Saxophonist Rachael Cohen Talks Birmingham Jazz Culture And Music Education

Writer Henry Hanssen / Photographer Hassan Ul-Haq

It is a sun-kissed evening in Birmingham late March and The Warehouse Café jazz sessions in Digbeth welcomes Royal Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus and formidable alto saxophonist, Rachael Cohen, who graduated from the conservatoire’s jazz course herself in 2010.

Joining Rachael in her new almost-spring trio are two compelling players from the Birmingham jazz scene. On drums is Jim Bashford, a veteran of the local scene; on bass we have Josh Vadiveloo, whose rise as a local name continues to gain momentum.

Rachel continues to make a name for herself, not only through her exciting and progressive sax playing, but also through her skill on piano and her ability to transition from jazz to classical with ease.

Rachael’s gig at The Warehouse Café is a definitive showcase of Rachael’s brilliance on the alto sax. She brings a unique sound which is as melodic as it is linguistic.

I’m lucky enough to interview Rachael some time after her performance, and gain insights into her experiences as a musician in Brum as well as her work after leaving. I also get a chance to discuss her thoughts around being a working jazz musician in 2022.

As we speak, Rachael talks in depth about her shift in musical scenery.

“Well, it’s not like it happened all very quickly, it took place over a long time. Edinburgh, London, and Birmingham are all just very different places. Birmingham’s a very multicultural place, Scotland not so much.”

She says, “It was easy-ish to move to Birmingham because I had lots of friends here. In a way, moving to London was harder for me because I put a record out and then I moved to London.

“Nobody knows who you are, nobody’s going to book you, you need to make some money.”

After leaving the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Rachael reflects on her time as a burgeoning musician.

“The education system, specifically the jazz education system can lull you into thinking that once you’ve got your jazz education certificate, that you’re qualified to be a jazz musician and nothing else.”

Perhaps controversially she claims, “It’s a bit of a trick, because you can then get groups of people that go into the jazz education system not really caring about the music but then feeling qualified to be a jazz musician, and not really accepting that it doesn’t work like that.”

Rachael spends her career trying to strengthen her technical musical prowess, putting the hours into everything she needs to do to survive.

“When I moved here, I’d be teaching at the same time as working in the pub, at the same time as playing piano in theater productions, choirs, playing for people’s kids, looking after people’s kids.”

She continues, “It felt like I had fifteen jobs and all of them have left me with more knowledge than if I hadn’t done them. It is so important to not turn your nose up at college level.

“I’ve paid for my degree; I’ve paid for my cultural role in this music. There’s a lot of people that go into jazz education not really caring about it but knowing they’re going to be qualified to have an opinion on it.”

When discussing Birmingham’s individuality as a jazz hotspot, Rachael is enthusiastic and has a lot to talk about.

“Birmingham operates as a city very differently from somewhere like London. London operates in boroughs. Do you go to Hackney or Brixton or West or Kentish Town?

“Whereas in Birmingham, it’s either City Centre, Digbeth, or Jewellery Quarter. No one is going on a night out in Balsall Heath. But bless the Spotted Dog – I used to be a barmaid there and they’ve done so well to keep that night going.”

Discussing the competitive nature between London and Birmingham, Rachael explains, “I remember when I was there, there would always be people saying, ‘oh, we don’t need those London snobs.’”

She laughs: “Chill out, guys. But it’s because it [Birmingham] was always trying to protect its identity.”

Rachael goes on, “It’s got a really heavy free [jazz] scene.”

Referring to Birmingham legends Paul Dunmall and Tony Levinshe, Rachael says, “That’s probably what is most interesting about the London and Birmingham scene – for me – that’s where the scene has crossed over the best.

“And now Tony’s son (Miles Levin) is a great drummer on the scene too. That’s probably where I connect the two scenes. There are some really excellent and unique writers and players in Birmingham.”

Details on Rachael’s new projects and upcoming gigs can be found on her website:

Details about the next Warehouse sessions can be found via The Warehouse Café website: