Xhosa Cole

The Handsworth-born saxophonist, Xhosa Cole, beat off stiff competition to be crowned BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018. Having benefitted from the city’s youth engagement programmes, he’s keen to give back

When Xhosa Cole picked up a saxophone aged 12 he had no idea where it would lead. In November last year, a 16-minute set and four other talented musicians stood between Xhosa and one of the music industry’s most prestigious prizes for young people in the country.

During the final of the BBC Young Jazz Musician, Xhosa performed his own composition titled Moving Ladywood – a nod to his home town – as well as pieces by Johnny Green and John Coltrane. Backed by a jazz trio led by Gwilym Simcock, Xhosa was up against fellow finalists Reuben Goldmark (piano), Fergus McCreadie (piano), Seth Tackaberry (bass) and James Owston (bass).


Keeping the nerves in check, Xhosa delivered an outstanding performance that wowed the judges at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Of his win, Xhosa said: “It’s been amazing to represent and have been represented at this prestigious celebration of jazz music. The calibre of musicianship and passion for jazz music has been incredibly inspiring to be a part of.”

The 22-year-old who grew up in Handsworth and now lives in Ladywood is a flautist and composer as well as saxophonist. He’s written works for the Ideas of Noise Festival and worked on Birmingham’s for-Wards project as well as releasing an improvised single with electronic duo EIF called Autumn Conversations. Having first played the tenor at Ladywood Community School of Music, founded by legendary saxophonist and flautist Andy Hamilton, Xhosa also joined a weekly jazz band and was supported by Birmingham’s Music Services which meant he could own his own saxophone. Joining as many classes and workshops he could squeeze in, Xhosa was hooked.


THSH’s Jazzlines summer schools provided increased opportunities for Xhosa to play. Jazzlines aims to nurture emerging talent and offer performance opportunities across the city. Xhosa explains: “It was a new thing to get students from the inner city creating jazz and playing jazz. It was in partnership with Birmingham Conservatoire and we had some amazing tutors and guests.”

He adds: “For the first three years I did the summer schools and workshops and met so many amazing and inspiring people. They were fortunate to get some more funding which meant we didn’t just have an annual get-together over the summer, but we now had a regular monthly group where we could develop our skills, work on collaborating with other young creatives and absorb as much as we could from the brilliant tutors we had.”

During the Jazzlines summer school of 2015 Xhosa was undecided between classical and jazz saxophone, but a conversation with Percy Pursglove (musician, composer, major force in the jazz world) made up his mind. He remembers: “When Percy tells you to do the jazz course, you do the jazz course – and my music and my life would probably be totally different if I’d chosen classical.”


Thanks to the contacts at THSH the youngsters on the workshops were able to meet and play with some prestigious musicians such as the Jeff Williams Quartet and John O’Gallagher among many other greats. Xhosa explains: “When they came and did their performance we were able to have a workshop with them and we were invited to their rehearsal. Also, we had the opportunity to use the Patrick Studio at Symphony Hall and go to the Conservatoire and take part in their seminars and workshops. All of this gave us the chance to get some world class advice on ways in which we could push our music forward.”

Having benefited from the city’s Music Service and youth engagement, Xhosa is keen to encourage other young musicians. He says: “I chaperoned a summer school and that was amazing to see all the young musicians completely giving it their all – it was really inspiring. I know a lot of the parents and I see their children now are where I was, going to gigs in their school uniform. Some of those children are inspired by me, but I’m also inspired by them!”