The enforced closure of Birmingham’s concert halls, theatres, arts centres and clubs (a few are opening) leads to thoughts about other venues that have closed for good, either because the building has been pulled down, or the management has changed its policy.
It’s good to look back and somehow keep one’s memories of some of the great music that has happened in Birmingham in venues, but also retain optimism about the future. I believe that one of the strengths of jazz is that it can work in many types of venue and one of the keys to success in promotion of jazz is to place groups in the venue that is most appropriate to their music. There are bands that work best in a club atmosphere, while others really need the vibe of an intimate concert hall.
Let’s remember some of the venues that are no longer with us, or no longer operating as a venue:
Adrian Boult Hall
This 500-capacity hall, situated in the Birmingham Conservatoire building in the city centre, was the main venue for Birmingham Jazz for many years and a centre for both leading British bands and touring international groups. It had excellent acoustics and an intimate atmosphere for its size. Particular memories are gigs with Don Cherry and Nu, Hermeto Pascoal Big Band, Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice, the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, a double bill of contemporary jazz and classical piano with Cecil Taylor and Roger Woodward, and many gigs by jazz course students (see also The Arena Foyer below). The Hall was closed and pulled down as part of the Conservatoire’s relocation to the Eastside area of the city. Disadvantages were that it was just a little too big for the size of most jazz audiences and the loading in of the PA was a nightmare.
The Arena Foyer at the Conservatoire
The Arena Foyer was used for jazz students’ Performance Platform sessions and final recitals. I have warm memories of many student sessions there. If I have to pick out one, it would be Dan Nicholls’ brilliant final recital.
The Strathallan Hotel
A large suite in the Strath, as it was always called, served as the home for Birmingham Jazz for many years from the early 1980s up to 1987. It was a large room with a bar, quite wide that made it very suitable for gigs attracting a varying size of audience; it could expand to hold up to 300, but could also be made intimate for a small audience. Particular memories were of the annual concert with Stan Tracey that opened the season in the autumn, a wonderful duo between Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlos Ward and a concert with David Murray, Johnny Dyani and Steve McCall. The hotel decided to expand its restaurant cutting the size of the suite used for the jazz. One description was that it now looked like a Turkish brothel (I can’t comment due to lack of experience) and it certainly was no longer workable for live music. However, Sunday lunchtime sessions continued in the Strathallan bar for many more years, see below.
The Grand Hotel
The prestigious city-centre hotel had two rooms suitable for live music, one larger than the other, and these served as the main venues for Birmingham Jazz in its first years from 1976. A very special memory is of a gig with Art Pepper, in 1978 or 1979. Birmingham Jazz moved in the early 1980s to the Strathallan Hotel, but returned to the Grand Hotel in the mid 1980s for a few gigs, one with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band , another with a Johnny Griffin Quartet and a fantastic gig with Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya group.
When the room at the Strathallan Hotel ceased to be suitable for live gigs, Birmingham Jazz moved to the Triangle, a small arts centre on the Aston University campus that had a flexible room for music and theatre, and a separate cinema. The music room was very suitable for the more contemporary jazz that Birmingham Jazz was promoting at the time, and also had the advantage that with moveable raked seating it could be adapted according to the likely audience size. Particular memories are the gig with Loose Tubes at the height of their popularity, and the George Russell Orchestra touring on the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network. The Triangle was closed by the administration at Aston University and Birmingham lost a fine venue and cinema.
The Bear in Bearwood
The Bear was the home for Andy Hamilton and the Blue Notes for many years and one where Andy would invite touring American musicians to join him. There were many wonderful sessions with, for example, fellow saxophonist Scott Hamilton, trumpeter Art Farmer and David Murray, the latter session as part of the great friendship between Andy and Murray. At that time Andy was being managed by Alan Cross and he also set up some gigs at a bar on the corner of the Hagley Road and Barnsley Road the name of which I forget – I have since learnt that it was Dirty Betts. I remember seeing Joe Locke play there. But eventually Andy and the Blue Notes moved to Corks Club on Bearwood High Street where the Blue Notes continue to play.
The Barton Arms
This amazing and beautiful pub in Aston was the home for Jazz Club Friday, a session run by bass player Chris Bolton and drummer Tony Levin every Friday with a guest soloist. These were powerful and memorable sessions with each week’s guest challenged by Tony’s great drumming. Sessions with Paul Dunmall, Evan Parker, Stan Sulzmann and Don Weller were especially memorable. Tony and Chris eventually moved the session to the Cannonball pub, see below.
A great name for a music pub situated in Adderley Street in the Digbeth area of Birmingham. It was opened as a jazz club by the Mackays whose son Duncan is a fine trumpet player. The pub had a small upstairs room that worked really well for intimate jazz sessions. The pub thrived in the late 1980s and 90s, and there were great sessions with local and national groups. Sessions with Don Weller were legendary in his drinking days with Don usually staying the night and enjoying the pub’s delights till early in the morning. Eventually the Mackays moved away from Birmingham and the pub returned to its original non-musical policy as the Waggon and Horses.
The Yardbird’s proximity to the former site of the Birmingham Conservatoire made it the natural home for a regular Thursday gig and jam session run by the students. This was set up by Simon Harris and taken over by other students or graduates including Aaron Diaz and later by Sam Marchant, Ray Butcher and Chris Young. A particularly memorable session was with the sax/trumpet quartet Brass Jaw who played an awesomely loud and exciting set to counter a noisy room.
The Red Lion
When Birmingham Jazz continued as a voluntary promoting organisation after the creation of Jazzlines, the Red Lion pub in the Jewellery Quarter became their home and they ran regular Friday night sessions. I remember great sessions with Gilad Atzmon, Cleveland Watkiss and a debut session by young drummer Romarna Campbell with her own group. Eventually Birmingham Jazz moved to the 1000 Trades pub, also in the Jewellery Quarter.
The Strathallan Hotel Bar
For 13 years there was jazz every Sunday lunchtime from 12 to 2 and this was a session that attracted a wide-ranging audience, from committed jazz fans to those who enjoyed a pint and the chance to sample a bit of jazz. There were great sessions with players from Birmingham and the West Midlands, Bryan Corbett, Chris Bowden, Ben Markland, Steve Ajao, Tom Hill and many others. Eventually the Strathallan was forced to close the session as a result of financial problems in the hotel chain. It moved to the Fiddle & Bone pub, see below.
Ronnie Scott’s Club
This is a bit of a sad story in that it was initially very exciting that the world famous jazz club was setting up a branch in Birmingham, as a franchise run by Barry Sherwin and Alan Sartori. It had many successes and survived for more than ten years, but eventually was forced to close as a result of financial difficulties. It could have worked as a great jazz club, but gradually its musical policy moved away from jazz. There were, however, some great sessions; I particularly remember a four-day residency with Elvin Jones and his Jazz Machine group and Sunday night sessions with Bob Berg, Joe Lovano and Christian McBride.
This canal-side pub was established as a music venue by two members of the CBSO. It presented all styles of music with jazz at 12 noon on a Sunday and at 5pm on a Friday. I always remember one particular Friday when Sara Colman played to a packed 5pm Friday crowd to be followed by the then unknown Jamie Cullum who attracted a considerably smaller crowd. The story is always that it was closed as a result of complaints about the noise from flats opposite the pub, but the truth is that it went bust!
The Old Moseley Arms
A small upstairs room at the Old Mo’ was the first home for Fizzle, the organisation devoted to free jazz and improvised music. There were some great sessions, the most memorable being one with the German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann playing with John Edwards and Mark Sanders. After some time Fizzle moved to its current home in The Lamp Tavern.
This piece might seem pessimistic with its focus on venues that no longer exist or no longer promote jazz. But, in fact, I remain optimistic. Birmingham may not have the perfect jazz venue, but it does have several venues that musicians enjoy playing in and audiences enjoy listening in; I’m thinking (in no particular order) of the Eastside Jazz Club, the flipped stage at Symphony Hall, the CBSO Centre, the Spotted Dog, the Lamp Tavern, the Hexagon Theatre at mac, the big and small rooms at the Hare & Hounds pub, the 1000 Trades pub, the Moseley Park for the Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival, The Jam House, Corks and others.