Being England’s second city it shouldn’t come as a shock that Birmingham has a historic, vibrant and diverse Jazz scene. A subculture bolstered by the students of Birmingham Conservatoire’s top-class Jazz department – which itself regularly puts on live performances. The scene is probably best showcased by the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival held in Moseley Park and the citywide Birmingham Jazz & Blues Festival. Both of which typically book a few big names and international artists alongside wide variety of local lesser-known artists.
But if you really want to get to know the scene, see the city’s musicians in their element and cutting loose, then my suggestion would be to hunt out one of Birmingham’s more informal and free-form nights. There are three such notable events that widely revolve around an ethos of improv and jamming: Fizzel, held weekly at the Lamp Tavern, Bain/Pulsgrove held every Monday at Yorks Bakery and the Tuesday Jazz nights at The Spotted Dog. The latter being the one I most recently frequented having assurance from a friend that the band playing – Zhenya Strigalev’s Never Group – were really quite good.
The Spotted Dog, perhaps unsurprisingly for a pub hosting a weekly experimental Jazz night, is located in what has become Birmingham’s most brazenly hipster district, official known as Digbeth. However, upon entry one is greeted with the décor and atmosphere of classic, if not antiquated, British pub. It is only by wandering out into smoking area that will realize that the pub conforms to Digbeth’s penchant for off-key trendiness. The drinking house’s outdoor decorations include: a gaggle of partially dressed and dilapidated manikins, two oversized lady’s dressers, a large smoking penguin and a bookshelf. On the night in question I got a chance to briefly peruse the shelf only to find it was mainly filled with old business studies textbooks, with one notable exception being a paperback entitled The Art of Zen & Sex, which I gave a quick flick through before I heard that the band was starting to play.
Once the band started performing in the corner of the room it became clear that my friend’s reassurance had not been misplaced. The Saxophonist who I assume was Zhenya took a peculiar stance; his instrument perched delicately between his lips as he stared up to the ceiling as if pleading to be possessed by some unholy jazz demon. The music aptly became wilder and more discordant as the set progressed, only held in by the Never Group’s unquestionable technical skill.
The night continued with me happily bopping along to some unexpectedly energetic and at times even ferocious Jazz. The pub began to fill up until there was quite a crowd and I noticed that many of clientele were carrying instruments of their own. It soon transpired that they were all planning to get involved in the night’s open jam session following the live performance. This was when the night really took off as a collective of shaggy yet jovial music-students bounced off and strained to excite one another, engendering an electrifying sense of anarchic fun. They certainly made me want in. I had once played the trumpet for a time, but last I checked my instrument was out-of-tune and I had been reliably informed that the tuning slider was irreparably rusted shut. Then again this was an experimental night; perhaps one of these Jazz aficionados could figure out something useful for me to do with my old, rusty, out-of-tune trumpet, though I doubted it.
Later that week I went to see a band called Weave play as part of the Town Hall Symphony Hall’s Jazzlines live performance and education programme. The crowd, who on average were at least a generation or two older than the one in The Spotted Dog, were sat stilly and attentively in an arc around the band as they produced a far more refined and summery version of Jazz than the one I’d heard a few nights before. If I’m completely honest I found it a tad innocuous and I wasn’t quite getting along with Weave’s double trumpet no sax setup. To the side there was a stall trying to recruit people to the Royal Marine’s Band Service, which I perhaps considered with some cynicism.
I realized the Jazz-scene in Birmingham is not homogenous, it caters to a variety of sorts, not all of it will suit everyone, but that in large part is what makes it worth exploring. For myself I definitely feel that, the poor book selection notwithstanding, I will be returning for another invigorating night at The Spotted Dog.
Guest blogger: Stewart Yarlett