Publican and friend of Dublin’s jazz music scene
Obituary: Brian Smyth
Brian Smyth: Virtually every jazz and blues musician in the city was present at his funeral in Whitefriar Street Church.
Coming so soon after the closure of the legendary Dublin music venue that was his passion and his life’s work, the death of Brian Smyth at the age of just 47 has left his family and close friends shocked and grief-stricken, and a wider community of Dublin musicians mourning the untimely loss of a staunch supporter and facilitator of good music.
Brian William Smyth was born the son of John (JJ) and Carmel on March 2nd, 1970, at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. At the time, the Smyths were farming one of the last tracts of agricultural land in Finglas, near Poppintree.
In 1979, JJ acquired the Thomas More pub on Dublin’s Aungier Street – then and still one of the oldest continuous pub licences in the city – and posted his name above the door. It was a name that would have special resonance for generations of Irish musicians, and become known internationally as the unofficial home of jazz in Ireland.
That year, Brian was enrolled at Synge Street school up the street, where he acquired the nickname “honours maths” for his good head for figures. Even then, Brian’s height was noticeable, but his schoolmates remember a quiet, gentle figure, loyal to his friends, who stood apart from the various school factions.
Brian’s role in the family business began at this time too, when he was handed a paint brush and set to work fixing up the pub. Though he expressed an early desire to become a DJ, and for a time flirted with the bass guitar, it was always understood that, as the eldest son, Brian would take up his duties in the family business.
Upstairs at JJ Smyth’s
It was in the late 1980 that JJ Smyth’s began to operate as a music venue in earnest. Up until that point, the pub’s upstairs room had been used for meetings, card games and the odd darts match, and it was – unusually for the time – the location of a fondly remembered lesbian disco, one of Dublin’s first openly gay social events.
Then one day, Dublin blues guitarist Nigel Mooney walked in, looking for somewhere to perform with his Gripewater Blues Band. It was to be a fateful meeting: as the 1990s progressed, JJs became the number-one venue in the city for blues and related music but, above all, for modern jazz. Living over the bar – perhaps the last publican in Dublin’s city centre to do so – Brian was a constant presence, gradually turning the upstairs room into a purpose-built venue, where good music was valued and musicians were treated with respect.
The famous Thursday night concerts with Isotope – featuring firm favourites of Brian’s such as drummer John Wadham and saxophonist Richie Buckley – became a fixture on the city’s music calendar, and the great guitarist Louis Stewart played a hugely popular Monday night (and subsequently Sunday afternoon) residency there for many years.
In the late 1990s, Brian began collaborating with jazz promoters the Improvised Music Company, bringing international touring artists to Dublin such as were rarely seen in Ireland in such intimate, music-friendly surroundings. Speaking to The Irish Times earlier this year, Brian said his proudest moments were standing at the top of the venue’s flight of stairs – often unable to get any further into the room such was the crowd – watching big names in international jazz take the tiny stage, such as ex-Miles Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman and ex-Stevie Wonder drummer Keith Copeland.
On such nights, queues would form on the street outside, and Brian would preside over a packed venue with good humour and calm authority. Among the other prominent musicians to appear, frequently at Brian’s own expense, were drummers Adam Nussbaum and Jim Black, saxophonists Seamus Blake and Jean Toussaint, and guitarists Jim Mullen and Martin Taylor, as well as virtually every major Irish jazz musician of the last 30 years.
The decision of the Smyth family last year to sell the pub marked the end of an era for Brian but, encouraged by his many musician friends, he was already making plans to continue promoting music elsewhere in the city when he was suddenly taken ill earlier this summer.
He died on June 22nd in James Connolly Hospital, surrounded by his family. Virtually every jazz and blues musician in the city was present at his funeral in Whitefriar Street Church, and music for the ceremony was provided by a group that included the cream of the city’s jazz musicians. Brian Smyth takes his place alongside Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard in New York, and Ronnie Scott, proprietor of the eponymous club in London, as a patron of and friend to jazz, without whom the musical life of Dublin would have been considerably poorer.
He is survived by his father JJ, his sisters Erica and Gráinne, and his brother Gavin. His mother Carmel died in 2011.