Birmingham Jazz @ 40: memories from four who have played a part

George West, Steve Evans, Tony Dudley-Evans and Phil Rose, captured in caricature form by Hunt Emerson.

George West, Steve Evans, Tony Dudley-Evans and Phil Rose, captured in caricature form living out their jazz fantasies by Hunt Emerson.

Birmingham Jazz is 40 years old. Happy birthday to BJ! There are all sorts of events this autumn to celebrate this impressive anniversary, centred on a performance of music from a past president of the organisation which is on Saturday.

Here’s the lowdown from the BJ@40 brochure:

“We have programmed a sequence of Birmingham Jazz @ 40 gigs specially chosen to be highlights of this or any year.

Stan Tracey

Stan Tracey

“Early on the late, great Stan Tracey CBE (1926-2013) was Honorary President of Birmingham Jazz and for some years opened the season each September so it is very appropriate that the centrepiece of our 40 year celebrations is a concert by the Stan Tracey Legacy Octet – led from the drums by his son Clark Tracey – taking place at The mac on 24 September.”

In addition to the concerts there will be exhibitions of photographs by Vanley Burke and Brian Homer, and caricatures by Hunt Emerson.

The brochure continues: “During the BJ@40 Season and beyond there will be opportunities for you to give your own reflection on the first 40 years of Birmingham Jazz and the wider history of jazz in Birmingham – in images, drawings and written memories.”

Four of the jazz enthusiasts who played a lead role in the development of Birmingham Jazz have been looking back at the organisation and their part in it. So here are extracts from their recollections.

First, George West, one of a group who started the ball rolling in 1976:

“I had gathered a group of six like-minded people all of whom were willing to put £25 down on my dining room table to get BJ started. I became Chairman, We jointly decided by disagreement which bands to promote.

“As for programme direction, we all had different preferences. We started with Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. The second concert, with a full house, the band didn’t turn up. As people filed out of the room many refused to accept their money back saying to me “We like what you are doing and want you to succeed”. We progressed, our third concert was the Mike Osborne Trio and then we started to engage visiting American musicians.”

Steve Evans was heavily involved in BJ and remembers a couple of concerts that changed his life:

“The Henry Threadgill Sextet on a snowy night in January which was a financial nightmare but musically fantastic. I met the drummer John Betsch at a gig in Paris perhaps twenty years later. I told him he had played at one of my all time top gigs and he asked who he was playing with. When I told him it was Heanry Threadgill he responded: ‘Are you from Birmingham?’ So it was memorable for them as well. Abdullah Ibrahim with Carlos Ward. I’d never experienced charisma like Abdullah’s before.”

He sums up the contribution of Birmingham Jazz at that time:

“I think we were a part of the establishment of a thriving jazz scene in Birmingham. I think we helped raise the bar for the calibre of musicians who played in the city and, consequently developed a larger audience. I’m not sure but would like to think that promoters in other areas saw what BJ achieved and upped their game.”

Next up was Tony Dudley-Evans:

“Well it was a major part of my life, a significant part of my life. It was a life-changing experience being involved in Birmingham Jazz and it’s when I first became involved in promotion…”

Under Tony’s leadership BJ moved up a further notch commissioning works and taking bands on tour. Among the musicians BJ helped, he identifies Tim Berne, Mike Gibbs, Django Bates, Iain Ballamy and Bobby Previte.

“Other highlights I remember include Andrew Hill who was on a national tour and it was just one of those concerts where the whole band said ‘it really happened in Birmingham’. Something clicked that night. Of course there was also Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.”

With changes in the way the Arts Council wanted to fund jazz in the West Midlands, there was an eventual split and Jazzlines was formed. Tony reflects:

“It’s very healthy that Jazzlines has gone on and continued the tradition of creating new work and very much a concert promoter… And Birmingham Jazz continued with that club tradition. It’s good for the scene that there are both. Rather like a divorce however much a good idea it is for a couple to split up there is a sadness and I feel that about Birmingham Jazz.”

With the return to club jazz and less secure funding, Phil Rose ably took the reins:

“Jazz gives pleasure to many with music that resonates within, and to present it up close with the jazz community makes me feel proud of our efforts. Meeting musicians, giving them a platform, talking through the possibilities and then bringing the jazz to Birmingham which no one else presents in the city, is a thrill – it all is. I never thought I would spend so much time and effort to organise jazz gigs – but I do and I love it – and I thank all who gave me the chance.”

Phil’s BJ has established the Legends Festival in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, and this year was their second. Long may it continue.

What are Phil’s memorable gigs from the last 40 years?

“The BJ gigs from the past I remember most are, obviously Mike Gibbs, then over the decades Stan Tracey Octet, Mike Westbrook (various) bands and Kenny Wheeler in the 1970s, Loose Tubes in the ‘80s and three I often think about in the ‘90s are: Kenny Wheeler’s Angel Song Quartet with Bill Frisell, Perfect Houseplants and Michael Riessler with a barrel organ.”

Phil sums it all up:

“Jazz promoters often have a short life, so for us to survive this far is a testament to the people of Birmingham for supporting the live music. In 2012 we had to go back to square one. Staff cost, the biggest expense in all organisations, was not possible so going back to running on volunteers’ time was the key.

“Apart from keeping BJ alive to celebrate 40 years, the music is the impact. In my time so far BJ has been able to present top class contemporary azz bands most weeks of the year, in a very intimate club style that welcomes its audience and gives them a good experience and the chance to meet the artists.”

  • You can find more about your opportunities to do just that over the coming weeks. It’s all HERE.


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1 reply

  1. Goodness, was it really 40 years ago? This is an interesting reflection which has prompted a number of personal memories of jazz in the Midlands at that time. Coventry Jazz under the canny guidance of William Shaw pre-dated Birmingham Jazz by a year or two and as a student I fondly remember some great gigs in their first home – The Bull’s Head, Binley Road, including wonderful sets by The Stan Tracey Quartet and the Morrisey Mullen Band.

    In Autumn 1975 I joined Tony Barley and a small bunch of others, whose names I should remember but don’t, promoting jazz at Warwick University. The gigs I can remember veered between the straight ahead and the cutting edge and included a ‘Tough Tenors’ evening with Art Themen and Dick Heckstall-Smith, either Evan Parker or Derek Bailey solo, AMM (Eddie Prevost and Lou Gare) and a jazz festival featuring amongst others The John Taylor Sextet with Kenny Wheeler and Stan Sulzmann. We also promoted a wonderful solo gig by Stan Tracey, when he was still playing ‘free’. The following year we hosted The Keith Tippett Sextet and Steve Lacy solo amongst others.

    I remember driving over to Birmingham probably sometime in 1976 with Tony Barley to attend an open meeting to discuss the idea of a Birmingham Jazz Club. I distinctly remember it being at Birmingham’s Grand Hotel, later Birmingham Jazz’s atmospheric base. Whether that was before George West got his six ‘apostles’ and their wallets round his kitchen table or after, I am not sure.

    Later as Administrator of the new Midlands Jazz Centre Society, I co-promoted Eberhard Weber and Art Pepper with BJS and also grant-funded them (and reviewed quite as lot of their excellent concerts for the Birmingham Post). In the early 1980s we gave them the biggest grant we had ever given anyone – £1,000 for a whole year’s programme. That may seem ludicrously tiny now, but then it was a very bold step, but unquestionably a good one. From tiny acorns etc.

    The club wasn’t just George and Tony and Steve (and Gill). It wouldn’t have existed without Richard and Margaret Smith and Mike Fowler and John, whose surname escapes me and others I should be able to name and have sadly forgotten.

    It’s nice to have witnessed the start of something that has survived so long and created so many opportunities for such a wide range of great musicians. Happy 40th Birthday Birmingham Jazz and all your offshoots! May you thrive for another 40, and then some.

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