Northern Ireland: Jazz is on the Rise
In geographical terms, the island of Ireland is small: just 300 miles by 175 miles, with a population of around 6.2 million. Northern Ireland is smaller still: 1.8 million people in six counties in the north-east of the island. In the wide world of jazz the country rarely rates a mention. But Northern Ireland's jazz scene is stirring: a small but highly-talented and enthusiastic bunch of musicians is rapidly expanding the scene and beginning to export the music around the world.
JazzLife UK's recent whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland was in the company of trumpeter, broadcaster and band leader Linley Hamilton. He's a key part of the jazz scene: a first-call backing musician who has played with a diverse array of stars including Van Morrisonprobably Northern Ireland's most famous contemporary musicianJean Toussaint and Ken Peplowski. He also broadcasts a weekly jazz show on BBC Radio Ulster, After Midnight, that features contemporary jazz.
In fact, it was Hamilton's show that first made me aware of the growth of the Northern Irish scene: his diary spot seemed at one point in 2010 to be expanding week by week as new venues were added to the list. Such apparent growth, and Hamilton's unbounded enthusiasm for the scene, led me to visit the country for a couple of days in early November.
As far as jazz in Ireland is concerned, if Hamilton doesn't know about it, then it isn't happening. He was immensely helpful to me and ensured that my two day visit gave me a real immersion in the Northern Ireland jazz scene, enabling me to experience a few venues, meet some key people and begin to share their enthusiasm. I also experienced one of my musical highlights of 2010.
Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital, sits on the country's east coast. Unsurprisingly, the city is home to Northern Ireland's busiest and most vibrant jazz scene but what is surprising given Belfast's relatively small sizearound 260,000 people live in the cityis just how busy and vibrant the scene currently is. Hamilton estimates that there are about 50 jazz musicians active in Northern Ireland, mostly enthusiasts rather than fulltime players. Belfast features venues where some of these musicians have been playing for many yearsthe Europa Hotel, for example, where the Gerry Rice Quartet's Saturday evening residency has been going on for ten yearsand others that are just beginning to establish themselves.
It's the newer venues that give the clearest indication of Northern Ireland's resurgent jazz scene: these are not the back rooms of out-of-town pubs, or the damp basement bars of tatty hotels. Indeed, two of Belfast's newest venues are at the heart of the city, and as stylish and up-market as any to be found in London or New York.
The most up-market of these is Bert's Bar at the Merchant Hotel, which features jazz seven nights a week. There's an emphasis on vocal jazz, and the venue attracts musicians from across the islandon the night I spent there it featured Ronan McGee, a stride pianist and singer from Dublin. The bar is very comfortable, the stage easily accommodates a quartet and the behind-the-stage mural is a clear indication of the music to be heard here.
The slightly funkier Teatro is on Botanic Avenue, close to Queen's University. It's co-owned by Kyron Bourke (pictured left), who programs the jazz at Bert's Bar. Bourke is also a singer and keyboard player, with a Leonard Cohen crossed with Tom Waits style, who has developed Teatro as a restaurant and piano bar complete with its own candy striped mini-stage. The venue has a relaxed and good-humored atmosphere that brings audience and performers together to share the experience.
But Northern Ireland isn't just Belfast, and the jazz scene is also thriving in towns like Bangor and Derry. Both of these places epitomize another vital aspect of the country's jazz scene: the involvement of enthusiastic and motivated local councils. Bangor lies a few miles to the east of Belfast in County Down. Derry sits on Northern Ireland's western border, in County Londonderry. The two towns differ in many respects, but both have an enthusiasm for bringing people together through artistic and cultural activities. Derry already has a thriving jazz festival, and Bangor's program of musical activities includes jazz gigs on a regular basis.