Saxophonist and composer Xhosa Cole talks jazz, mentors, life on the road and the importance of giving back
A few years ago, tenor jazz saxophonist Xhosa Cole was part of our Young, Gifted and Brummie series showing some serious promise having just won BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year. The tenor has since established himself as one of the leading jazz saxophonists and composers in the UK. He was crowned Jazz FM Breakthrough Act of the Year (2020), has released his first album titled K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us and toured the UK. He’s performed alongside the likes of Monty Alexander and Courtney Pine as well as a soloist for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Xhosa’s releasing an album later this year that’s been two years in the making although it’s actually more than an album – it’s a celebration, a study almost of musical identities and expressions of blackness.
Growing up in Birmingham, Xhosa started playing tenor sax at Andy Hamilton’s Ladywood Community Music School. He went on to play in the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra, Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra, National Youth Jazz Collective and National Youth Wind Orchestra and benefitted from a number of the city’s community outreach arts programmes including B:Music’s Jazzlines. He attended weekly classes and summer schools – he was at the very first one in 2012 and hasn’t missed a summer school since. Xhosa was inspired by some of the world class tutors and guests at Jazzlines such as multi-instrumentalist Percy Pursglove and singer Sara Colman and he’s keen that students coming through the programme today receive the same level of support he did, so once he’d outgrown Jazzlines as a learner he started mentoring.
COULD DO BETTER
Of his experience growing up he says: “I had a multi-pronged experience with different organisations coming together in Birmingham for which I’m very grateful. I think it’s important to give back to young people – it’s the only way for me. It’s a balance – I benefit too and it’s one of the reasons I’m back in the city.” Xhosa thinks that Birmingham could be doing better for young talent currently though. He says: “This city benefits from a diverse community and therefore lots of different types of music, but I do feel there’s room for more support. Music funding, in particular for music tuition and music services has been cut. There needs to be systems in place to expose children to all kinds of music and give them opportunities like the ones I had. I’m a success story, but it’s harder now. There are plenty of people with raw talent trying to make things happen that would benefit from more support.” The notion of giving back generally feels like a notion that older musicians might arrive at after decades in the business, but it’s at the heart of what Xhosa wants to do now. The impact of a young cool musician at the top of his game mentoring you must be huge.
Winning BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year meant that Xhosa’s career took off quickly. Sure, he’d probably have got to where he is regardless of the accolade, but it certainly put him on a fast-tracked path. It would have been easy to get carried away, but Xhosa’s maturity kept him rock solidly grounded and rather than accepting everything that came along, he carefully considered his options. He’s not about fame and fortune, but about growth and continued learning. Unusually, Xhosa took K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us on the road for a 23 date tour with his quartet made up of trumpeter Jay Phelps, drummer Jim Bashford and his fellow BBC Young Jazz Musician finalist, James Owston before recording the album which he says enhanced the record immeasurably. It was Xhosa’s first taste of a major tour and it was a valuable experience through which he, and his fellow musicians grew. “We pushed and supported one another exploring different areas musically which meant that when we got to the recording studio we’d built up such trust and understanding that we were free to accomplish things we probably wouldn’t have without that experience.” The debut also featured guest artists and fellow brummies, saxophonist Soweto Kinch and pianist Reuben James.
Luckily, touring before recording also meant that Xhosa completed the tour before Covid impacted live performance. He says his lockdown experience was mostly positive and he had a ‘half decent time’. He moved in with friends in Derby and they spent their time studying, rehearsing, reading and eating together.
The next big thing is the album release in November. Titled Ibeji, it’s a work featuring percussionists from the African diaspora and came about after Xhosa’s proposal to collaborate on six duets with world class percussionists won him the Peter Whittingham award. Featuring Jason Brown, Grammy award winner Lekan Babalola, Mark Sanders, Corey Mwamba and Ian Parmel among others, Ibeji explores a huge range of styles drawing from traditional Yoruba roots of West Africa. Xhosa has spent hours with each collaborator playing and listening and says the work is particularly important to him and is looking like an epic collection of pieces.