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Glasgow Jazz Festival's First 25

I don't normally do requests - well, only if I'm asked, as Ronnie Scott used to say every night and still manage to make the audience laugh - but a couple of people asked me to make the words I wrote for Glasgow Jazz Festival's twenty-fifth instalment available online. So here they are.

 

The first five years

Every jazz festival begins with a wish list. The idea of presenting the music’s leading musicians and defining characters is one of the factors that drives such an enterprise. Sometimes organisers have to build gradually towards the pinnacle. In Glasgow Jazz Festival’s case, however, the mission began to be accomplished from year one and within the first five instalments the greater proportion of jazz’s still available historically significant personages had been brought to a Glasgow stage.

It began in 1987 with Benny Carter being selected as the festival’s first composer in residence. To an inaugural programme that also included one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Miss Sarah Vaughan, Carter brought associations that went back as far as Fletcher Henderson, James P Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington as well as his still vigorous alto saxophone playing and writing and arranging talents that had contributed to the very fabric of jazz.

The Glasgow Suite, which was Carter’s commissioned composition, will be heard again this year, when his friend Ken Mathieson, the festival’s first programmer, revisits it with his Classic Jazz Orchestra. But Carter left Glasgow with more than the city’s name on a jazz icon’s musical score, and the memory of hearing him in person, and for the young musicians in the newly formed Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra, the experience of working alongside him, lived on long afterwards.

Gerry Mulligan followed in Carter’s footsteps in 1988, although the baritone saxophonist who had been in at the birth of the Cool had another mode of transport in mind. Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band playing his specially composed The Flying Scotsman energised a Theatre Royal audience with its encapsulation, in a fraction of its duration, of an epic steam train journey. As with Carter, this was a musician with a history but, also like Carter, it was the lyrical, deeply personal music he played in Glasgow, with his quartet and again with SYJO, that mattered.

By now the festival was a major player and recordings from its concerts, such as Mulligan’s Lonesome Boulevard, would only add to its international reputation. The big names were expected and delivered. Stan Getz added to the event’s prestige when his Theatre Royal tenor saxophone master class appeared on two discs, Yours & Mine and Soul Eyes.

Cab Calloway added more great jazz history and a stonking Minnie the Moocher to the collective memory bank. Dizzy Gillespie arrived with his distinctive ‘upright’ trumpet and a united nations of musical magicians. Oscar Peterson refined the art of jazz piano with irresistibly swinging spontaneity. Ray Charles flew in to confirm that genius + soul = jazz, although his orchestra’s expected arrival at Glasgow airport didn’t impress a waiting traffic warden (“Ah don’t care if yer meetin’ Billy Smart’s Circus – move yer bus”). And for Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, 1990, there really was only one choice of bill topper – Miles Davis, still confiding the blues through his trumpet over a groove that rocked the SECC house.


1992-1996

One afternoon in 1992, the then director of Glasgow Jazz Festival, Jim Smith found himself looking at a Glasgow council car park and seeing something much more than that. The stall-holders’ name boards pegged around what would become the balcony and the cobbles underfoot added to a magical atmosphere of a unique indoor facility, even if the roof would need attention in time and the resident pigeons ushered elsewhere to resume their target practice.

Smith’s vision was to produce a venue, now regarded as the jazz festival’s spiritual home, that would also go on to serve Glasgow’s Americana and world music festivals brilliantly and host a central plank of the city’s famous Celtic Connections’ programme.

And so it was that on Friday July 1, 1993, Jools Holland and his big band became the first attractions to shake, rattle and roll the Old Fruitmarket, leading off a roll call that now reads like the index to a jazz encyclopaedia. Between 1993 and 1996, the Old Fruitmarket welcomed such architects of jazz as Max Roach, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, David Murray and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Here, too, was where Glasgow audiences felt the powerful intoxication of the Mingus Big Band at full, exhilarating tilt and heard the homegrown talent of Tommy Smith unleash one of the festival’s best-ever commissions, Beasts of Scotland. They grooved to the Jazz Crusaders, salsa’ed to Arturo Sandoval, rocked to Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin, took a world tour with Joe Zawinul and Trilok Gurtu, and sampled early tastes of talents who would continue to seduce, such as the marvellously understated pianist Jacky Terrasson, or in the case of the powerfully imaginative saxophonist Thomas Chapin, be taken from us far too soon.

Before the Old Fruitmarket came into service, the former transport museum on Glasgow’s south side, Tramway had played host to some special festival performances. The late French pianist Michel Petrucciani’s soulful playing remains with this listener even now, and the great visionary Don Cherry’s marshalling of his own pocket trumpet and the ‘Brazilian Steinway’, the berimbau, together with saxophones, tuba and drums, while not to everyone’s taste, was certainly a talking point long afterwards.

That same year, 1992, Carla Bley arrived with her instantly recognisable fringe and blend of American church music, Monkish influences, tango and highly individual orchestral colouration and filled the composer in residence’s shoes with enthusiasm and gracefulness. Meantime, over at the late night club, Grover Washington Jnr was proving that behind all those extraordinarily successful smooth and lightly funky albums lay a saxophonist who could dig with huge resourcefulness into the jazz tradition and take on all comers in a jam session, and elsewhere the two inimitable Als, Messrs Green and King, were respectively preaching the soul gospel at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and wailing the blues big time at the Barrowland Ballroom.


1997-2001

By 1997 Glasgow Jazz Festival audiences might have been excused for being blase about welcoming in the flesh headlining names who had been responsible for some of jazz’s classic recordings.

Sometimes, however, it has been the supporting players on the stage who have carried the weight of jazz history in their CVs. On Sunday June 29 that year the cornetist Nat Adderley introduced as his drummer a man whose discography would take almost all the pages of this brochure to reproduce – check it out online some time when you have a couple of weeks to spare and see for yourself.

Jimmy Cobb had played with Adderley often. He’d also played with Adderley’s brother, Cannonball’s group, recording with him in 1955, and drummed for Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Art Pepper, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan and Sonny Stitt. But as he sat behind the kit that night, steering the music with the certainty of endless experience, he had one particular distinction that was gold dust to the jazz aficionado: he was the sole survivor of the recording sessions that produced Miles Davis’s ground-breaking Kind of Blue album.

Sideman Superstar might have been the theme song for festival guests that year. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, appearing here with vibraphonist Joe Locke, and bassist Buster Williams, leading a terrific quartet of his own, were both crucial players in a previous festival guest, Herbie Hancock’s exploratory work in the early 1970s.

There was no let up in the quality of the marquee names, though. In the five years from 1997 to 2001 Glasgow welcomed Hammond organ giant Jimmy Smith, the great pianist and composer of Lullaby of Birdland, George Shearing, Latin jazz icon Tito Puente, and in a concert that is fondly remembered for the themes of well-known jazz standards being referred to so obliquely – yet attractively – that it turned into a good natured game of Name That Tune, the brilliantly individual alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.

Konitz returns this year for a concert that is sure to be equally enthralling. Another of this year’s attractions, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra might be said to have entered a new phase in its history during this period with its first major commission for an American soloist in director Tommy Smith’s Beauty and the Beast, which he composed for his fellow saxophonist David Liebman in 2001.

This period also saw two of jazz’s most influential figures who are now no longer with us making unforgettable Glasgow appearances, both of them drummers, although not everyone realised this at the time. Elvin Jones, whose polyrhythmic adventures had helped to shape John Coltrane’s classic 1960s quartet, had been a real friend of the festival, making three appearances in all, and exuded authority on drums. As did, strangely, Michael Brecker when he laid down the saxophone whose tone was coveted throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s on his quintet’s Old Fruitmarket gig in 1998 and led an impromptu number from the kit.

 

2002-2006

The years 2002 to 2006 were a time when Glasgow Jazz Festival took the music to the streets – or onto George Square, to be precise. With the Old Fruitmarket out of commission due to refurbishment, a bold plan was implemented: stuff the weather, we’ll go alfresco and pitch a tent for when it gets seriously parky of a Glasgow summer’s evening.

Building a stage on the city centre’s widest, most popular open air space undoubtedly had its advantages. People who had previously had no relationship with the festival could be drawn in and turned on at tea-time by crowd-friendly party animals such as Pee Wee Ellis, whose saxophone had tooted the route for James Brown’s mighty soul machine, reggae swingers Jazz Jamaica, Kansas City-style conquerors King Pleasure & the Biscuit Boys and busfuls of other contenders, all playing – as Joni Mitchell once sang - real good for free.

In the adjacent Spiegeltent, Clint Eastwood’s boy, Kyle and his groovers, inexhaustible saxophonist Courtney Pine, vibist Gary Burton’s latest band of young maestros, an astonishingly tight Acoustic Ladyland, Swedish poet of the piano Bobo Stenson and ultra-imaginative trumpeter Dave Douglas held court in more intimate surroundings.

A big outdoor space called for a big outdoor idea, however, and Live for Five was born. For £5 a head thousands of people could be accommodated in the fenced section of George Square and have the sight and sound of Tony Bennett serenading a Glasgow evening etched on their memories. At the time finding himself cool all over again with a new young audience – although for Glaswegians of a certain age he’d never slipped from the pinnacle – Bennett had such a ball in 2003 that word got out and his comrade in balladry, Jack Jones followed him onto the Royal Band Big Stage the next year.

Big indoor concerts were well received, too, as George Benson, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick and Van Morrison played the Clyde Auditorium and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet scored big at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (putting the Q on a triple letter square was a crafty move). But before we were called back to the Old Fruitmarket to catch the classy Roy Hargrove, David Murray’s vibrant band with the Guadeloupian Gwo Ka percussion masters and some alluring mischief and mime from French-Beninese chanteuse Mina Agossi in 2006, the downside of promoting jazz in George Square during football’s European Championship was brought home at some decibels.

Bassist Avishai Cohen had played at the festival as part of a marvellous Chick Corea Trio gig in 2001 and his return with his own band in 2004 raised a mighty cheer. Alas, it was fans of the 150-1 rated Greek side who somehow managed to beat the odds and win the final who were doing the cheering and Avishai, a non-aligned Israeli more interested in American football these days, was a mite confused by the sonic invasion from outside the Spiegeltent. But he’d be welcome back any time for a replay.

 

2007-2011

From the very beginning Glasgow Jazz Festival has given Scottish talent its place among the internationally famous names on its various stages, and this policy has become, if anything, even more pronounced in the years leading up to this twenty-fifth instalment.

The Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra, which was formed as a direct result of the festival coming into being, has continued its association with regular guest appearances and other initiatives for encouraging young musicians to follow their mentors have seen the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition take its place in the festival programme alongside concerts by the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra and an annual summer school led by top Scottish players.

Homegrown, a series of annual concerts showcasing the very best emerging Scottish talent – a kind of Scottish Jazz Expo for want of a better term – has itself grown into a terrific success, regularly attracting promoters and festival organisers from across the UK and beyond and resulting in Scottish bands increasing their profile and getting bookings that otherwise might not have come their way.

And the Scottish jazz scene’s flagship ensemble, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s growing stature can be traced through its Glasgow Jazz Festival connection as it has followed memorable tributes to John Coltrane and even Steely Dan with brave new interpretations – director Tommy Smith’s momentous re-orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue comes instantly to mind – and original music including Smith’s powerfully expressive suite Torah.

At the same time, the festival’s own reputation as a major player on the international circuit continues. The legends just keep on coming. The sight of long queues forming outside the Carling Academy in anticipation of seeing the Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau Quartet in 2007 is as vivid in the memory as the concert itself, especially since Mehldau’s star has continued to rise and rise in the years since. Even the weather retained a sense of occasion that night. It didn’t rain either when Chick Corea arrived at the same venue in 2009 for one those ‘star performing as if practising in his own front room’ solo sessions, although getting to the gig through the traffic generated by AC/DC’s invasion of nearby Hamden Park presented its own problems.

Other highlights have included two of jazz’s outstanding individualists, the incomparable and pleasantly off the wall Mose Allison and the great documenter of jazz’s African heritage, Randy Weston, and the return of two of the major practitioners of the alto saxophone art, Bobby Watson and Kenny Garrett.

Always determined to present jazz as an inclusive term and a musical style open to everyone – having long promoted jazz’s status as a four letter word that goes from A-Z in the middle – the festival actually began spelling out its remit on its 2009 brochure (jazz, blues, reggae, funk, soul, world) in a bid to reach out to the wider audience. It can still deliver high quality from the heart of the tradition, however, and generate jam sessions that get talked about forever – as the concert and “afters” by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra last year confirmed.

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