Thursday, 16 August 2012

Alan's Got No Cross To Bear Part 2

Andy Hamilton by Russ Escritt

If you read part 1 of our interview with Alan Cross you'll already know that he's a fascinating character...if you missed it click on this link to catch up.

Now...pause for fanfare...we're delighted to be able to bring you part 2 in which Alan reveals some more stories from his time managing Andy Hamilton, his thoughts on the uncertain future of Bearwood Jazz and about how Frank Sinatra’s trumpeter played at Dirty Betts (OMG! No way!).

So settle down with a cup of tea/gin...we know our readership...and enjoy!

Please tell us about Bearwood Jazz. How long has it been going for, what different venues has Bearwood Jazz used?

"In 1985 stayed at The Junction in Harborne for about 6 months and suddenly it was cancelled without any notice despite being a popular night, we then went to the Ivy Bush – for 2 nights – and again suddenly it was cancelled – it became obvious there was a problem somewhere and as I was just about to move to Bearwood from Harborne things went on hold.

I then got a call asking if we were interested in a new place and a couple of weeks later we started our first venue in Bearwood, in 1986, at Dirty Betts on Monday nights and it quickly became very popular, it was tough setting it up as the tables and chairs were the old cast iron style but it had a great atmosphere. It was built during the 2nd world war as a bar for American servicemen and was designed as a wooden American Diner.

We stayed there for about 18 months and had some great nights with some wonderful guests, including some of Andy’s American Jazz heroes Benny Waters, Joe Newman and on the last night before the place was closed for a refurbishment we booked the legendary Harry Sweets Edison – next to Miles Davis the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time – Frank Sinatra’s trumpeter in a tumbledown bar in Smethwick !!"

Harry Sweets Edison

"We had a very good friend, Norman Ward, who used to pick up visiting artists and put up them up at his big house and bring them down to the venue in his gold Rolls Royce. When he arrived at Dirty Betts with Sweets for our big night the place had become a semi derelict and muddy building site but when he walked into the packed venue a huge cheer broke out and we had a great night.

We would always book a special rhythm section when we had top class guests and the regular pianist was John Patrick who was born in Bearwood and loved coming back home to play. John continued to work with us for the next 25 years.

It was quite disappointing that we had to put the Dirty Bett’s programme on hold but we were told it was only for a few weeks, so we moved across to The Kings Head and started a regular Saturday night in the basement, which was a fantastic 60’s venue which ran the length of the whole pub and is I think still there but closed off. Probably the best night was with Dudu Pukwana and his band Zila who went down a storm.

Then something strange happened, to start with a couple of days after we left Dirty Betts the whole building collapsed and so they decided to rebuild it from scratch which was going to take about 6 months and so as I watched it progress day by day I anticipated a call for us to go back but then saw a flyer saying Dirty Betts Jazz was back but it was being run by Jim Simpson who I suspected had been behind our removal from The Junction and Ivy Bush.

Andy was as angry as I have ever seen him about this and so on the night that they opened I went down and sat on the terrace and watched Simpson smugly walk past me up to the new plush venue with a bag of chips in his hand - he got to the door where he was told politely that no food was allowed, he started with the “Don’t you know who I am ?” line and got into a heated argument with the doormen who eventually lost patience and said “ I don’t give a #### who you are, you are banned ! “

I do not think I have ever laughed so much in my life !!

So a couple of weeks later we were asked back and although The Kings Head had been great for Saturday nights it was not really a jazz venue so we went back to Dirty Betts and stayed for about 3 months but the atmosphere was not the same, the old wood building had been replaced by glass and plastic and the sound was not as good and then out of the blue the district manager of The Kings Head got in touch and said he was refurbishing The Bear and would we be interested.

Andy and I went down and the room was great, the landlord George was a gem and Andy realising he was in a strong position played hard to get and got the brewery to put in a stage, pay for a piano and print our flyers before agreeing to move in.

Our 1st night there was a sensation, it coincided with Sandwell Arts Festival and for the first and only time we got some funding from Sandwell Council and booked the legendary Slim Gaillard and Will Gaines. The place was absolutely packed and a great start to what was a fabulous 15 years at The Bear.

Soon after we started the 4 XXXX Cabaret, who had followed us from The Kings Head, started a weekly comedy night with Frank Skinner as compere and a good Blues night also started and The Bear became a great place for a night out. Over the coming years our Monday night programme attracted some of the biggest names in UK and international jazz, saw Andy emerge as a world recognised musician and while George was in charge it was a great pub.

With the release of Silvershine and Jamaica By Night, Andy’s profile became big and we were able to book some amazing artists and bands, Sweets Edison again, Art Farmer, Tal Farlow, Scott Hamilton, Teddy Edwards, Johnny Dankworth and loads more - but all good things come to an end and the beginning of the end was when George retired in about 1998.

After he left we had a whole series of temporary landlords, some good, some bad and a couple terrible. The worst ones kept their cats in the function room and when we arrived on Monday for the jazz, the smell in the room was shocking and a lot of people got to the top of the stairs and turned back. Also it had started to get a bit rough downstairs without George to keep order and the place went into decline.

Eventually, after a couple of Andy’s very old Jamaican friends, who had always came on Monday nights, were told to take their hats off or be banned, Andy very sadly said to me “ Alan I don’t want to play here any more” So we finished at The Bear after about 15 mainly very happy years.

Andy, by now into his 80’s, was not going to give up and soon after called me to say he had a new venue, when I asked him where, and he said Bearwood Corks, I was amazed, as despite living just round the corner from The Corks, I had never been in there and did not know anyone who was a member. We went to have a look and Cath, I think the secretary of the club, was most welcoming and the venue looked good with a stage, lighting, bar and for the first time a backstage area and Andy was very happy again.

The night moved to a Thursday and for over 10 years a weekly programme of high quality jazz has been organised – again featuring some of the great jazz musicians and many local bands. Highlights have always been Andy’s birthday nights with Andy always looking amazing in one of his many stunning suits, ties and shoes and even though he slowed down a little, he could always, up until recently – and much to his frustration – play as well as anyone alongside him.

If I had to pick one night it would be when Grammy winning American saxophonist David Murray was booked to play in Birmingham and stated that if he was coming to Birmingham he had to play with Andy and so with fellow legend Hal Singer, they joined Andy and his band for an amazing night."

"Richard Jones is the real hero of The Corks, he not only did the door every week, he organised the programme with Andy, organised and printed the flyers and posters, set up and ran the website and was just brilliant dealing with the countless problems of running a venue and honourable mention must also be made of Captain who has been in charge of the PA, always first to arrive and last to leave.

But right at the centre of all this has been the remarkable Andy Hamilton whose enthusiasm and determination to provide a good night out and bring people together, to say nothing of his musical genius, has written a golden chapter in the cultural life of Bearwood."

What role does Bearwood Jazz play in Bearwood?

"I think that when the Jazz was at The Bear it played a more significant part in the life of Bearwood mainly because of its position. If you put a poster up in the window a lot more local people saw it and would come in and try it out and then invite friends for a night out so we had a much wider representation of people coming, many going to jazz for the first time.

Also there was a great record shop round the corner that stayed open late when there was jazz on so it became a good night out, check some records, have a bite to eat in The Bear and go up to the jazz later on.

At The Corks the audience seems to be much more just jazz fans who can be very selective about the style of jazz they pay to watch. Also because it is a private members club I think people have been reluctant to go in which is a pity because it is a great room for music, there have been some top class bands and the staff at Corks have done everything possible to support Andy.

Bearwood could be a good place for music, the turn out at the events in the park show there is lots of enthusiasm for live music but the lack of public venues and performance spaces makes it very difficult."

Bearwood Jazz has a really good musical heritage in Bearwood and we would love to see it continues. What do you think the future of Bearwood Jazz is?

"It is very uncertain at the moment. Andy was such a key figure in keeping it going with his band and reputation amongst musicians around the world who would come and play for him despite the fact we could never pay them much, that it is impossible to replace him.

Funding is also a big issue, for the last 6 years we had a very small grant given to Andy from The Arts Council and that is now finished. Richard has been programming 50 gigs a year at The Corks and now there is no financial support.

This leads to a downward spiral - if you cannot book name bands and cannot afford to publicise as much then attendance drops and as the only source of income is door receipts and bands have to be paid on the night it becomes too risky to carry on booking quality bands. All it takes is one bad night and someone has to find £500.

Many many times Andy would end up the night out of pocket and I had to remortgage my house twice. It is a vicious circle and without any funding the future does not look good."

Who or what is the next big thing in jazz to look out for?

"Locally there is a brilliant young pianist, Reuben James who started with Andy and The Notebenders when he was 12. He is now 18 and has become a big name in London. He is amazingly talented well beyond his years and I would advise everybody to go a see him – he is a real talent."

"On a wider perspective I would like to think that Jazz Funk will be big again. "

What’s your favourite jazz album and why?

"I have to say Andy’s Silvershine because it changed so many lives, including my own and came about in such extraordinary circumstances. Andy was 72 for heavens sake and had never been in a proper recording studio and it became the biggest selling jazz album of the year and Times Jazz Album of the Year."

"Jamaica By Night also by Andy is another great album with a lot of original Andy compositions and took us on a national tour."

"Other than Andy it has to be Miles Davis Kind of Blue and Marvin Gaye Whats Going On."

What’s your connection with Bearwood? What/who/where makes you smiles in Bearwood ?

"I first came to Bearwood in 75 and lived above Victors hairdressers for a year then moved out to Bewdley for 8 years then came back and bought a house in 86 and have been here ever since.

Having taught in the city centre for almost 30 years and daily struggling with rush hour traffic on Hagley Road, what makes me smile now is to wake up, pop down to the shops on the High St, come home, have breakfast, maybe play some golf at Warley Woods and listen to Test Match Special in my wonderfully peaceful garden and listen to great music until the early hours !

Bearwood is a great place to live but it really needs somewhere for people to listen to and enjoy live music where they can meet people in the evenings and weekends on a much more regular basis."

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