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“It’s a privilege being a Notebender. If it weren't for Andy Hamilton MBE, we wouldn’t be here,” says Angela Mayne (alto), alongside Fred Webb (guitar/vocals), members of Ladywood-based community big band, The Notebenders. And it is this love and respect for the band’s founder, legendary saxophonist Andy Hamilton, that threads through our conversation ahead of their 20th Anniversary concert in Town Hall this June. “We play at the Symphony Hall regularly and have also played at the Town Hall, the CBSO Centre and many other local as well as regional venues — all because of Andy Hamilton MBE.”

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The Notebenders formed in Andy Hamilton’s house and the first score that Andy Hamilton, Trevor Huggins and I put together was purchased from America. After a few weeks, the score came and Andy Hamilton was so excited that he made Trevor and myself take our saxophones out and got us to play our respective parts. This was the start of The Notebenders.

Paul Reynolds, Co-founder of The Notebenders

A training ground for some of the best jazz talent to come from the city of Birmingham, The Notebenders have been an ever-present part of the city’s musical ecology, both as part of the regular Sax in the City series and through many other performances across the city.

“I played the recorder at school, then later picked up the clarinet,” Angela says of her journey into finding her instrument. “But when I watched musicians, it was like they had a real passion for their instrument. I thought: ‘I haven’t got that for the clarinet’. One day, I was playing a Nina Simone song called ‘Feeling Good’. And I thought, the saxophone—that’s the instrument I need.” Her path towards joining The Notebenders shows the integral part the band plays within the Ladywood jazz community. “I got some lessons. I ended up going to Ladywood School of Music. We were taught by Alvin Davis, another good saxophonist from Birmingham. Quite a few people there played with The Notebenders and they kept saying, you need to come play with this band. I thought, no no I’m not good enough. I think I was asked about three times until Alvin and Curtis Nisbett, a fellow Notebender, told me to just try. You’ve got nothing to lose. Then I went to The Notebenders. It was hard but the people were so lovely. I thought: I’m going to keep going.” Angela has now been playing with The Notebenders since 2007.

Pictured: The Notebenders after one of their Sax in the City performances at the Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space in Symphony Hall. Fred Webb with his guitar (first row, right hand side) and Angela Mayne (first row, third from the right) with her saxophone. Trevor Huggins, Chair of The Notebenders (first standing at the back, left hand side), Paul Reynolds (standing 3rd from the back, left hand side), Liam Brennan, one of the band’s conductors (7th from the left, standing at the back).

Fred shares the story of when he joined the rehearsal for the first time. “I was a big fan of Andy Hamilton. I’ve been watching him play and chatting with him casually for several years at that time. I came along to the first run through of my first arrangement with the band and Andy was in attendance that evening, as he often was. He used to come along and, more than anything else, encourage people. I got up to sing that night and I got the funniest look from Andy when I came off. Real old-fashioned look that said: ‘What’s all that about?’ From that day onwards, whenever Andy was playing a gig that I was attending he had me up there singing with him. Right then, in the old foyer,” Fred references Symphony Hall before its transformation in 2021 that introduced new performance spaces. “I remember appearing alongside Andy at that gig. That was one of my proudest moments.”

From humble beginnings in Ladywood in 2004, legendary saxophonist Andy Hamilton created The Notebenders community big band. And now they’re set to celebrate their 20th anniversary with an extraordinary concert in Town Hall on Sat 22 June joined by some of their renowned alumni, Romarna Campbell, Rueben James, Marcus Joseph, special guests will include, saxophonist, Soweto Kinch, Gary Crosby, of the Tomorrows Warriors and many more.

Pictured: The Notebenders at Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival (2023). Photo credit: Ibi Keita.

Pride and joy fill their stories as they recall the alumni. “Romarna Campbell, great drummer and percussionist who’s played all over the world since leaving The Notebenders,” Fred says.

“She’s fantastic,” Angela says. “She sometimes pops in and encourages us and our drummers.”

“And Reuben James. I saw it straight away the first evening I went there, when the band rehearsal finished,” Fred recalls. “I walked over to him, and he was noodling away on the piano. He was playing ‘Misty’. I thought, this guy is wiser and with a lot more taste, than his young years. Musically, he was so advanced. And now, his biggest and most long-standing gig prior to becoming a solo performer was with Sam Smith as his keyboard player and musical collaborator for eight plus years, I think.”

Angela adds: “When he started with The Notebenders he was at school. He was about 13 or 14. With Romarna and Reuben. They were like babies. You think, how come they’re so good?” She laughs fondly. “They were little but now they’re our encouragers. It’s amazing how life turned around.”

Angela and Fred were very generous in sharing their stories as part of The Notebenders. Every story they shared was steeped not only in the celebration of and respect for Andy Hamilton’s musical achievements and work within the jazz community, but in the kindness and generosity that he embodied.

Fred shares one of the last evenings that Andy Hamilton went to at the old Corks Club in honour and celebration of his achievements. “He was too sick to play by this time, but he was still getting up the club. He was sitting towards the back of the of the room,” Fred recalls. “As I was leaving with my wife, and at the time my youngest grandson who I’d taken up there, he turned to us, and he asked: “What instrument do you want me to teach your grandson?” A short silence follows as his words fades into the quiet Jane How Room. Fred smiles, misty-eyed. “Wonderful, wonderful man.”

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We’re part of that. We’re his legacy.

“Ashley Beckford, he was one of first ones in The Notebenders as well,” Angela says. “He was my music teacher for about a year. I still remember the things he taught me. He always said The Notebenders is really important. You get more from it than you realise. Because it’s not just going to practice, it makes you think about life in general. You think about Andy and everything he went through. You think, at 70 he’s done his first album when most people would be retiring.” Andy Hamilton produced his first album at the age of 73 with music producer Nick Gould which subsequently became the biggest-selling UK Jazz Album of the Year in 1991. “He’s setting up bands. He’s touring. And he still looks really suave. He always had his suit, his beautiful tie and his hat.” Angela smiles at this. “And you just think, wow. We’re part of that. We’re his legacy.”

Fred agrees: “He had a jazz life. That was one of the stories I heard from one of his most long-standing accompanists, pianist and trumpet player Andy Peate. He mentioned one evening where he was working with Sir John Dankworth at a gig. And John Dankworth came up and said, “Didn’t I meet you with Andy Hamilton when we were doing some performances together?” He said, a lot of people play jazz. But Andy? He lived the jazz life. He lived the life of a jazz man working from town to town, teaching, all over America.”

Returning to Town Hall, the home of their memorable 10th anniversary concert, The Notebenders will play music that has inspired them over the last 20 years and will be taking a poignant moment to remember those who have passed, including their founder, Andy Hamilton.

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We have been fortunate to have played at the Birmingham Town Hall a few times, once with the BBC Big Band, other prestigious venues too, such as the CBSO Centre where we were the support act to legendary saxophonist, David Murray.

Paul Reynolds, Co-founder of The Notebenders

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It feels very appropriate and exciting to be celebrating our 20th anniversary at Town Hall. It’s such an iconic venue in the city and a fitting place for The Notebenders to perform!

Liam Brennan, conductor for The Notebenders

When asked what they’re excited about for their 20th anniversary performance in June, Angela says: “Because we’re still here.” She sounds incredulous as she continues. “Twenty years? When I first started, you know we used to get the songs and we used to learn them bar by bar. The twins (Musical Directors, Huw and Chris Morgan) are really patient.” Angela recalls fondly. “And now you get the songs, you print them off, you learn them at home. Now, by the time you come to practice, you’ve got some idea. We’ve started practicing. We’ve got three new songs already. And we’ve recorded a CD over the May Bank Holiday. Spent like three days at Grosvenor Road Studio. It was just an awesome time. It was hard work, but it didn’t feel real. It was a really nice studio.”

“That’s a great memory,” Angela smiles. “If you don’t do anything else this year, the memory of the recording and the concert is—” Angela becomes speechless here, basking in the memory. “And we can still celebrate The Notebenders. We can celebrate Andy. And Andy would be proud that we’re still here.”

Make sure you don’t miss The Notebenders celebrate their 20th anniversary on Sat 22 June at Town Hall, performing alongside alumni past and present.

Interview by Lerah Barcenilla, Marketing & Communications Officer

Photography and Filming by Ibi Keita, Digital Marketing Assistant

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