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.
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.