The Sound of Birmingham
It would be impossible to have grown up in the multicultural melting pot of Birmingham and not have your very soul steeped in music.
I was born between Balsall Heath and Moseley; home of Ocean Colour Scene, UB40, The Beat, the drummer Bev Bevan, the “Mostly Jazz Festival” and for a short while, the writer J.R.R Tolkien. My local high street, Ladypool road, now famous for it’s Balti restaurants, had at one end of it one of the most renowned Reggae record shops in Britain; “Don Christie’s”.
Halfway down was “The Red Lion” pub where live jazz was played three nights a week. It’s claim to fame was infact, having been the location for the UB40 video “Red, Red Wine” a few years earlier but for me, it was a wonderful new world into which I snuck (all at a much too early age and of course unbeknown to my parents) and where I absorbed not only jazz, but a bohemian, slightly naughty and thrilling world where grown ups drank and partied (mine didn’t) and where there was something exciting in the air that I couldn’t quite fathom or quite put a name to yet but… I think it began with S. Further down this same road led to Moseley Village, an area known for being creative, cosmopolitan and the focus of artistic and student activities with plenty of pubs, restaurants and live music, home of The Moseley Folk Festival and of the aforementioned “Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul” Festival.
Home life and childhood was a happy, secular haven of love and kindness with parents from a generation where people were considered to be more important than money and the pursuit of it, that once you’d taken care of your own family, you’d then look to see what you could do for your neighbours and for the rest of society.
“There was always a wide variety of music in the house played on radio and record players, but it was my mother who introduced me to her love of the great jazz & soul singers and to the big band jazz that she had danced to in her youth.”
She would take me most Sunday afternoons, to the Strathallen hotel, where local musicians including Steve Ajao, Andy Hamilton and Tony Levin would be playing and in my later teens to The Midlands Art Centre and (when she considered me old enough) to a fabulous Jazz, Soul & Reggae club called “Acafess” where one of the house drummers, Mark Fletcher was to play on my debut album “Just in Time” nearly twenty years later! These were pre- Conservatoire days and infact, up until the late 70s in Birmingham, jazz had been heavily based in Trad & Revivalist New Orleans. That was until Birmingham Jazz was founded and Stan Tracey CBE became it’s honorary president. The rest, as they say, is jazz history. It is worth mentioning though, that Birmingham’s diversity and culture of experimentation made it a fertile birthplace of new musical styles and that the combined influences from folk, jazz, blues, soul & reggae created a wholly new sound and that, that sound influenced jazz in Birmingham and influenced me.
School was King Edward’s Camp Hill Grammar School for Girls, where Mrs Flowers the music teacher, repeatedly told me what a good voice I had and how musical I was, and what a shame it was, therefore, that I chose to “play up” in class. And “play up” I did. Most of the time and in any and every lesson. I don’t know why I chose to be the class clown really. Home life was happy and untroubled and I was bright enough to get a healthy crop of O-Levels. I can only assume that the need to rebel was only an insufferable desire to be the complete centre of attention! It’s a shame though, that I chose not to take music lessons seriously because the lack of advanced classical training in music proved to be of great hindrance to my saxophone playing in later years. The school had a very good music department shared by both Girls and Boys schools but instead I chose to study art. For me, the clash between the classical music training of the time and the musical subculture I had grown up around was too great, too unbearable and too restrictive. Or maybe the whole environment was just too stuffy, class ridden and old fashioned? It was time to break free, so I did. In brief, I would say that; being at Bourneville Art College between the ages of 16 – 18 was probably one of the most shape shifting, creative and liberating experiences of my formative years. It was also the place where, as well as spinning pots, learning to paint life models and writing essays on Picasso, Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright; I was introduced, in the college canteen, to Jazz Funk, Rare Groove and to the clubs that played this kind of music. Dancing became my thing and I learned that, not only had I an innate sense of rhythm, there was no stopping me now…
“Moving to London was something I always knew I would do as soon as I felt old enough and brave enough.”
It wasn’t an entirely new world to me as we had family friends there who we’d been visiting twice a year since I was very small. I was therefore, thrilled when I secured a place at Middlesex Poly and with a full government grant! So off I went, 18, independent and about to continue my art studies and live in one of the best cities in the world!
Only a few months into the course it soon became abundantly clear that music was to be my calling and not Art & Design. This ruffled a few feathers of course as I spent only half of my time in my designated classes. I spent most of my time taking part in music, dance and drama with the Performance Art students (this was pre- jazz course era) and hanging out with the Fine Art students, some of whom had a very keen interest in jazz and who formed jazz bands and DJ’d at Jazz Funk & Rare Groove club nights.
London was absolutely buzzing at this time. Jazz FM had just started. There was the new Jazz Cafe in Camden, Giles Peterson’s “Talkin’ Loud” at Dingwalls and the Acid Jazz Movement, “Straight no Chaser” Magazine, Loose Tubes, The Jazz Warriors and the already established jazz clubs like Ronnie Scotts, The Vortex and of course, The 606 Club…. (but more of that later).
Meanwhile back at Middlesex Poly. I had been developing an interest in saxophonists that had started back in Birmingham, watching Steve Ajao play so many times. I started listening to Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, the funky horn sections of 1970s dance music and in particular Wayne Shorter and though I’d been experimenting with singing, it was after listening to Roland Kirk’s album “We Free Kings” that I took myself (and a full term’s grant cheque) to “Macaris” on the Charing X Road and bought myself a fairly good student alto saxophone. A “Weltklang” to be exact. And clang I did for a good few weeks I’m sure but nevertheless, the journey into becoming a jazz musician had begun!
Knowing that I had to make up for some lost time, I threw myself head first into private and further education classes in saxophone and general musicianship.
Now resident in South London, I started music workshops at The Oval House Art Centre. These were led by ex pat South African drummer & percussionist Eugene Skeef and English classical pianist Patrick Nichols. This was a divine combination and visiting tutors included Bheki Mseleku & Dudu Pukwana. I also joined various Brixton based soul, funk and indie pop bands and Stockwell Music Works Big Band led by the late Matt Fox, father of the great young tenor saxophonist Ruben Fox.
At Stockwell Musicworks I also joined the saxophone classes led by Leigh Etherington (mother of Alex Ridout, winner of BBC Young Musician Jazz Award 2016). It was Leigh who first introduced me to The 606 Club. I simply could not believe the level of jazz musicianship I heard at the gigs & late night jam sessions there, and I knew that I had to up my game. I started jazz & harmony at the City Lit with Eddie Harvey and Della Rhodes and at the Camden Institute with Andrea Vicari, had private lessons with various jazz saxophonists including Stan Robinson and Jean Toussaint, did Guildhall summer schools where tutors included Don Rendell, Johnny Dankworth and Duncan Lamont and of course did the customary jazz pilgrimage to New York. Here I absorbed as much jazz (and theatre) as I possibly could and spent the end of most nights hanging at a fabulous jazz club called Bradleys where the house pianist was Kirk Lightsey and musicians came to hang and play after their gigs.I was home again.
When I came back from New York I continued gigging with the big band and also started doing duo & trio gigs all over town with various accompanists including John China. John was one of those old school pianists who knew the standards in every key and who really encouraged me to start bringing singing into the set. This was well overdue and timely. I’d started to become very frustrated with my saxophone playing. The lack of serious classical study was really holding me back and I just couldn’t catch up. There was a brief and very fruitful period with “Mass Producers” – a twenty strong female avant garde saxophone unit led by Caroline Kraabel but, in terms of straight ahead playing, I was still struggling. Slowly the singing started to take over and eventually became predominant.
My first proper CD as a vocalist was “Just in Time” and was produced by award winning jazz singer Ian Shaw. It was launched at The 606 Club in 2005 and I’ve continued on a brilliant jazz singer journey ever since, whilst at all times following the advice that bass player Geoff Gascoyne gave me to “Always play with the best people. Don’t be afraid to call them. They’ll take the gig!”