc. and how the announced cuts have been received has been a real eye-opener.

    So just to put a cap on it, I really do appreciate Peter’s and others’ vocal support and contributions to the Birmingham scene which I have worked on and contributed to, albeit more as an audience member these days, and I do believe that there should be room for discussion and debate as to the content of BJazz/THSH and indeed any funded body’s program. But let me just pick one example from my recent experience; last week I was sitting with someone who was voluntarily running a Rural Touring venue, talking about how the cuts could leave some more remote communities without any cultural activity at all within easy reach. For me then, the cultural health of Birmingham, my chosen home city and the quality of BJazz’s programming, are small worries.

  16. This is an interesting thread. I can see that I am in a minority here as I am neither a musician (well not professional standard anyway!!!!) , or involved with Birmingham jazz in any way, I am just a punter so to speak. I am a big jazz fan though.

    I’m very pleased that Birmingham jazz promote local bands and bands that are more experimental in nature as these musicians probably need to be championed more than established musicians or those playing more conventional music. However as someone whose preference is for the more established side of jazz, i.e. bands playing standards or originals based on a song form I feel disappointed that this genre of jazz only makes a small proportion of the music promoted by Birmingham jazz. I also know that my non jazz loving friends will at least tolerate and sometimes even enjoy more conventional forms of jazz, but cannot cope with free jazz, free improv or anything atonal, and I imagine that they are quite representative of the public at large. Having said all that, in Birmingham there are a number of local musicians putting on enjoyable events to those with more conventional tastes.

    There also seems to be a feeling that certain musicians or styles are promoted more than others because of the preferences of the people who run Birmingham jazz. If true, that is a shame.

    To Tony Dudley-Evans. I am very pleased that you got continued funding, but from having worked in the academic sector and in the innovations industry, both of which rely to a certain extent on funding, I know that funding is often given to those who are most politically savvy and can present the best business case, not necessarily the most worthy. It is a shame that you didn’t take the opportunity to promote your organisation and instead tried to belittle criticism by showing off the silverware.

    I really hope any criticism will be acknowledged, that this will be a good year for Birmingham jazz and that there will be a varied program of events over the year to satisfy all tastes.

  17. I’m shocked by Phil Rose’s comments, and disagree strongly with his negative views of Birmingham Jazz. I’m a keen jazz lover, not a specialist and I like their gigs a lot. But is this Phil Rose the same person as the one who on Birmingham Jazz Board? Am I right about this? If he is, surely his publicly negative comments about his own organisation are out of order. If he feels this way, this guy should now do the honourable thing and step down. Being on the inside and pissing in is fine, but being on the inside and pissing OUT in public is not acceptable!

  18. What seems to have emerged from this exchange of comments, and what might help to explain the sometimes strikingly different views expressed, is that the whole jazz scene in Birmingham has changed over the last 20 years or so, and Birmingham Jazz has changed to reflect that.
    When I arrived in the city in the late ’80s the Conservatoire wasn’t running a jazz course, and, for reasons alluded to earlier, there might have been more visiting US and European players around for BJ to book. Now the scene has been transformed: there are few evenings in the week when a band which includes some of those Conservatoire graduates or current students are not playing live somewhere in the city; at the same time, there may be fewer potential jazz visitors available.
    A goodly number of those who have responded to this posting are young musicians who have passed through the Conservatoire course and have chosen to remain here to ply their trade. They are, quite naturally, hugely supportive of the work BJ has done in helping them both by employing them and by giving them access to the visitors.
    We hear all sorts of talk these days about organisations working in partnership and BJ and the Conservatoire provide something of a model example of this. And certainly helping to provide musical education in a schools system which has never really valued it, and helping to foster a local scene for artists are two vital factors in gaining approval and support from the Arts Council.
    It is interesting that the one musician who commented less favourably about BJ is the one who, to the best of my knowledge, and correct me if I am wrong, did not come through the Conservatoire course, and has perhaps had less assistance from the subsidised jazz sector, having to rely more on commercial gigs.
    But let’s move from BJ’s involvement in education and dedication to the players of the music, and look at the listeners out there.
    There is nothing wrong with catering to the jazz-loving public, with providing the kind of gigs they might want to attend. BJ started out, I think I am right in saying, with that as its main function. And it is still a vital part of its function. My contention would be (and this is a gentle criticism – let’s not get hysterical and start seeing the issue in black and white) that with its inevitable interest in the local scene (the Conservatoire and Cobweb Collective players, to be precise) it has taken its eye off the ball just a little with regard to the punters and their interests.
    This is where I started out this discussion, hoping that the amalgamation (if that is what it is) of BJ and Performances Birmingham, might lead to a wider range of gigs and some bigger name gigs.
    As an aside, I object to the simple classification into “mainstream” and “more adventurous” and certainly don’t feel my tastes fit into either category very comfortably. The names I mentioned in the original posting don’t, as far as I am concerned, fit into those cliched boxes. They are just all brilliant jazz musicians.
    Sid Peacock mentions that he would like the opportunity to hear John Zorn – well, those of us who were in Birmingham 20 years ago did hear John Zorn, in the Adrian Boult Hall, and courtesy of BJ and, I think, Contemporary Music Network. I remember, still with a thrill, the sound of Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus at around the same time and in the same venue. And David Murray’s Big Band, and the Brecker Brothers and Don Grolnick in the band of percussionist Don Alias…
    But let’s not get distracted by simple, rose-tinted nostalgia…
    Sam Slater mentions a friend coming from afar to hear Lee Konitz, which would seem to echo my point that there is still a great appetite to hear the more prominent, and in Konitz’s case legendary, names in jazz along with the newer or less well known players.
    Now I don’t want to come across like a boring “ah, wasn’t it better when” person. That’s not my point at all. My point is that while the Vortex in London pursues a certain course of programming it is doing it at the same time as the Barbican is programming jazz, Ronnie Scott’s is, the 606 Club is, Kings Place is, etc, etc.
    In Birmingham we have a very different situation. One commenter suggests BJ should stick to what it does and let others, more “commercial types”, put on the bigger names. But who exactly are those others in Birmingham? As an aside, you don’t necessarily make any money by putting on bigger names, you just are dealing with bigger numbers, both in artist fees and in higher ticket prices to pay for them.
    And the only organisation I can see with the potential to do this in Birmingham is – big drum roll – Performances Birmingham. So, we are back to my original argument.
    One final side-track to go down briefly, and then I’ll stop (for the moment). Russ Escritt (innocently, I assume) says: “As I understand it Tony (Dudley-Evans, BJ artistic director) doesn’t work in a vacuum, he has a board to answer to.”
    The most recent commenter, David Brown, asks: is the Phil Rose who has commented above the same Phil Rose who is a director on the BJ board?
    The rather worrying answer is: yes, he is.
    I leave you all to ponder that little conundrum…

  19. Pete
    I too remember being at all those gigs you list from 20 years ago. I too remember them fondly and could add a good few others to the list. However you state, and I agree with you, that since the demise of CMN many bands of this sort just haven’t been available to be booked in Birmingham. I think the unavailability is for tours in the UK not just for gigs in Birmingham. I doubt it’s the case that there are lots of musicians from the US and abroad who play outside of London but who don’t come to Birmingham. I’d love to see bands like that again but I doubt if anyone could make too long a list of tours that should have come to Birmingham but didn’t. In any case even in a perfect Jazz world I surely not every tour would stop in Birmingham.
    I think Sam Slater’s point about wanting to see something unique about the Jazz scene in Birmingham is a good and valid one.
    I also accept your point about false divisions between “mainstream” and “more adventurous”music. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that that was what lay behind your original post.
    I’m also sure that you are not alone in hoping that we get to see more Jazz from bigger name bands at venues like the Town Hall and Symphony Hall. However I suspect that it’s not quite as simple or easy as it might seem.
    I’m not a promoter but I suspect there are only a few names in Jazz who could be relied upon to fill or nearly fill the Symphony Hall. Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Wayne Shorter spring to mind. Two of those have played the Symphony Hall in recent years. Of the bands below that level of stature perhaps then it’s a gamble as to who could be a big enough pull to ensure that a gig at the Town Hall broke even or better. I was at Branford Marsalis’s gig there a year or so ago and remember being disappointed at the number of empty seats. I guess we have to recognise that we live in a world where venues and promoters can’t lose money too often or they go under. Maybe I’m setting up false excuses for THSH but somehow I doubt it.
    Even if I’m wrong with my argument above I still don’t see that there’s a reason to be critical of BJ becoming part of Performances Birmingham if this was what was needed in order to protect funding for Jazz. Your original article referred to positive press releases from both BJ and THSH. I prefer to be optimistic and accept these at face value. Certainly the prospects for funding for BJ had it chosen to ignore Arts Council advice and try to go it alone could have been pretty grim.
    I recognise that you haven’t criticised the fact that the two organisations have come together but I think many readers of your original piece might have concluded that you were critical of the comments in the press releases referred to.
    As far as I can see the only remaining element to your argument is that “Birmingham Jazz has taken it’s eye off the ball just a little with regards to the punters and their interests”. Now I accept that’s a possible argument even though I would take some convincing that it is true. But behind this statement isn’t there a hint of “I know better what the punters want”? That argument could go round and round for a long time. I think it was Sid Peacock that suggested we ought to respect boundaries and not interfere too much. After all it was the work of Tony Dudley-Evans that has won Birmingham Jazz awards and secured the continuation of it’s funding in a time of massive cuts all round. I would point out that it isn’t just local musicians who have been through the conservatoire who are so supportive of TDE and BJ. How often do those of us in BJ audiences hear musicians with national and international names thank Tony for the work he does. Have a look closely at the name of the new band that Django Bates is bringing to Cheltenham this year for instance.
    I’m told by Tony that BJ had already taken a decision to put on a few more gigs with names that could fill venues even before this debate started. Fine, I’m happy with that if they think that’s what’s needed but I hope we don’t lose too many of the other sorts of gigs (however we describe them).
    Having made those points I think, though you might want to correct me, that I have covered all the points you have made.
    If I’m right in how I have summarised the debate so far then surely there’s no need for personal attacks on Tony Dudley-Evans. I’ve talked to a few people over the last few days who have felt that some of the comments in this debate have come close to this. If the debate is to continue then please can contributors refrain from such unnecessary personal attacks.
    Also don’t we need to remember that we should be celebrating what we have got and that any debate is about how to ensure it keeps improving? I know that’s what you think Pete but some contributors to this debate give a quite different impression.

  20. There’s a theory of child development that links to creativity that suggests when we are babies and are learning how the world works we ask “Why?”; when we are a bit older and straining at the constrictions of our new lives, we ask “Why not?”; and then when we are a bit older still we stop asking the questions and instead enter the less creative but altogether more adult (or some might say, resigned) state where we say “Because”. While I wouldn’t argue with a lot of what Russ Escritt says above, there is an overall atmosphere of “Because” about it; I think there is also a place for the more creative “Why not?”, not only in the lives of jazz musicians (and let’s face it, where would jazz be without that stretching for the new and the experimental) but in the lives of jazz critics and jazz audiences, too. I hope that is what I have been trying to express over the years of writing about jazz and in this current exchange of views.
    Yes, of course it is good to explain where we are, how we came to be here, and all the reasons why it is a great place to be (I’m talking about Birmingham, about jazz, about everything here); but isn’t it is also vital to question the status quo, too, to look for areas where maybe things could be improved.
    And even if they can’t, even if the answer must be “Because.” Well at least we’ve established exactly “Why not”.

  21. It seems that a lot of people are wounded from even a simple mention of this long overdue subject; jazz monopoly (per se). I wonder why people who get so irate about this are often difficult to talk to, standoffish and generally full of themselves! As well as being disrespectful of others who do four hours a day practice long after they left other places than the conservatoire!! Ghastly lot, all of you!
    ONLY JOKING!!!!!!
    Come on! Lighten up! BJ will do well this year! It’ll go from strength to strength, and I guess it has legitimate intentions. Who knows what’ll happen NEXT YEAR!!

  22. Having been at the University of Birmingham since 2005, BJazz’s work and the jazz scene in and around the city is

    one of the reasons I decided to stay on for my PhD rather than move elsewhere. As far as I can see, Birmingham

    hosts far more decent gigs (and far more variety) than anywhere else in the country outside London, and ticket prices make it possible to see lots of music. I don’t however like how ‘closed’ the scene is – there is no way that a tourist to birmingham would find out about the smaller sessions going on around the city (bearwood, moseley, cobweb collective) – but that’s a discussion for another day.

    I like what Birmingham Jazz put on and fully support them (I volunteer for them every week). I agree that the majority of their programming is on the ‘cutting edge’ side of the genre, but am not sure that there’s a reason to change this. Most of THSH’s jazz programming caters towards the mainstream (by definition I suppose these gigs are going to have 1000+ audiences), and Rush Hour Blues regularly presents this sort of music, if not every week. BJazz also puts on gigs at the jam house (monthly?) aimed towards more conventional jazz, and I’ve have never heard a complaint from anyone that there’s not enough of this sort of music about. As for missed tricks, with a limited budget, audiences, and venue availability (how many decent sub-1000 capacity venues are there in brum) I think that the BJazz team are fully aware of what they’re unable to put on rather than lazily ignoring bookings!

    I’m unsure as to how there’s any sort of ‘monopoly’ going on. If its a case of BJazz getting the funding that others would use to promote different sorts of music then fair enough, but isn’t that an arts council decision anyway? The cobweb collective/live box/mostly jazz/others happily co-exist with PBL and BJazz without a problem, and leftfoot/birmingham promoters/jibbering consistently sell out their ‘jazz-related’ gigs (this is where the young audiences are!).

    On venues such as the Rainbow/H&H, what exactly is the objection? Regardless of the fact I prefer sitting down with a pint in a pub to having to stay silent for 90 mins in a concert hall, if you can see/hear the band well what does it matter? It may not be ideal for everyone, but all of the gigs I’ve seen at the Rainbow have sounded fantastic, and the musicians rate it too.

    Everyone will always have slightly different views on what should be promoted and what should be concentrated on, but I think Birmingham’s lucky to have the resources and facilities it does (even if there is room for improvement on the venues front). We should be grateful of what’s going on, the funding we’ve got, and support/enjoy it as much as possible!

  23. Your last contribution hit the nail on the head Peter. Birmingham Jazz can and WILL embrace the concept of “continuous improvement” and reviews of venues and programming have to be part of that. Accepting a status quo – even an excellent one – in any form of business will, over time, lead to failure. And at a time when other arts organisations and many other public services face severe cuts we owe it to the taxpayer to show how we are seeking – and achieving – additional revenue. In no way should this involve the “dumbing down” of the programme which is feared by some contributors who have misinterpreted your original post Peter, but since Birmingham Jazz has adopted the name of the second city it has to penetrate a broader spectrum of its population.
    Since once again we have received significant public money the organisation cannot simply hide behind the shroud of artistic merit – however laudable the programme is in creative terms.
    As a result the I (amongst others) will be pushing strongly within the board for
    (a) a full review of venues
    (b) monitored revenue targets from audiences and other sources (I note that contributors talk of the younger “crowd” we are attracting at certain venues….hmm…I would love to meet them!!)
    In no way will artistic integrity be threatened by any of this, since none of us would want that – having witnessed a great flowering of music in the city thanks to Tony’s efforts over two decades. However several of us want to see a future in which BJazz goes even further and establishes the organisation for the long-term as a viable free-standing organisation recognised and valued across the city’s communities, Uk wide as a unique provincial provider, and internationally as providing a creative music hotspot. We have set out on that road, but why put the brakes on now?

  24. As usual these debates polarise into two camps – for and against. In this case BJ and as Peter draws out its status quo. Also it degenerates into name calling and personal attacks. BJ recently paid a handsome sum to a consultant to ‘mediate’ the rift between the Board and its staff! Can you believe this? The Board did not want it but thought it might help. This debate indicates not – the consultant urged to avoid naming people – this blog has tried to personally attack some of the voices trying to generate a debate over the future of engaging Jazz Musicians in Birmingham.

    I have been the subject of vitriol in this long exchange. Why is that? Did I declaim someone, did I indicate I wanted to see BJ’s demise? No – I have been involved with BJ since 1977, the year after its formation. I want to see it survive. I want to point out one thing as a current member of the BJ Board and that it that i am the Treasurer and found out about the ACGB offer through this blog. I have since not been contacted to outline the details and how its effects our future. Why is this you may wonder? Why does the Treasurer not know what goes on but is liable for its actions!

    What I do know is voluntary groups – having organised, taught the subject and assisted about 150 over the years – is how they are organised to ensure sustainability and not fall into the trap of a one person oligarchy. The key feature of third sector/voluntary group/charity/social enterprise (BJ is all of these things) is twofold: democratic control and accountability. This debate simply proves that they are not present (a a lack of probity for good measure) in the current organisation of BJ and some of us want this to change – for the betterment of the BJ and the safeguarding of its future.

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