It’s said that history happens when no-one is looking, and this could certainly be said of the origins of the Cork Jazz Festival. Mike McGrath-Bryan takes a look at the Jazz’ development, and what lies in the future for the October Bank Holiday institution.
Suffice to say, festivals in Cork were a far different kettle of fish in 1978 to the current state of play. While the city’s music scene was beginning to shift shape under wider influences, and Macroom’s Mountain Dew shindig had just entered its third year, the festival calendar in Cork wasn’t the hectic onslaught of genre celebrations and all-dayers that the city’s culture vultures are au fait with now. In fact, the city’s most enduring music festival wouldn’t even have happened if the Metropole Hotel on McCurtain Street hadn’t been able to go through with an altogether more pedestrian booking for the State’s first official October Bank Holiday. Jazz Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey explained the Jazz’ roots to the then-Cork Examiner for a special supplement in 1998: “A National Bridge Congress which had been booked in to the Metropole for the last weekend in October was cancelled. Jim Mountjoy, then marketing manager at the hotel, was in a dilemma as to how he might recoup some or all of his lost business, and he contacted me with an invitation to discuss a jazz idea he had for the hotel. Over lunch Jim explained the implication of the bridge cancellation, and asked me what I thought of the idea of staging a mini-jazz festival in the hotel over the weekend, and would I help set it up.”
Harvey’s jazz acumen, and Mountjoy’s prowess as a pitchman, helped seal the deal with the Jazz’ first sponsors, tobacconists John Player, a sponsorship move that would be unimaginable in the current climate. In October of 1978, the first annual John Player Jazz International was announced, booked by a committee of members of the recently-defunct Cork Jazz Society, in a manner that might be deemed ‘DIY’ in modern terminology, cold-calling agents and bookers to determine talent availability and fees. Their efforts bore fruit, as Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen packed out the Opera House, while the Ronnie Scott Quintet with Irish jazz pioneer Louis Stewart, sat alongside George Chisholm, Monty Sunshine, Will Bill Davison and Betty Smith among others in the billing at the Metropole, in addition to a strong lineup of local outfits, including Leeside jazz staples Harry & Friends. Many traces of the multifaceted music event with which we are familiar today emerged can be traced back to this community endeavour: the Metropole of course played home to the Festival Club and indeed a great amount of the programme, while the festival’s current Jazz Camp strand of events got its start in workshops hosted by Louis Stewart on guitar and Shaun Forde on jazz percussion, the latter becoming an impromptu jam with attendees.
Despite some hiccups in the early going, including the second installment’s headliner Oscar Peterson cancelling his appearance owing to illness, and the Dutch Swing College Band ending up in Shannon owing to a flight diversion, the festival swung from strength to strength. Leading lights of the oeuvre came through town on European swings in touring to lend weight to the event in its infancy, including Art Blakey, Memphis Slim, and headlining the third installment in 1980, the immortal voice of jazz herself, Ella Fitzgerald, performing matinee and late shows amid a massive media presence and a warm civic reception. The rundown of eighties lineups indeed read now as a ‘who’s who’ of jazz and blues history: Sonny Rollins, Mel Torme, Buddy Rich, B.B. King, Acker Bilk, and Stephane Grappelli are but a handful of the legends who came Leeside to put their mark on a rapidly-growing civic institution.
1981 saw the John Player company pass on further sponsorship, casting doubt on the festival’s development. Amid rumour and controversy that the white-hot festival would be relocated to Dublin, Guinness took the mantle, becoming main sponsor in an arrangement that continues to this day. Speaking on the matter in 1998, Mountjoy outlined his pitching process to the Dublin brewery and how the risks paid off. “I put my ideas to them on how I saw the Festival going forward – a large Pub Trail, a Jazz Boat from the U.K., a Jazz Train from Dublin, and greater domestic & overseas marketing of the event.. the results were immediate, with all types of accommodation within a 15-mile radius, and up to 35,000 visitors of all age groups attending the festival. Many of my friends (in marketing) consider the Jazz to be a classic in off-peak creative marketing.”
Jennifer Gleeson, sponsorship manager at Guinness, reflects on the company’s current relationship with the festival. “We’ve seen it grow and develop over the years, from what started out as a small gathering of people into what is now one of the most prestigious and hotly anticipated cultural events of the year. It takes a lot of effort year in, year out, and what’s really brilliant is that the passion for the festival just grows year-on-year. It’s definitely one of the finest examples of collaboration between ourselves and the Cork Jazz Festival committee, Cork City Council, Failte Ireland and all the publicans, hoteliers, venue owners and restauranteurs who play such a huge part in ensuring people leave the festival with such amazing memories and a longing for their return next year.”
As the eighties gave way to the nineties, and the Jazz become entrenched in the Leeside gigging calendar, the likes of Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie headlined the festival, solidifying their legacies as attractions in the twilights of their careers. As the new millennium dawned, the Jazz Festival Committee began the inevitable expansion to a wider audience via jazz-influenced artists, as well as taking on crowd-pleasers like Damon Albarn. Jazz Festival Committee member Fiona Collins explains the balance behind the festival’s oft-scrutinised booking decisions. “It’s about looking at the quality of the acts, and seeing what best suits the venues we’re going to, and the type of audiences they will draw. For example, this year, we have the Miles Davis tribute on Saturday at the Everyman, and Soul II Soul at the Opera House at the same time. Both come under the broad jazz umbrella, but both are at completely different ends of the spectrum. So it’s about maintaining and figuring out that balance.”
With said balance in mind, the Jazz Festival has undoubtedly grown into the marquee weekend of music in the city. Case in point, the Jazz opens on Friday evening with Paddy Casey and Brian Deady, two well-travelled songwriters, in a free outdoor show, and the Festival Club is headlined by Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, in association with the late jazzman’s eponymous club in London, bringing the festival staple full-circle on its anniversary, also marked by an exhibition of behind-the-scenes photography from late Jazz committee chairman Bill Johnson.
Elsewhere around the city is a feast for music aficionados regardless of taste and age to get lost in, adding to the atmosphere and eclecticism of the Jazz. Says Collins of the festival’s atmosphere: “For me, the festival is Cork. You can’t have one without the other. I love that over the weekend, that you get to experience parts of the city that you don’t normally experience. For others, it’s getting out and exploring the streets of Cork – getting out and hearing the marching bands, getting to feel the buzz. It doesn’t matter what street you’re standing on, you’re going to feel it.”