Cork Jazz festival: From cancelled bridge congress to blockbuster weekend

Now in its 40th year the festival has stood the test of time to gain a worldwide profile

Trumpeter David Hinton of the Bare Brass Band performing at an open-air gig on Emmet Place last year. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Trumpeter David Hinton of the Bare Brass Band performing at an open-air gig on Emmet Place last year. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

 

When Michael O’Leary, the minister for labour, not the other one, decided in 1977 to give us a Bank Holiday weekend in October little did he realise it would be a key factor in creating one of Ireland’s flagship events, the Cork Jazz Festival.

The festival has its origins in the sudden cancellation of a bridge congress at Cork’s Metropole Hotel set for the October Bank Holiday 40 years ago.

Forced to find an alternative event, Jim Mountjoy, marketing director at the hotel had a brainwave - he decided to create a jazz festival instead.

He knew the weekly jazz sessions in the hotel bar were popular and figured he could extend the concept.

Jazz promoter Norman Granz and legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in 1955. Photograph: Metronome/Getty Images
Jazz promoter Norman Granz and legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in 1955. Photograph: Metronome/Getty Images

Mr Mountjoy spoke to me as I was working as a jazz journalist and we then spoke to Ray Fitzgerald, one of Cork’s best-known jazz fans.

From these meetings emerged the first edition of the festival with sponsorship from John Player and a top-class line-up headed by British jazz sax player and club owner Ronnie Scott.

So it is apt that 40 years later this festival sees the introduction of a pop-up jazz club under Scott’s name, under a licensing agreement with the famous Soho jazz club.

The club’s house band, the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, will feature this weekend.

Since its beginning, the festival has featured famous names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey.

When Guinness took over the sponsorship in 1982 the event was growing fast and gaining a worldwide profile.

The role of the sponsors in developing the festival should be recognised as they stuck with the event when it was less commercially uncertain, and invested in its future.

High profile artists

Over the years high-profile artists continued to come to Cork for “the jazz” with Wynton Marsalis, BB King, Nancy Wilson, Ramsey Lewis, Buddy Rich and Oscar Peterson among those to feature.

BB King. Photograph: Valentin Flauraud/Reuters
BB King. Photograph: Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

Guinness was also involved in creating the jazz trail around the city and helped with the introduction of street bands, workshops, lectures and master classes.

Working on the festival over the years, in tandem with the local organising committee, has been exhausting but so much fun.

It was a privilege to meet jazz legends backstage when they were relaxing. Guys like Ragtime Bob Darch from Alabama stayed in Cork for four months because he enjoyed the city so much.

Memories include seeing Dizzy Gillespie with his famous bent trumpet, and the phenomenal concert by Buddy Rich who was delayed at Shannon Airport by fog yet performed two hours after his showtime to a full house which waited for him.

Buddy Rich. Photograph: David Redfern/Getty Images
Buddy Rich. Photograph: David Redfern/Getty Images

Every year, there is a fresh story or two. For me, this weekend it is likely to be the turn of Dee Dee Bridgewater, who hits Cork with her all-Memphis show.

She’s a powerhouse performer who will rock the Everyman stage. Another highlight will be the first Irish appearance of the new ‘Diana Krall’, Australia’s Sarah McKenzie.

The Cork Jazz Festival has stood the test of time and is going from strength to strength, with new audiences and an annual music programme that reflects the ever-changing face of jazz music as it adapts and adjusts to modern tastes and trends.

Mr Mountjoy’s hastily assembled concept is now in rude health and over 40,000 people will enjoy a blockbuster weekend.

Ella Fitzgerald. Photograph: Getty Images
Ella Fitzgerald. Photograph: Getty Images

Not all of the music is purist jazz but the formula of mixing jazz with jazz-related music is now much-copied by jazz festivals worldwide. It works.

And the Cork economy will also benefit to the tune of over €25 million - no wonder it is Cork’s favourite event and why the locals say, “are you goin’ jazzin’?”

Pearse Harvey is a jazz journalist who was involved in the first Cork jazz weekend and has been involved ever since.