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Dorothy & George Jacob: Putting Bray On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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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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