Column: Simon Spillett – B Is For Brighton

There are some places that resonate with you, sometimes for reasons you can’t explain. They just do, and always have, almost instinctively in fact, as if they seem for whatever time you’re in them to be just the right spot on earth for you to be.

Travelling around the UK as a working musician over the last – is it really nearly a quarter century? – I’ve gone and got myself hopelessly attached to many places. But there are four which stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are, in no special order, Birmingham, Southend-on-Sea, Rochester in Kent and Brighton.

Now don’t ask me why these, admittedly four very different locales, feel somehow like home when I’m in them but they do.

Actually, gigs have a lot to do with it.

Take Brighton – once vaunted as ‘London by the Sea’ – a place I’ve played innumerable times since my first musical visit there back in 2005.

I say my first ‘musical visit’ but actually that April day wasn’t the occasion of a gig at all, rather I was due to meet the late Ian Hamer, former Tubby Hayes Big Band trumpeter who had moved to the town in the 1990s and whose debut album (Acropolis) I’d then just produced.

Half way through a day in which I managed to get a less than sober Hamer to do an interview on Tubby, we alighted to a local hostelry – at which I suspect Ian was on first name terms with every optic – to meet Spike Wells, another ex-Hayes alumni, who’d also moved to Brighton some years before.

Spike later recounted the events of this first meeting in his booklet notes to my album Sienna Red (what do I owe you, Spike?), correctly identifying it as the moment I suddenly went from being merely a discographical Tubby Hayes anorak to being a performing one.

Indeed, 2005 was a magical year for me, in which all of a sudden things started happening musically, at both a rate and a level I hadn’t expected.

A few months after that meet with Messrs. Hamer and Wells I was booked purely on spec by Brighton Jazz Club, to appear with my then new quartet featuring John Critchinson, Paul Morgan and Martin Drew.

I remember that night as though it were yesterday: I’d driven down early, parked up near the club, strolled the seafront and done the obligatory fish and chip supper. It was a beautifully balmy July evening, with a haze settling over the sea, and I remember half thinking if the gig didn’t go too well at least I’d had a pleasant day at the coast.

But the gig did go well. A sell out, in fact, much to my surprise, during which I had my first experience of how enthusiastic a Brighton jazz audience can be. I practically sailed home that night, feeling like I’d hit the jackpot.

Over the following years, right up to the present day, I’ve always enjoyed my performing and social sorties to Brighton.

I’ve played – and continue to play – several of its jazz venues, some now gone (like the seafront Bristol Bar in which I had some of the best nights of my life in the company of trumpeter Jack Kendon and his quartet), others very much still active, like The Verdict (whose opening weekend I played), the Brunswick, and the Paris House (strictly speaking in Hove, right?).

I’ve played with all manner of line-ups thereabouts, including the quintet of Chris Coull, the Sussex Jazz Orchestra under the direction of trombonist Mark Bassey (fab gig that) and, of course, as the perennial hired gun soloist.

I was even roped in as a compere for Ian Hamer’s memorial concert, a last minute assignment that found me scribbling notes for a hasty introductory speech on the back of a petrol receipt.

And I’ve lost count of the fabulous (and consistently high standard) Brighton-based players I’ve got to know over the years, among them, trumpeter Chris Coull, pianist Terry Seabrook, guitarist Jason Henson, bassists Dan Sheppard, Nigel Thomas, Terry Pack, Eddie Myer and George Trebar, drummers Darren Beckett, Loz Thomas, Alex Eberhard and Tristan Banks and vocalist Sara Oschlag.

Despite the eclectic range of bands and projects these players are involved with – everything from Terry Pack’s sprawling Trees to Terry Seabrook’s hard boppin’ Milestones – they all strike me as members of a genuine jazz community, one which appears not only remarkably creative and genuinely diverse, but also equally self- supportive and non- exclusive.

And for an ‘outsider’ riding in to town for a one-nighter the experience is utterly refreshing. Never once when playing Brighton with locally-based players have I felt like an unwelcome imposter. Quite the opposite. Indeed, those nights at the Bristol and my occasional ‘sit ins’ at the Bees Mouth, joining the pub’s weekly jam after my own gig at the Paris House has ended, have felt more like a musical family reunion so convivial has been the welcome.

Yes, I like Brighton very much, and that enthusiasm alone would justify this piece. Yet, there is a little ulterior motive in my writing this tribute. Actually there are two motives, no less…

The first is to announce that, thanks to an invitation extended by another of her talented jazz folk – photographer and writer Lisa Wormsley – I’ve now joined the regular team of contributors to Sussex Jazz Magazine, with a view to presenting an observational piece in each issue.

The second is that, on Monday November 4th, I’ll be returning to the Paris House in Hove, as the guest with guitarist Jason Henson. Business as usual, you might say. Well, yes, except that that day marks my 45th birthday, so if anyone fancies coming along to help me celebrate my half- ninetieth I’ll be glad to see them. Tell all your friends – I’ve told both of mine.

And so to close, I’d like to add a footnote, which in this instance reads ‘keep doing what you do Brighton jazz people – players and fans alike – because, believe you me, you’ve got something mighty impressive there: a real jazz community that cares and shares. It doesn’t go unnoticed, you know, and you should be proud of what you’ve built. It really is quite something.’

Simon Spillett