Ulster’s Doctor Jazz: how Solly Lipsitz changed my life
Michael Longley recalls the legendary Belfast figure who died earlier this year
I treasure a rare CD, Solly Lipsitz All Stars: Queen’s Festival 1982 – relaxed, swinging jazz complete with a photo of our guitarist and band leader, 30 years younger, dapper and optimistic, a big gold ring on his right hand, glinting cufflinks and an uncompromising tie. The numbers include I Want to be Happy and If I Had a Talking Picture of You.
Solly was unshakably loyal in his friendships, and ferocious in his criticism if one failed to live up to his high standards. I loved his intensity, his urgent desire to share with others the things that mattered most to him: jazz, of course, but paintings as well (he was an honorary member of the Royal Ulster Academy). He relished good food, vintage wine, malt whiskey, expensive cigars. He loved really big dogs. Inspired by his partner, Anne, he bought bird seed in bulk for the wild birds that flocked to their garden and orchard. In their country retreat in Magheragall he and Anne created a kind of Eden for the creatures – foxes and badgers as well as birds.
My disputatious companion and gold-medal punster died aged 92 at the end of March this year. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery at Carnmoney, north of Belfast, on the still snowy hillside. Pure and simple, the ceremony seemed entirely appropriate. We walked to Solly’s grave past his parents’ headstones with their Hebrew inscriptions. The rabbi swayed as he chanted the prayers, his long beard wagging in the wind. We might have been gathered in a corner of Warsaw or Lodz. At the graveside I stood next to Van Morrison, for whom Solly procured his first guitar. We were both acknowledging our friend’s profound and lasting influence. During Ulster’s most murderous times Solly made sure that we could hear the soul-music of jazz, what Philip Larkin, in his poem To Sidney Bechet, calls “The natural noise of good”. As I left the cemetery a robin started singing, and I thought of the dozens of goldfinches waiting for Solly in his garden. He was a bird of paradise in our midst.