By Tom Pell

You know the saying, less is more? Well, sometimes, more is more. More jazz, more blues, more music. More poetry, more cinema, more fun.

Starting on Friday and running through until July 14, local streets and venues will be commandeered by the 29th Birmingham International Jazz and Blues Festival. There will be more than 200 performances, in more than 85 venues across the city, and most of them won’t cost you a single penny.

“It’s hard to appreciate the scope of it,” says Jim Simpson, festival director and one time Black Sabbath manager.

“It’s sort of grown on its own accord. It’s very organic.”

“Once you raise your head above the parapet, people come out and find you. Then it’s very hard when you find something new and exciting, to say no to booking them. It’s not a festival for the purists. There’s a lot of rock in there, a lot of ska, reggae, folk – many different types of music. Anything that we think is good music.”

Total immersion is on offer, with a real party atmosphere being brought to the streets of Brum. Rather than seeking out the music, you’ll struggle to miss it.

To break down the list of attractions is impossible, as everyone from Lewis Floyd Henry to Lithuanian punk-jazz pioneers Sheep Got Waxed will be playing in venues within Birmingham and its surrounding areas.

Some of the more unorthodox venues can massively contribute to the success of an event, because when was the last time you saw Giedre Kilciauskiene and The Andrej Polevikov Quartet play at Marco Pierre White’s Steakhouse Bar and Grill?

How about The Dixie Strollers at Cadbury World? Ricky Cool at Dudley Zoo? No, didn’t think so.

The comprehensive list of stages includes The Lord Clifden Pub in Great Hampton Street, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Soho House, The Botanical Gardens and The Museum of The Jewellery Quarter.

The Steve Gibbons Band
The Steve Gibbons Band
 

Jim insists: “All these places are worth visiting on their own, so we’ll put some jazz in there to attract people inside!”

Originally, the festival became popular for its compromising mix of paid for and free events. The modern day’s cash-saving situation is achieved because funding comes from all of the venues involved, as well as some outside help from benefactors and local businesses.

“As the quality of the free jazz music got better and better and better, we were able to pick and choose who we booked. We decided to put our money into great jazz that was available to anybody. For 10 days a year, we want to give people the opportunity to enjoy brilliant music without a financial commitment.”

Occasionally, some events still become too expensive to run for free, so are turned into full on concerts. One of the paid events sees the return of the British Jazz Awards to Birmingham. The event will take place in the majestic St Paul’s Church, and will see the cream of British jazz music collect accolades which have been voted for by the British public.

There will also be performances on the night. Another one of the ticketed events, held at The Asylum, is an altogether more sombre proposition, as Jim explains.

“There’s a saxophone player called Mike Burney, who is certainly the greatest saxophone player this city has ever produced. He toured with Chaka Khan and Jimmy Cliff, he was in Morecambe and Wise’s TV shows, and he was in Wizzard with Roy Wood.

“But, he’s very ill now. So the performance will be a benefit for him, where none of the acts are getting paid, and all of the money will go to him. Headlining the bill will be The Roy Wood Band, The Steve Gibbons Band, and King Pleasure and The Biscuit Boys. There will be 24 other musicians playing too.”

A real family feel surrounds the festival, with the ability to jump in and out of proceedings, making the events even more accessible. If music doesn’t float your boat, never fear, as there will be a vast selection of other forms of entertainment to tickle the fancy of even the fussiest festival-goer.

Lewis Floyd Henry
Lewis Floyd Henry

“We’ve also got poetry, dance sessions, photography classes, painting –there is such a wide range. We’ve got four movies on in the festival, and we’ve found some kind of dotty reason to put them all on. First we’ve got the Blues Brothers at Star City, because King Pleasure and The Biscuit Boys used to tour with the original band from the film.

Then we have The Artist, showing at the Electric Cinema, because since it won all the Oscars it hasn’t been shown in Birmingham.

We’ve also got Some Like It Hot on at Mac. And, we’ve got a great film called The Last Shop Standing, which has been made by Blue Hippo, a Birmingham company. What have they all got to do with jazz? Not a lot, apart from the fact that we like them.”

A hugely helpful festival programme can be viewed and downloaded from www.bigbearmusic.com , where all events, times, locations and ticketing details are readily available.

Jim concludes: “During the festival, we try to invade people’s private lives with music. We go onto trains, and buses, and boats, we go into their shops, to zoos, to stately homes – we take the music into people’s lives. There’s so much to absorb. You could spend 10 days at the festival, then look at the program, and find another 10 days worth of things to do!”

* For more information about the festival visit: www.bigbearmusic.com