Celebrations for Birmingham saxophonist Andy Hamilton's 90th birthday later this month are being launched with an exhibition of photographs at Symphony Hall. Terry Grimley went to meet him.
He may be coming up to his 90th birthday on March 26, but Birmingham's elder statesman of the saxophone, Andy Hamilton, is still looking pretty good.
We meet at Wine Republic, where Andy is doing a string of interviews, and even though it's the middle of the day, he's immaculately turned out. He may be recovering from a touch of flu, but he's still looking sharper than me.
"Not a lot, really," he says when I ask if he's playing much these days. "I do mostly training young kids. I play some jazz at Corks in Bear-wood and different places, but not on a large scale. When you get to 90 it's time to slow down!
"What I really have in my mind every day," he continues seamlessly, "from when I came to Birmingham first from Jamaica, there's been a lot of changes, and it's good changes. It's a very good thing that we have a multi-racial city. There's a lot of mixed marriages in Birmingham, so we're changing the world!"
Andy, whose life might have been cut short more than 60 years ago when he was struck down with acute appendicitis while playing football in America, arrived in Birmingham in 1949. A famous story about him is that he'd never seen so many churches and assumed people here must be extraordinarily religious.
But like so many of the first postwar wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, he was shocked by the racism and ignorance awaiting him in Britain.
"I was surprised by the behaviour of some people," he says. "We in Jamaica think we are British. What I learned, when I came here, was some ordinary people, they didn't know anything about Jamaica. They believed Jamaica was in Africa.
"In one of the first factories I worked in they called me Ali, and some used to call me Sam. I told them, 'My name's Andy'.
"At one of those factories I was working at, during my lunchtime a guy sat beside me and we had a chat. He was explaining to me, 'I don't have anything against niggers'. He didn't mean anything, he didn't know. I said 'Listen, some other black man would hear that word and knock your head off'. He said 'what word?'"
Though he has long been feted as Birmingham's senior jazz citizen, Andy's daily working life was spent as a factory worker. Real celebrity caught up with him only in the early 1990s, and as his long-time manager Alan Cross points out, that was only through a series of happy chances.
First the renowned jazz writer and photographer Val Wilmer came across him while researching Jamaican musicians, which led to a gig in London. Andy played last on the bill, and for only ten minutes because the schedule was overunning.
But those few minutes were heard by the owner of World Circuit Records, which led to Andy releasing his debut album, Silvershine, at the age of 73.
Featuring his regular band, The Blue Notes, plus guest stars including American tenor saxophonist David Murray and singer Mick Hucknall, then at the height of his success with Simply Red, it was the bestselling jazz album in the UK, the Times jazz album of the year and one of Sony's 50 best-selling albums across all genres in 1991.
In Jamaica Andy's first taste of music came on cornet, tuba and trombone. His first experience of the saxophone was one a friend had made from bamboo, and he was so impressed he made one of his own, forming his first band in 1928, at the age of 10.
He recalls that he and his friends had to work out the technicalities of music bit-by-bit. When they had an orchestration they couldn't read they would seek the help of trumpeter Sonny Bradshaw, then working in a music shop in Kingston, who would simplify the parts for them.
Many years later Alan Cross called Bradshaw in Jamaica to see if he would come to Birmingham to play with Andy.
He recalls: "I said, 'I'm calling about a guy called Andy Hamilton'. He said: 'Andy Hamilton? The saxophonist? He owes me three-and-six!' It must have been 45 years since they'd last met."
Bradshaw has been a regular annual visitor to Andy's Bearwood sessions ever since.
Andy Hamilton's 90th birthday year has already brought him further recognition with the award of an MBE in the New Year's Honours and an honorary fellowship from Birmingham Conservatoire.
His musical legacy in his adopted city is huge. For a start there are his eight surviving children and 30 grandchildren, most of whom are musicians.
But he hasn't stopped at sharing his musical skills with members of his family. He has a longstanding commitment to teaching young musicians, and his work in this area includes a group called The Notebenders who have been adopted as a community partner group of the BBC Big Band.
Alan Cross tells a recent story about two thirtysomething friends who signed up for lessons with Andy along with the seven year-old son of one of them. There was a bet as to which of them would be the first, according to Andy's custom, to be invited to join him on stage. Seven weeks later it was the seven year-old who made his debut at one of Andy's Symphony Hall sessions.
It's clear that for Andy, playing music and the idea of putting something back into the community are ideas that can't be separated.
"Some people think that money is their life, but I think they are wrong. One day they've got to kick the bucket. We all need money to live. Work for it in a fair way but remember if you just think about yourself I don't think it's a good thing.
"The guy who cleans the gutter is a human being. You should respect him just like anyone else. People think that because they are a scientist or something they are better. You're not better, you have the same limbs. If everybody was a scientist this world would be a mess. If a guy can just make a little tin box, respect him for it, for what he can make. That's how I see the world now."
* Andy Hamilton's 90th Birthday Concert is at the Town Hall on March 26 Box office: 0121 780 3333). His Monthly free "Sax in the City" session in the Symphony Hall bar continue next Saturday and April 12 (12.30pm). An exhibition of photographs of Andy, his band and guests by Russ Escritt is on display at Symphony Hall's Level 4 Foyer until March 31 during the day and concerts.