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
This year’s headliner is US pianist Kenny Werner. Author of the definitive jazz self-help book Effortless Mastery – an inspirational tome, well-thumbed by the current generation of musicians – Werner is as impressive in the classroom as he is on stage. But he is realistic about the stern challenge involved in becoming a jazz musician – “this is something they should be talked out of” – and students looking for an effortless route to mastering this complex music will be disappointed.
“The word ‘effortless’ is the most misunderstood word,” says Werner with a theatrical sigh. “It doesn’t mean you didn’t make an effort to get there. But if you watch a great golfer, does he look like he’s making an effort ? Or does it look like his body does it by itself? That’s what effortless means. It’s about getting out of your own way, learning how to master your own mind so that you can maximise your own creative potential.”
With teachers of the stature of Werner, the project is attracting an ever-greater number of international students, and unlike other jazz schools around Europe, there is room in Sligo for all levels.
“There’s such a mixture of people,” says Lee. “We have professional musicians, and semi-pros, and then you have retired people who never got a chance to work on their instrument before – and then there’s the younger students, some of them only 14 or 15.”
Dublin drummer Stephen Kohlmann, a veteran of several summers in Sligo, is enthusiastic about the positive spirit of the week, even for those who don’t play any instrument. “Even if you just went to the gigs, with the amount of quality musicians that are there, it’s like being in New York for a week.”
Pianist Orla Cunningham is an optician by day, but Sligo has opened her eyes as a musician, and for her, the special vibe is down to the tone set by the tutors. “It’s very down-to-earth; there’s no them and us. The teachers are very supportive, whatever your level, and really good about passing on what they know.”
As well as studying and eating together, the students get plenty of opportunity to play together at nightly jam sessions, but in a town that is famous for traditional music sessions, there was always the chance of some resentment at the influx of foreign music. But the project has been a model of inclusiveness, reaching out to the wider musical community, and the local trad musicians have embraced the improvisers.
This year, Lee collaborated on a piece of music, the Barinthus suite, with Belfast drummer David Lyttle, which blends trad and jazz, to be performed on Thursday by an admirably diverse ensemble, including many of the course tutors, with Werner at the piano, along with Manchester bodhrán master John Joe Kelly and piper Tyler Duncan from progressive trad group the Olllam.
For Werner, the whole concept of the jazz summer school is a good model for other art forms, putting different levels of musicians together in one place, drawing on the experience of acknowledged masters of the art, and delivering more intangible benefits to the wider community.
“I think a summer school energises the town it’s in, it energises the audience, and above all, it energises the musicians. It’s like a happening, and we as musicians get great forward motion from the camaraderie, and just the intention that we express by going somewhere where that’s all you’re going to think about for a week.”