Northern Ireland: Jazz is on the Rise

Northern Ireland: Jazz is on the Rise
Bruce Lindsay By

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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 Morrison—probably Northern Ireland's most famous contemporary musician—Jean 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.

Northern Ireland

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 size—around 260,000 people live in the city—is 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 years—the Europa Hotel, for example, where the Gerry Rice Quartet's Saturday evening residency has been going on for ten years—and 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 island—on 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.

The City of Derry Jazz Festival has been running each year since 2001and is the second largest jazz festival on the island after the Cork festival. It takes place over the May holiday weekend and attracts around 30,000 fans. The festival programmer, Johnny Murray, is proud of the fact that around 90% of the festival events are free. In 2010 the festival involved 68 venues across Derry: pubs, clubs, hotels and theatres ranging in size from 80 to 1,000 seats. While most of the acts are from Northern Ireland or the Republic the festival also books big name international acts such as Curtis Stigers or Courtney Pine.

Bangor is in the North Down area of County Down, a picturesque part of the country. There's a strong tradition of live music in the area, and a strong local arts community. Jazz has played a part in this arts scene for many years—the regular weekly jazz gig at the 200-year-old Jenny Watts pub in Bangor celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010. Christine Mahon, from the North Down Tourism Office, is one of the people responsible for promoting live music in the area and it's clear that she's a jazz fan who is keen to develop the place of the music. She speaks enthusiastically of the local council's plans for gigs in venues such as the North Down museum, which has already played host to a concert by top UK vocalist Liane Carroll, and of the increasingly successful program of outdoor concerts held each summer.

The New Generation

While Belfast's newer venues might be strong indicators of the Northern Irish scene's health, its musical development and growing international reputation come in large part from two of the country's younger musicians: drummer David Lyttle and guitarist Mark McKnight. Both men are only in their mid-20s, still developing as musicians and yet to create a large body of recorded work: but they are talented players who are building strong reputations among their fellow musicians. Most importantly, both Lyttle and McKnight are establishing themselves internationally while remaining based in Northern Ireland.

McKnight was touring in Scotland when I visited, so I didn't have the chance to meet him, but those people I did meet regularly named him as a player to watch. So far he has just one album as leader, Overnight (ReMark Records, 2009), but it features a top lineup of international musicians including saxophonist Will Vinson and pianist Sam Yahel. Crucially, McKnight gained funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to enable him to record in New York.

Lyttle, part of a family of folk musicians, has been proactively developing his own reputation in the jazz world not only as a musician but also as a bandleader, writer and musicologist—he has a musicology PhD from the University of Ulster, for which he studied modern jazz drummers. The university also runs a PhD in jazz performance that numbers Hamilton and McKnight among its current students. Although Lyttle was actively involved in the Irish folk scene from an early age, it wasn't until aged 18 that he developed an interest in jazz: "I was actually studying classical cello at university...so I was quite late getting into jazz, and that's when I started taking the drums seriously." Lyttle's introduction to jazz was slightly unusual: "It was actually the Vince Guaraldi Trio on A Charlie Brown Christmas special..." he reveals "Then I discovered Art Blakey and he became my idol for a while."

Lyttle (pictured left) began playing regularly on the Irish jazz scene but a shortage of venues led him to take a more independent approach: "There weren't too many venues or too many people to play with, so I put together a core trio and started to bring musicians over to Ireland. The first was Greg Osby, in 2007 or 8. Then I started to link with Jean Toussaint in England: we've done tours and workshops together." Lyttle's connections have expanded since then and tours with guest musicians such as bassist Michael Janisch and saxophonist Soweto Kinch have become a regular occurrence. "It works for me, I stay busy and I stay challenged" says Lyttle. "There are only a small number of venues in Ireland for jazz music but this way I can play them all regularly with different guests."

It's clear from talking to Lyttle that although I am interested in the Northern Ireland jazz scene, the musicians themselves don't differentiate between the two countries in terms of their work—jazz musicians who want to earn a living and get the maximum exposure for their own music treat the island as a single market. "Most of the tours I do" says Lyttle "include Dublin, Sligo, Limerick, Cork. The biggest task now is to build up the audience...it is building up, definitely, but you have to look at the whole island."

Dark Tales is Lyttle's latest project—a suite of music inspired by the writing of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. He's already toured the work in Ireland and England and may well release a recording in 2011. The work sounds intriguing and is yet another aspect of the drummer's drive and ambition.

Gay McIntyre

I met Lyttle in Derry, at the University of Ulster's Magee Campus. That afternoon I also met a man who may just be Northern Ireland's best-kept jazz secret—alto saxophonist Gay McIntyre. His story offers a fascinating contrast to those of the new generation of jazz musicians.

McIntyre (pictured right) was born in Derry in the mid-30s and has spent most of his life there—his home is near the centre of the city, within sight of the River Foyle which dominates the landscape. He grew up in Southend Park in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry and, while religious divisions were a daily part of his early life, McIntyre is aware that the economic problems his family faced were not just experienced in his area of the city: "Protestant and Catholic people both had to do without the same things" as he puts it. He is also resolutely optimistic about the essential goodness of Derry people and their willingness to assist friends and strangers alike: "They'll go a million miles out of their way to help you, especially if you come here like you've done; from England or Scotland. They're well-known for their hospitality."

McIntyre's father was a double bassist, working in a band with his two brothers. One day, when McIntyre was about 12 years old, his father brought home a record by Artie Shaw: the impact was instantaneous. "The minute I heard it, I burst out crying. I'd no idea why, but I burst out crying. My mother said 'Whatever that thing is on that record, we have to get Gay one.'" The thing was Shaw's clarinet and so, eventually, the young McIntyre began the musical path that he has followed for over 60 years. "It took my father two years to save up £17 for the clarinet," says McIntyre, "but that's how it started."

By the age of 17, McIntyre had progressed to alto saxophone and was part of the McIntyre family Showband which, in the early '50s, supported Nat King Cole at the Belfast Opera House. Cole was so impressed with the young altoist that he offered him a place in his band and the chance to make his fortune in the United States. However, two of McIntyre's friends had recently died in a plane crash and he had developed a fear of flying: this, coupled with his father's concerns about the life of a jazz musician in America—"He said I'd get started on the drink and the drugs"—meant that McIntyre turned down the offer.

McIntyre stayed with the Showband for another decade, until the rise of pop music saw the Showband era draw to a close. He moved to England and was soon the subject of a two-page article in Crescendo magazine: "It said 'He's the new Dankworth: and he's Irish'" he recalls, referring to saxophonist and composer Sir John Dankworth. From then on, McIntyre's musical career has been spent predominantly in Northern Ireland and the Republic encompassing jazz, big bands and orchestras. He also composed a film score, for Irish movie High Boot Benny (1994), and has played with top musicians including two of his favorites: pianist Oliver Jones and guitarist Louis Stewart.

Sadly, one thing that McIntyre has not done nearly enough is to record his work. This absence was brought home clearly to me when, at the end of the interview, he stood next to the piano and soloed on "Lover Man" and "Stardust." His playing is clear, fluid and lyrical, and for a few moments I found myself feeling much like McIntyre did when he heard that Artie Shaw album. On a wet midweek afternoon in a University rehearsal room I heard McIntyre play for the first time and the effect was stunning.

The Future

Financial problems have hit the Republic of Ireland hard, and the UK economy is still uncertain. In the immediate future people might well have less money in their pockets to spend on entertainment, while commercial and public sector sponsorship could contract. The arts are likely to face a tough few years—but Northern Ireland also offers opportunities in the immediate future and the drive and entrepreneurial spirit of the country's up-and-coming jazzers should ensure that they can make the most of their chances.

A series of high-profile anniversaries and events offer jazz musicians some unique opportunities to raise their profiles on an international scale. 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the launch of the Titanic—admittedly it's also the centennial of its sinking, but Northern Ireland will be celebrating the skills of Belfast's shipyard workers. 2012 also sees the Olympic Games returning to the UK and, while London will be the focus of activity, the event's impact will be nationwide, with a promised Cultural Olympiad. New arts events are also planned. There is talk of a jazz festival in North Down in the next year or two, giving Northern Ireland's east coast a potential rival for Derry.

The biggest arts event in the country will occur in 2013, when Derry becomes the first UK City Of Culture—congratulations must go to Derry for winning the title against stiff competition (including my home city of Norwich, which also made the final). The year-long program of events offers jazz music the chance to grab some headlines, to display the talents of Irish musicians to the world and also to attract some world-class jazzers to Derry.

Possibly the greatest sense of optimism for the future of jazz in Northern Ireland relates to the growing pool of young musical talent. Lyttle and McKnight may be at the forefront at present, but there are other up-and-comers that also deserve watching. The terrific teenage guitarist Andreas Varady is certainly one to watch. Based in Limerick, in the Republic, and still just 13 years old, he's recorded a great album with Lyttle, Questions (Lyte Records, 2010), that includes his versions of tunes by John Coltrane, among others. Hamilton also name checks vocalists Fiona Trotter, Amanda Jameson and Kevin Morrow as worth watching. This may still be a small scene in a small country but it's full of enthusiasm—and the talent to back it up.

Photo Credit

Top Photo: Ronan McGee, Linley Hamilton and Pete McKinney at Bert's Bar, Belfast, Ireland

All photographs by Bruce Lindsay

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