Swinging Sligo: how a jazz school won over the west
Every year the Sligo Jazz Project puts internationally renowned musicians in a classroom with students for the serious business of improvisation, followed by gigs in the town
School of jazz: every year, the Sligo Jazz Project assembles a roll call of internationally renowned musicians and puts them in a local national school with a group of students from all over Europe
Rufus Reid has travelled the world and seen more than his fair share of jazz festivals, but the famous bass player has always felt particularly at home at Europe’s westernmost jazz festival and summer school, which has swung into Sligo town this week.
He suspects however, that it’s not just him. “My wife and I would walk down the street and everyone would be very friendly. But I think that’s normal,” he says, with a wry laugh. “I’d like to think it was specially for us, but I think Sligo people are like that, period.”
Reid isn’t the only jazz star to be attracted by the special Sligo vibe. Every year, the Sligo Jazz Project assembles a roll call of internationally renowned musicians, puts them in a local national school with a group of students from all over Europe, and together they get down to the serious business of improvisation. But if the style of the music is mostly downtown New York, the vibe is very much small-town west of Ireland.
The driving force behind the project is bassist and former Nervous Animal Eddie Lee (remember My Friend John?). Speaking to him, you get the feeling even he can’t quite believe what a positive environment for jazz he and his fellow volunteers have managed to create west of the Shannon, since their first festival in 2005.
“When it started, we were just four Sligo musicians, the kind of guys who had been playing music all our lives but had never been educated in a jazz way. So we decided to get some people in to help us.”
The first person Lee called was Sligo-born jazz guitarist Mike Nielsen, who has trained at the prestigious Berklee school in Boston and is director of jazz performance at DIT Conservatory of Music. Nielsen was delighted to help out in his hometown, and began suggesting other musicians who might be persuaded to come.
Now, eight years later, Nielsen is still on the faculty and puts the growing reputation of the project among musicians down to the way Lee runs things.
“Eddie knows what musicians want, and he’s able to speak to them as a musician, so the vibe comes from the top down. And because it’s held in the national school, close to where everyone is staying, it’s just a very close community. We all sit and have lunch together, and it’s all just like one family.”
Heavy hitters in town
As well as local heroes such as Nielsen, and international stars such as Reid, over the past eight years the faculty has included heavy hitters such as drummer Paul Wertico, pianist John Riley, vocalist Norma Winstone and bassist Dominique Di Piazza, while the festival’s evening concerts have featured high-profile bands such as the Yellowjackets and the influential Avishai Cohen Trio.
To the uninitiated, Sligo might seem an unlikely location for such big names, but there is a sense of dynamism within the local artistic community that feeds off the energy generated by the project.
“Making things happen seems to be a way of life around here,” says Marie O’Byrne, director of the Hawk’s Well Theatre, the main venue for the evening concerts.
Originally from Ennis, O’Byrne moved to Sligo two years ago and was immediately impressed by the energy in the local arts scene. “Sligo has a long history of being progressive. The Hawk’s Well [Theatre] itself was born from the endless work of the people of Sligo, and festivals such as Sligo Live, the Yeats International Summer School, and of course the Sligo Jazz Project help keep the creative juices powerfully flowing around here.”