Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Sitting in the ruins of the old cathedral in Coventry, while the local duo of trumpeter Bryan Corbett and pianist Levi French performed a powerful version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", I wondered what Philip Larkin would have made of the city's jazz festival. Coventry was where Larkin was born and raised, and where his strong views on jazz were fixed, listening to 1930s dance bands on the radio.

At the local hippodrome, he was fascinated by the resident drummer, later persuading his parents to buy him a simple kit at which he "battered away contentedly".

Larkin may have been known for his trenchant criticisms of innovations from bebop onwards, but he was still a man who could say: "I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz". Some of that instinctive passion for the music was in the air during last weekend's festival.

A couple of names from the international circuit, Antonio Forcione and Tomasz Stanko, were present, but the programme focused more on making the most of home-grown talent, which seemed to flourish all the more in the open air of the ruins' marquee than in the choked air of a London club.

That spirit of the 1930s dance bands, which hooked Larkin, lives on in the Midlands, an area with a history of producing cheery, forceful brass players whose brows are less furrowed by the strain of the over-intellectual approach under which many London musicians labour.

"Just take it and enjoy it" appeared to be the message, which led to a particularly joyous vocalese set by Georgie Fame with the Alan Skidmore Quartet; and on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a generous response to the Phoenix Collective, a group of local teenagers who made a brave attempt at their own compositions, as well as some by their exuberant star guest, Gilad Atzmon. Nowhere was the pleasure to be found in simplicity more evident than in the "jazz mass" at the new Coventry Cathedral, into whose empty, elevated spaces Ben Castle's buttered-toast tenor saxophone floated on Sunday morning. How beautiful, and how calming, to hear the cathedral choristers sing Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday", or Beth Rowley's soulful take on "Nobody's Fault But Mine", accompanied by bluesy piano, slapping double bass, and filigree trails from Castle.

Ellington himself performed the European premiere of one of his sacred works in this cathedral, which he described as "inspiring... for all artists". That sense of modernity, but also of timelessness, which both the building and the music possess, seemed to resonate together down the nave and filter through the worshippers. Believers, perhaps, might call that the Holy Spirit. It was something uplifting, whatever it was.

This medium-sized jazz festival is an example to other cities in how to lend a platform to the best of their own talent (Birmingham-based Corbett, for example, is a terrific trumpeter who has recently been touring with Us3, but whose appearances in London are, sadly, rare indeed), while making use of their most distinctive sites and not being over-ambitious in booking international names.

What happens when the festival closes, though? There is a dearth of medium-sized jazz venues in this part of the country, with two Birmingham clubs, Ronnie Scott's and Ty's Jazz and Spice, both having closed in the past few years. There's almost nowhere between the low-key bar gigs which pay peanuts (or peanuts and a few drinks) and the big concert halls, which only the jazz superstars can fill. Wonderful though they are, festivals such as Coventry's alone cannot sustain local musicians' livelihoods.

If another Larkin is to spring from this city and leave it with so keen an interest in jazz, then some council or body is going to have to stump up to support a proper jazz club for the Midlands. Money for such homes is always difficult to find, curiously so, given that jazz, essentially a music that grew out of black America, ought to fit in with the funding vogue for cultural diversity.

As Larkin put it in 1971: "While we are wondering whether to integrate with Africa, Armstrong (and Ellington and Waller and all the countless others) has done it behind our backs." If someone as politically incorrect as Larkin could recognise that 35 years ago, why can't we now?

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