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Dorothy & George Jacob: Putting Bray On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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It’s the moments where you see people coming out of a gig completely and utterly transported. It’s enriching to have witnessed it —Dorothy Jacob, Co-Director, Bray Jazz Festival
Twenty years is old for a car and really old for a dog, but in jazz festival terms twenty years is perhaps not so long in the tooth. For a jazz festival twenty years means established, with the major storms of the early years weathered, a brand that people recognize and a heap of good will from the local community.

Bray Jazz Festival (view 2019 events), having come through a few tempestuous patches and made a good many friends, reaches the twenty- year milestone when the May Bank Holiday rolls round once again. In most respects it is business as usual for the festival founded and steered by George and Dorothy Jacob, with another exciting programme of the best in contemporary jazz and improvised music, headlined for the occasion by Fred Hersch, John Scofield and the duo of Anja Lechner and François Courtier.

Few in this part of the world would disagree that Bray Jazz Festival has established its credentials not only as one of the essential music festivals in the Irish calendar, but as a jazz festival of international repute. For many music lovers there is really only one destination in Ireland on the first weekend in May.

What started out as a business venture of sorts for the Jacobs at the start of the millennium has grown into a labor of love. "It's been a rhythm that has formed part of our lives," says Dorothy. "It doesn't feel like twenty years, it really doesn't. It certainly reminds you that you're over half a century old," she adds, laughing.

Bray Jazz Festival has become something of an institution in County Wicklow and stands proudly as the only annual international jazz festival in the Greater Dublin area. With the Wicklow Mountains at his back and the Irish Sea before it, the beautiful landscape that frames Bray has almost become part of the brand that is Bray Jazz Festival, while Dublin feels far further away than the thirteen or so miles that separate the two places.

Bray is a peaceful, idyllic sea-side town, though on the May Bank Holiday weekend, when the jazz cranks up, it really comes alive.

Most of the regulars who turn up to Bray Jazz Festival year after year take it for granted that the festival will always be there, but with funding still not back to the levels they were at prior to the financial crash of 2008 it has been, and continues to be, a challenge for George and Dorothy to finance the festival and maintain the high artistic level for which Bray Jazz Festival is renowned.

"There's a lot of pleasure in doing what we've taken on," says George, "but a lot of responsibility too. Every year somebody will sure 'Sure, of course you'll be back next year,' and we look at each other and think, hmmm, it's not that easy."

Despite having laid strong foundations, the Jacobs are realistic in their assessment of Bray Jazz Festival's future. "When you're trying to create something you always have to know that nothing necessarily lasts for ever," Dorothy acknowledges. "It would be great to think the festival will still be around in fifty years' time, but we are getting older and we're not going to last for ever. The question around a succession plan is a serious point."

A serious point, but hopefully one that is still some way off in the future. The Jacobs, after all, are synonymous with Bray Jazz Festival, and the festival in turn is synonymous with great jazz. Over the years Bray Jazz Festival has hosted the likes of Andrew Hill, Tomasz Stanko, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas Steve Coleman, Eliane Elias, Henri Texier, Tord Gustavsen and Marius Neset, to name but a handful of the five hundred plus gigs staged here.

Significantly, Bray Jazz Festival has also played an important role in the nurturing of Irish jazz these last twenty years. This, perhaps, is the festival's lasting legacy.

"We've learned over the years the different things Bray Jazz means to different people," explains George. "By that I mean the jazz community in Ireland and the growth of that. It's something we think more about now than we would have done in the early days. It's a small part we play in that growth. It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people and we're just links in that chain."

The situating of Irish jazz artists in the festival programme is not as simple a matter as some people might think. In the first place, Bray Jazz Festival wasn't conceived of as a local festival. Its ambition was always greater, as Dorothy explains: "It was always meant to be an international jazz festival. It was always meant to be an attraction for people to be able to witness more than what we have on this island. Even in the early years we wanted to draw people from other parts of the world and in terms of a festival that's a nice idea."

Nevertheless, in the early years of Bray Jazz Festival Irish artists did grace the stage of the principal venue, the Mermaid Arts Centre, on double-bills that of course featured the big, international names. Then, in the wake of the financial crisis, funding fell off and the headlining performance was reduced to one act.

Since then, as the Jacobs acknowledge, it's been a challenge to present Irish acts on an appropriate stage. When most Irish jazz artists are performing week in week out in Dublin's jazz venues it would make little sense to stage them instead of more internationally recognized names and would pose a considerable financial risk to boot. Still, the Jacobs don't rule out a return to a double-header evening bill in a more financially secure future.

The second major venue, Bray's Town Hall, has featured many leading figures from the Irish jazz/improvised music scene over the years, with standout artists such as Sue Rynhart, Cora Venus Lunny, Hugh Buckley and Italian-born, Irish adoptee Francesco Turrisi, giving memorable performances straddling the jazz/folk divide. Seating sixty people, the elegant heritage building that is the Town Hall also features prominent international artists. This year, not to be missed, is the duo of Norma Winstone and Tommy Halferty, launching their debut CD after twenty years collaborating together.

The Town Hall has also provided other types of memories. "One year we actually managed to get a grand piano up the spiral stairs in the Town Hall, I kid you not," recalls Dorothy. To those familiar with the venue and its staircase it might seem easier, in fact, to have removed the roof and eased the piano down by crane. The Jacobs, however, have proven to be nothing if not determined and that grand piano experience did at least impart one valuable lesson: "That's something we learned," says George humbly. "We didn't try that again."

The best up-and-coming Irish jazz acts are to be found on the Bray Jazz Fringe, a jazz trail throughout multiple venues around Bray. For the last few years the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Co has sponsored the fringe festival, and this year Powerscourt Distillery adds its weight. All the gigs on the Bray Jazz Fringe are free to the public, though the musicians are paid to perform. "The free gigs are about building an audience and providing a platform for emerging artists in Ireland," says Dorothy.

In Bray's packed pubs, hotel bars and restaurants mixed crowds of locals, weekend revellers and tourists can catch the best of Dublin/Ireland's jazz artists. Standout names for the fringe this twentieth anniversary include Derek Whyte and Hugh Buckley, John Moriarty Quartet, Leopoldo Osio Duo, and the guitar duo of Julien and John.

The Harbour Bar, a favourite venue among Bray Jazz Festival regulars, features several great gigs over the weekend, with the Greg Felton Trio, Conor Guilfoyle's Octet, the Aleka Potinga Quartet, the Afrobeat group Yankari and Redivider—arguably one of the most progressive and exciting bands on the current Irish jazz scene-all recommended.

But there are plenty more good vibes on offer as well, with Latin jazz, R&B and swing catering for different tastes. Bray Jazz Festival regulars will also be delighted to see the return of the Late-Lounge sessions in the Martello, which on the Saturday promises grooves and fireworks from Georgian guitarist Dan Nettle's Kinosha Kid, a thumping quartet featuring Berlin bassist Roland Fidezius and Ireland's Shane Latimer on guitar and Sean Carpio on drums. Sunday night's Late Lounge sees Belfast's Scott Flanigan lead his exciting new quartet—fresh from a barnstorming performance at Brilliant Corners—and featuring outstanding Ohio-born, Belfast-based tenor saxophonist Meilana Gillard.

Such international collaborations are increasingly frequent across the Dublin and Irish music scenes, reflecting demographic evolution in the wider society in general. It's only natural, therefore, that there are a greater number of foreign nationals jazzing up the Bray Jazz fringe trail than there were twenty years ago.

One of the major incubators of both home-grown and foreign talent in Ireland has been Newpark Music Centre, whose jazz courses have been led by the internationally renowned bassist/composer Ronan Guilfoyle since the mid-1980s. Newpark has also graduated to become a feeder school for Boston's Berklee Music College.

NMC transferred to Dublin City University in 2017, making it the first Irish university to offer a BA Hons degree in jazz and contemporary music performance -a move that marks a before and after in Irish jazz history.

"What we knew as Newpark Music Centre, now DCU, has sixty per cent foreign students today," explains George, "and that mix over time has brought a growth in what's available, what people are working on and how they sound."

Many of these foreign musicians are long-term residents in Dublin, with some teaching alongside their Irish counterparts in the city's numerous music institutions. Inevitably, these musicians from Africa, the Middle East, from South America and Europe, end up gracing the stages of the Bray Jazz Festival fringe trail, and generally enriching the live music scene with their distinct musical vocabularies.

The trio CEO Experiment is a good example; Peruvian drummer Cote Calmet, Venezuelan pianist/keyboardist Leopoldo Osio and Hungarian electric bassist Peter Erdei collectively and individually have been enablers on the Irish music scene, straddling genres and binding musicians from different backgrounds together. The trio became a quartet in in 2016 with the addition of saxophonist Michael Buckley, one of the true tenor greats of Irish jazz.

CEO Experiment is on hiatus at time of writing, as Calmet has moved to Spain, but few who were present will forget its performance in the Harbour Bar during BJF 2017, nor for that matter its collaboration with Kurt Rosenwinkel in the Sugar Club later the same year.

Though there have been experiments with various venues over the years, the Town Hall, from the beginning, and the Mermaid Arts Centre, from the fourth edition, have been mainstays. In recent years another heritage venue has joined the roster. The Well, formerly St. Paul's, is a church that dates back to 1609, making it the oldest building in Bray.

After falling into disuse for decades it was renovated in 2011, functioning once more as a place of worship and a social functions space for the community. For the past four years The Well has provide the third main venue for the Bray Festival Jazz programme, with The Necks, Lauren Kinsella and Ronan Guilfoyle providing highlights in recent years. Two highly recommended gigs this year are those by Mats Gustafsson's electrifying Fire!—not for the faint-hearted—and Speak Low, the trio of the much-lauded singer Lucia Cadotsch.

To mark the festival's twentieth anniversary the Jacobs are taking Bray Jazz Festival On The Road, with a series of satellite concerts taking place in other towns and historic sites throughout County Wicklow.

The early nineteenth-century Calary Church, Roundwood, is the venue for experimental folk/ambient multi-instrumentalist Dowry (aka Éna Brennan) on Friday, 3rd May; the sounds of West Africa and Eastern Europe combine when kora player Solo Cissokho and kankles player Indre Jurgeleviciute come to Russborough House, Blessington, on Saturday 4th May; the Courthouse Arts Centre in Tinahely plays host to French virtuoso quartet No Tongues on Sunday, 5th May.

These concerts undoubtedly open a new chapter in Bray Jazz Festival's history, with the Jacobs casting an eye, not just outward, but to the future.

"Yes, it's an experiment of sorts," says George of the On The Road programme. "There are these wonderful venues throughout Wicklow that can bring international arts to local communities. The use of more such performances spaces can only increase the possibilities for Irish musicians as well."

To what extent the locals in Roundwood, Blessington and Tinahely will embrace such contemporary music remains to be seen, but the Jacobs see only positives in the On The Road initiative.

"You're never going to get it 100% right nor should you try," says Dorothy, "because that's never going to be obtainable. There is always going to be an attitude that people have about what they perceive as jazz. We come across that all the time. But what you're constantly trying to do is have people listen to things that they've never heard before. The surprise element can spark people's imaginations and then they might want to come back to see 'what next?' You're stretching the boundaries for people."

If the Jacobs see themselves as links in the greater chain, then two other vital links have been Gerry Godley and Kenneth Killeen—respectively the former and current directors of Improvised Music Company—in the programming of Bray Jazz Festival. "We've learned an awful lot about jazz over the past twenty years, but we didn't know so much at the outset," admits George. "One of the best things we did was to recognize as much and look to the expertise of Gerry Godley for fifteen years, and latterly Kenneth Killeen, as professional programmers."

One of Ireland's leading promotors of jazz/contemporary music, Improvised Music Company is best known internationally for its award-winning 12 Points Festival. In the early days of Bray Jazz Festival, Godley forged collaborative alliances with the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Since taking over the reins Killeen has aligned with promotion agencies Going Dutch, Jazz Migration and Le Bureau Export to continue bringing the best in cutting edge jazz/contemporary music to Bray Jazz Festival.

As with any festival, big, or like Bray, relatively small, success lies in building a good working team, where everybody knows their roles. "We've had a really good team of people that have worked with us over the years," acknowledges George. "Paul Ashebrown, the sound guy, has been with us for eighteen of the last twenty years. He's been around the industry for a lot longer than us. Ciaran Ryan, our piano man too."

Of course, problems both trivial and not so trivial arise in the course of running a jazz festival, but the Jacobs have developed coping strategies over the years. "It's only difficult when things go wrong but our experience is that people who work in jazz are very forgiving," says George.

"Maybe you're calmer in your mid-fifties than you were in your mid-thirties and you've also been over the jumps for twenty years so if this problem arises this is the person to call. We've also learned over the last ten years not to insert yourself into every problem and get between the people that should be speaking to each other. If there's an issue with the piano I can't tune it but we're there if people need us and sometimes you're the only port of call."

How they go about the business of running a jazz festival is as important, Dorothy says, as the results themselves. "We have great respect for people in general, that's all people not just the artists -whoever is working us. In life you're meeting with different people, trying to get jobs done, and if you have everybody wanting to get that done that really helps. That only comes with having respect, honesty, clarity, a bit of fun, and when it goes wrong figuring out how to make it better."

Musically, Bray Jazz Festival has gone from strength to strength, and the appearance of Fred Hersch—playing solo—and John Scofield's Combo 66 should ensure full houses once more in the Mermaid Arts Centre. "For our twentieth festival they were kind of statement signings, to use football parlance," says George.

In truth, though, it's been twenty years of statement signings -of marquee names, progressive young talent and the best of Irish jazz. Even in the lean times, Bray Jazz Festival has never failed to present a line-up that is exciting, challenging, and just occasionally provocative.

It's been a hell of a ride for Dorothy and George Jacob, one too full of highlights to pick out just one or two. "You're just witnessing so much talent that it can be overwhelming," says Dorothy. "The whole emotional spectrum from soulful and introspective to the craziness—it's what music does for people, I guess. It's the moments where you see people coming out of a gig completely and utterly transported. It's enriching to have witnessed it."

Photo credit: Ian Patterson
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