|Gwilym Jones getting happy during the Tony Levin Prize competiton.
Photo credit: Brian Homer
Peter Bacon reports on a competition for drummers held in Birmingham on Friday 19 May 2017:
The legacy of the British jazz drummer Tony Levin, who died in 2011, is celebrated each year by Birmingham City University’s Conservatoire Jazz Department, where Tony had taught, in this prize for the best drummer among the conservatoire’s students.
Or, more precisely, “the most swinging drummer today, in this room,” as another BCU jazz tutor, double bassist Arnie Somogyi, explained Tony’s aim with the prize, the specificity an attempt to get around the whole modern distaste for competitions – and their reduction of artistic creativity into simple winners and, therefore, losers.
Among the collected audience on Friday lunchtime at The Red Lion in the Jewellery Quarter – this was the first event of this year’s JQ Legends Festival – were many jazz students, and among the students were seven drummers. Each would take their turn on the stand, pick a tune – literally – out of Arnie’s flat cap of standards, and play it with Somogyi on bass and Jean Toussaint on tenor saxophone.
And so, Piero Alessi played Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise, Oliver Baylis played All The Things You Are, Kai Chaurensy played I’ll Remember April… you get the picture. We also heard Rob Harper, Gwilym Jones, Israel Shabani and Noah Stone.
Then the adjudicators – Somogyi and Toussaint the main judges, with some assistance from Tony’s widow, Chris, and son, Miles – slimmed the list to two, to be followed, in Arnie’s words, by a “fight to the death”.
After all seven had been commended on their efforts, the shortlist of two was Gwilym Jones and Israel Shabani, with a recommendation of Kai Chaurensy, a first year, as a close third. Jones chose Softly… and Shabani I’ll Remember… and the judges consulted once more.
“The most swinging drummer today, in this room,” was deemed to be Gwilym Jones, and he celebrated with the appropriately titled Get Happy. He gets a pint bought for him by Arnie Somogyi and a cash prize. Mostly his reward was the chance to do his thing between Somogyi and Toussaint and to get lots of slaps on the back afterwards.
The audience’s reward was the vicarious thrill of hearing seven young musicians putting their skills on the line in the demanding but generous company of two expert players.
Congratulations to all of them, especially to Gwilym Jones.