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I Create Birmingham: The Jaybird

“What we hope to see is more collaborations, conversations, mixtures and fusions that cross our cultural and generational lines in Birmingham.”

The Jaybird is a new community arts and performance space located on 5th Avenue South in Crestwood. Opened in September by Burgin Mathews, Glory McLaughlin, Lloyd Bricken, and Lillis Taylor, The Jaybird offers a diversity of arts, traditions, talents, and ideas in an intimate and inclusive space.

What inspired the four of you to come together to open this new venue over the summer?

Well, it really started with this totally fanciful Facebook post Burgin wrote a couple of years ago, imagining a kind of community space where all sorts of things could happen: books and music and art and goodwill and potlucks and poetry and outreach and all sorts of creative and cultural cross-pollinations. It was pure daydream with a fair amount of farfetched hyperbole — Langston Hughes would have a room upstairs where he’d write new poems — but the post generated a lot of enthusiasm and sparked some conversation and finally got the four of us talking about what we could do if we did have a space and a way, practically, to make it work.

Lillis has been centered here in this building for a couple years with the nonprofit Bib and Tucker Sew-Op, and she and Lloyd live right upstairs. So when this other space in the building became available to rent, the two of them brought up with Burgin and Glory the idea of actually making a reality out of this goofy daydream. And very suddenly we just decided to go for it, and see what we can do.

By now these dreams already seem less farfetched to us than they did a few months ago.We imagine The Jaybird to be a kind of shared living room, an intimate space where everyone of every stripe can get comfortable and feel a kind of home. There seems to be energy for this: we’d like to think folks in Birmingham are tired of being separated from each other into so many separate cliques and subgroups, that they’re ready to get involved in a place that puts a primacy on listening to each other’s creative needs and learning from each other’s gifts. So our goal is to facilitate a space for gathering, connecting, learning craft, and falling in love with our living culture here in Birmingham. We want to create a space that’s open to all who have an interest in developing and participating in this community. We have lots of ideas for this space, but we’re looking to listen and learn what’s truly possible here.

The idea of The Jaybird came from the desire to bring together under a single roof multiple creative strains. We’re, in part, a bookstore, with both used books and a wide assortment of zines (DIY/independent publications, pronounced “zeens”), but we’ve also partnered with Birmingham Zine Fest to give a home to the Alabama Zine Library, an enormous and growing permanent archive we hope people will come browse and dig through. Our opening in September brought together more than thirty local artists on a single wall and brought several hundred people through our space. Our first concert, Timber Presents: Classic Country Duets, was a beautiful, warm, soulful night of music.

We open the space on Saturdays to anyone who wants to come in and read, chat, browse, hang out, check out the art, and so on, and we open up Sunday afternoons for yoga. Our monthly old-time music jam sessions have packed the room out with a downhome orchestra of fiddlers, guitarists, banjo players and more. And we’re about to announce another monthly feature, to be called The Kitchen, which we imagine as an experiment in jazz, soul, gospel, blues, spoken word poetry, hip-hop cyphers, and more.

What are some of your goals as you develop your programming over the coming year, both in terms of the artists you will be working with and the audiences you hope to reach?

We want to put the focus on a range of talents, from young artists that aren’t yet getting the recognition we think they should to older masters that are here in our rich cultural community but are often forgotten or overlooked. There are so many great masters in our midst here in Birmingham, along with a lot of new energy and ideas. We hope all these strains can come together in our space. Our stage will spotlight a range of talents and traditions, whether it’s gospel, low-fi hip-hop, bluegrass, jazz, a reading, or dance. We hope visitors to our space will engage with some traditions, genres, and talents they might not typically encounter on their nights out. We hope that what people will find is consistent is the quality, warmth, accessibility, creativity, and, above all, community spirit of what The Jaybird has to offer.

The Jaybird’s monthly evening of live music is coming up this week, with your second visual art show opening next week. Can you tell our readers a bit about both events?

This Friday, November 10 at 8 pm, we’ll feature Clarence “Bluesman” Davis and Jock Webb, two Alabama blues masters. Clarence Davis grew up around Eutaw, Alabama, and is steeped in the distinctive blues tradition of Alabama’s Black Belt. Jock Webb grew up in Rosedale, right beneath Vulcan, where he was surrounded by what was once a very rich musical community. He apprenticed under some iconic Alabama bluesmen, like Willie King and Johnny Shines, and he and Clarence have been collaborating for several years now to keep the blues tradition going. They’re going to put on a seriously good time in our space.

Then on Thursday November 16 at 7 pm, we’ll open Smile, by the excellent local painter and sculptor, Roscoe Hall II, which he tells us found its purpose in large part in response to the recent events of Charlottesville and the rising tide of white supremacy. Roscoe writes: “Purpose of Series: News Briefs, Color Theory, and Technique to tackle how much I scorn at my phone.” We’re expecting a powerful new body of work for this opening. There will also be fantastic music on offer this night brought to us by DJ Pelatiah, of the Socially Awkwrd crew.

You’ve developed an interesting and unusual model for your operations, based on memberships. How does the membership structure benefit the artists you present, and what advantages does it offer to members?

So, to make our daydream any kind of reality, the biggest challenge was the basic question of how to pay the rent and utilities and how to support our artists — to ensure compensation for our performers and provide a platform for the artists who show their work here. To be clear, The Jaybird is not a job for any of us: we’re all very busy with our regular gigs, and we weren’t interested in running a business in any conventional sense. Our goal, financially, is to generate enough income to keep our doors open and the lights on and, importantly, to support the artists. It’s primarily through our memberships that we’re able to do this. And the more members who join us in this cause, the more offerings we’re able to provide.

To be clear, anyone, member or not, is welcome to attend events at The Jaybird or visit our open hours. But our members make up a core stable of supporters who plan to be actively involved in the life of the space, who are especially excited by our vision, and who essentially buy in upfront to sustain our programs. Memberships cover admission to all our events, both our monthly concert series and additional shows throughout the year, and our members gain access to other benefits along the way: art previews, specials, thank-you dinners, and some other perks, which we spell out in detail on our website. It’s a year-long membership that can be paid upfront or through a monthly subscription. We’ve committed for now to twelve months of programming, and at the end of those twelve months we’ll decide whether to tackle a second year.

What inspires you about Birmingham’s creative community? What do you hope to see more of as it continues to grow?

Birmingham is a big small town, really. It’s possible to find an enormous amount of common ground and shared values with all of your neighbors, once you start to get together. And we live in the heart of such rich cultural traditions down here, spanning all forms of arts, from which we can nourish ourselves. We think it’s important to understand, dig into, and celebrate our local cultural legacies, our histories and homegrown traditions and our roots, while also having passion for the Now, opening ourselves up for reinvention and fresh voices, changing populations and new directions. There are infinite, unique creative resources and possibilities in our backyards, and that’s very exciting.

What we hope to see is more collaborations, conversations, mixtures and fusions that cross our cultural and generational lines in Birmingham. There is not a single “creative community” in this city, but multiple creative communities. That itself isn’t a bad thing, but sadly these communities are often entirely unaware of each other. We’d like to be a bridge at The Jaybird; we’d like to see more cross-pollinating, more walls breaking down, more neighborliness.

Our most basic hope at The Jaybird is to be part of that process.