Fiona Alexander, one of the producers of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, shares her memories of the event. She says:
“My very first brush with the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival was in the late 1980s when the Festival Club was in Edinburgh University Staff Club in Chambers Street. As a newcomer to jazz, I remember being amazed by all the music happening – three concerts running simultaneously on three floors with audiences moving from one space to another. I remember that I heard Lillian Boutté in my early days of jazz exploration and she made a huge impression on me – the musicality, the stories and the humanity.
“I started working with the festival in 1997. We wanted to develop it by adding more contemporary jazz, whilst retaining the established focus on traditional jazz and including the special musical collaborations only happening in Edinburgh. So the programme featured Acker Bilk, Bob Barnard, Kenny Ball and Carol Kidd alongside John Scofield and Gil Scott Heron. The festival also featured the Mardi Gras, Jazz on A Summer’s Day, a Gospel concert at St Giles, The Blues Festival at the Caledonian Brewery and a late night club with the Alex Shaw Trio at the Caledonian Hotel.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the festival is developing relationships with musicians and seeing the progress through the years – so the UK premiere for The Bad Plus took place at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival and they returned several years later with Joshua Redman playing one of the best concerts that I have ever heard.
“There’s a host of musicians who are informal friends of the festival – artists like Scott Hamilton, Ken Peplowski, Mr Sipp and David Berkman – who return to play regularly in new and different contexts. Some of the special collaborations have been very special indeed – the World Jazz Orchestra led by Joe Temperley, featuring Cecile Salvant, playing the music of Duke Ellington for example. The music and the atmosphere were electric. Tommy Smith and Courtney Pine both playing Coltrane – two very different approaches.
“Who have I been especially pleased to bring to Edinburgh? So, so many people. Hosts of international musicians like Christian Scott, Tia Fuller, Roy Hargrove, Ambrose Akinmusire, but also some really interesting smaller scale projects such as French pianist Baptiste Trotignon playing in Rosslyn Chapel, and young pianists like Aga Derlak and Enrico Zanisi. A host of Scottish jazz projects have been born at Edinburgh – New Focus (Konrad Wiszniewski with Euan Stevenson), Band of Eden co-led by Tom Bancroft and Laura Macdonald, and, coming right up to date, Alison Affleck with the all female Shake Em Up Jazz Band who are playing this year.
“Of course things can go wrong. When dealing with so many people there are inevitably lots of incidents, but one of the main areas of daily concern used to be musical instruments not arriving with bands – the frantic call-round to find a bass saxophone at 4pm for a soundcheck staring in 60 minutes, or I remember taking delivery of e.s.t’s double bass just five minutes before their concert started. Now we more often supply an instrument in Edinburgh for people to use.
“Of course lost luggage also relates to suitcases and clothes not arriving, musicians missing rehearsals and so on. Weather for the outdoor events also give us pause – strong winds affect the stage in the Mardi Gras, rain affects the Carnival. I remember one particularly inconvenient shower on the afternoon of a concert we had planned for Princes Street Gardens – it poured between 2 and 4 pm – then the sun came out and it was a lovely evening. However, we didn’t get the same walk-up and lost a significant amount of money.
“There are various ways in which the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival stands out from other jazz festivals. There is no doubt that the range of music from 1920s to today makes our programme distinctive, as does our creative curation process – we present a lot of ONLY in Edinburgh concerts which we make happen just for the festival – so for example last year we offered 10 concert to Brian Kellock and asked him who he wanted to play with and then presented concerts with Fionna Duncan, The Ear Regulars, Liane Carroll and so on.
“As I hope you’ve gathered we are thrilled across the board – it’s as excting to present BIG Name X as to present a really exciting breakthrough artist and that’s because we love the music. So we are thrilled this year to be presenting the New Wave of Scottish Jazz – Mark Henry’s new commission, to present the first ever duo concert with Martin Taylor and Curtis Stigers and to have a new hub for the Festival with Teviot Row.”
* The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com
Next: Norrie Thomson
Scottish bass player Roy Percy was a student when he first became involved with the jazz festival; these days he can usually be seen in different line-ups throughout the event, and he’s kept busy the rest of the year as one third of the acclaimed Tim Kliphuis Trio and one quarter of the popular Swing 2018 band. He says:
“My earliest attendance of the jazz festival was in August 1984, when my school band was supposed to take part in the youth competition at the King James Hotel in the now demolished St James Shopping Centre. We didn’t play in the end (no-one can remember why!) but we attended and watched the bands and lots of speeches.
“I first played the festival in 1986 with John Elliot’s Dixieland Band. We won the youth band award that year. It was sponsored by Avis car rentals. The award had their motto on it – ‘We Try Harder,’ which we thought was very funny, everything considered.
“The bands were only allowed one older member (over 25, I think) and in our case that was banjoist Bev Knight, who now plays for Jim Petrie in the Diplomats of Jazz. Everyone in the band was at the Edinburgh Uni except for me. I was a proud Stevenson College boy!
“My first big thrill of the jazz festival was that first year – I was a festival volunteer and one evening I filled in for Milt Hinton’s driver. I carried his bass into Meadowbank for him. He was nice – chatty and friendly – but I was a bit shy of asking him too many questions. I loved hearing him play. He slapped the bass a little too, which I hadn’t expected him to be doing. Fantastic!
“The following year, I played at the festival in Swing ’87 – with Dick Lee on clarinet, and John Russell and Martin Leys on guitars. (I joined in November 1986.) We had Fapy Lafertin join us that year. In his prime, he was the best of the gypsy guitarists, and still not surpassed by anyone since.
“That same year, I drove Al Casey to Pollock Halls of Residence (where he was staying, almost unbelievably!) in my 1964 Rover P4. I took the longest route I could think of so I could chat to him, as he was friendly and happy to chat. He kept asking: ‘Is this a Rolls Royce?’
“At the halls, I made him a hot chocolate in the shared kitchenette and asked him about Fats Waller. ‘Best fun, strongest pianist I ever knew. So inventive too. I was a kid and learned so much, so quickly too. I gotta pee now.’ And that was it. Afterwards he went back to asking me about my car!”
Next: Fiona Alexander
If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I wouldn’t be writing about jazz now…
It was August 21, 1986, and I was 14 years old when I first accompanied my dad on one of his annual week’s worth of jaunts to Edinburgh during the jazz festival. By this time, he had evolved a jazz festival routine – he booked a week off work, bought a festival rail pass (this was back when the jazz festival coincided with the other Ediburgh festivals), resumed a smoking habit that hadn’t been indulged since the previous festival, and met up with different pals (with varying degrees of interest in jazz but an equally strong interest in beer), at the many licensed premises that doubled as venues.
This was the now long-gone era of the famous jazz festival Pub Trail, when brewers sponsored the jazz festival, the packed programme resembled a paperback novel, and you could hear local and international bands – some semi-professional, some wholly; all enthusiastic purveyors of classic and trad jazz – in pubs all over the city. On my first day at the jazz festival I heard the French band who quickly became lifelong favourites – the Hot Antic Jazz Band. And my fate was sealed ..
That was one strand of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. The other was the one with ticketed gigs, usually an afternoon or evening long session with two or three sets featuring different line-ups. When the festival introduced their now-fabled Gold Star Badges (in 1986), you could dip in and out of three or more gigs in a night, and follow your favourite bands or soloists around town.
In our case, this invariably meant legging it from somewhere like the Festival Club on Chambers Street over to the Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square and then to the Royal Overseas League on Princes Street – where, that first year, I saw the pianist whose appearance in Edinburgh was the reason for mine, the nimble-fingered Dick Hyman – before the inevitable mad dash for the last train back to Glasgow.
Of course, there was no guarantee that you would get into a gig which you hadn’t been at from its kick-off, which is why – in 1991 – there were nearly tears when we ended up standing OUTSIDE the Tartan Club at Fountainbridge (that year’s incarnation of Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club) listening as best we could to an eight-piece all-star band featuring Yank Lawson, Scott Hamilton, Marty Grosz and Kenny Davern (I vividly recall being blown away as Scott Hamilton brilliantly evoked Lester Young’s iconic solo on Back in Your Own Backyward), when we had left perfectly good seats at the Spiegeltent and would have heard Leon Redbone if we had stayed on after the Dry Throat Fellows, another favourite quirky European group. Needless to say, the atmosphere on the train home that night was not the best …
Those early years at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – me in my mid-teens; my dad in his early 40s – undoubtedly ruined me for everything that came later. I revelled in the camaraderie, rejoiced in observing the characters onstage and off (there was a motley crew of eccentrics – the “Coke Can Kid” and “Monsieur Hulot” were two of our favourites – who would turn up every year and usually be in competition for the front row seats), and delighted in the lack of segregation between audience and musicians which meant that when I emerged from my front-row seat at the end of a gig, my father would tell me he had just had a pint with one of the musicians we’d admired earlier in the day.
Probably the greatest gift the jazz festival gave me – apart from these unique opportunities to spend time with my dad – was the chance to hear some of the greats from the heyday of jazz. The veteran jazz musicians I was privileged to hear during my teens reads like the personnel listings of favourite records from the golden age of jazz – Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Casey, Al Grey, Milt Hinton etc.
Thanks to the jazz festival, I held the door open for Milt Hinton. I heard Art Hodes, who had played piano for Al Capone. I heard Al Casey, who had been in Fats Waller’s bands. And later, as a young journalist, I received annual invitations to his New York jazz festival from Dick Hyman.
Then there are musicians we got to hear for the first time in Edinburgh – and went on to enjoy at successive festivals. If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I would not have come across the wonderful guitarist, singer and raconteur Marty Grosz as early as I did, and for bringing him into our lives, I’ll be forever grateful to the festival. Few other musicians lift the spirits as he can, and his duo gigs with clarinettist/saxophonist and fellow wise-cracker Ken Peplowski at Edinburgh in the late 1990s, early 2000s were the main highlights of those festivals for many of us.
By the late 1990s, the pub trail was gone, and the informality that we had loved was a thing of the past as the musicians we wanted to hear were usually scheduled to play in the sobering (and non-smoking) Hub venue and being kept well away from the audience. Our favourite musicians might still be coming to the festival, but if they did it was usually just for one or two concerts. My father no longer needed to book a week off work.
The festival had rolled on to a new era. But what luck to have lived through those early days and to have had just about enough nous to appreciate that what I was witnessing was special.
In the run-up to this year’s jazz festival, I’m publishing a series sharing memories of the jazz festival from across its 40-year history, and from the perspectives of punters and performers alike. If you would like to share your stories and photos, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Next: Roy Percy
One-time member of the Clyde Valley Stompers and a fixture on the Scottish jazz scene from the 1950s onwards, Glasgow-born clarinettist Forrie Cairns enjoyed the Edinburgh Jazz Festival as both a player and a listener. He says:
“I was working virtually non-stop in Switzerland for the first 30 years of the jazz festival. But on the odd occasion when I took part in it (I think four altogether), what always excited me was the way Mike Hart (before it became more of committee-run event) managed to arrange those great afternoon Pub Trail gigs and the ones in the Festival Club with all the unusual line-ups comprising the musicians from the various visiting bands.
“For example, in the mid- 1980’s I came over for week with Bob Wallis and although I worked each night with Bob at various venues, I found myself one afternoon duetting with John Crocker, the sax/ clarinet player from the Chris Barber Band. It was great fun.
“That same year gave me the unique opportunity one other afternoon of listening for one hour to the two wonderful horns of Warren Vaché and Spanky Davis, the resident horn man at Jimmy Ryan’s Club in New York. Two quite different styles and two musicians at their peak, not attempting to blow each other off the stand, but rather complementing each other in quite superb fashion. Those musicians who crowded into the Festival Club that day were so lucky. That was the Edinburgh Festival at its best.”
Next: Alison Kerr
Scotland’s first jazz festival was born out of an experiment, 40 years ago, when local antiques-dealer and banjo-player Mike Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital.
Its success, plus a visit to the Sacramento Jazz Festival, inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh International Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.
But it was in 1980 that the EIJF began to operate a policy which helped define it: it began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight.
Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections.
The jazz festival continued in this manner until the mid-1990s, by which point the blues festival had been added, the dates no longer fell within the main Edinburgh festival period, and the pub trail had come to an end.
In 1997, the festival was produced, for the first time, with Assembly Direct (now Jazz Scotland), ushering in a new era in which even more sub-genres of jazz were represented at the festival, and new collaborations and projects were championed, but always with a basic respect for classic and trad jazz and the keepers of the jazz flame ..
The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival (July 13-22) celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala concert on the opening night and various other events – visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details.
In the run-up, I’ll be publishing a series sharing memories of the jazz festival from across its 40-year history, and from the perspectives of punters and performers alike. If you would like to share your stories and photos, please email me on email@example.com
When singer Fionna Duncan received the call telling her that she was to be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Jazz Awards, she took the night off cooking – heading instead for a celebratory dinner at the local Chinese restaurant with her partner, veteran bass player (and winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award) Ronnie Rae. And she also began a trip down memory lane which pretty much lasted until Sunday evening’s ceremony.
“I realised when I put the phone down that it’s nearly 60 years since I won my first award,” laughs Duncan. “It was at the JazzBeat 1960 awards at the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, when I was with the Clyde Valley Stompers. I don’t actually remember anything about the night at all!”
Piecing together when things happened and in what order has been something of a challenge for Duncan, but then she is looking back over a life that’s had more twists and turns, ups and downs than most. “My life seems to have been a series of mishaps,” she chuckles, “but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Which is entirely understandable when you consider that one of her proudest moments was meeting and being admired by the greatest jazz legend of them all, Louis Armstrong, when she was the singer with the band, Forrie Cairns’ Clansmen, that was supporting him on the bill in Bridlington in 1962. But it’s maybe less understandable when you consider such setbacks as having to spend a full year in hospital in her early thirties, or having to make her debut at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow the same day as having every single tooth taken out at the dentist’s.
However, it’s perhaps not surprising that Duncan – who, at 78, is as ebullient as ever – has such a “no regrets” perspective on her own life: she is known for her optimistic outlook and ability to find and focus on the positive, a trait that has made her a sort of fairy godmother to younger musicians and enabled her to add teaching to her list of accomplishments relatively late on in her singing career.
That singing career swung into action before Duncan had even left Rutherglen Academy, where one of her teachers – Norman Buchan – got her involved in the folk music scene. Duncan, who had been taught to play guitar by her engineer father, began to take part in competitions, singing and accompanying herself on the ukulele. One of the most memorable was a talent contest organised by Hoover in Kilmarnock.
“My friend’s dad was the managing director of Hoover and they asked me to take part – though I didn’t really want to. I went along and reluctantly sang two songs – and won. The prize was a Hoover iron, an electric kettle, the chance to make a recording and an audition for TV.” Around this stage, the talented teen spent a lot of time trying to dodge small-time impresarios who wanted to put her on the bill of local theatres on the west coast. “I’d have had my name up in coloured chalk! That was the level of the Clyde circuit,” she recalls with a shudder.
A much more tempting offer came during Duncan’s ten-month visit to the States, with her parents, in 1957. “I became friends with this girl, Ann White, who had cerebral palsy, and whose dad was a millionaire. She was a talented songwriter and she told her father that she wanted me to record some of her songs so we went to New York and traipsed around the record companies there.”
At Riverside, the label whose roster of stars at that time included Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, Duncan was offered the contract of a lifetime. But she turned it down since it required moving permanently to the States. Still, the trip did provide her with a first-hand experience of the biggest singer of the day, if not of all time – and triggered her ongoing fear of meeting her heroes.
“We were at a reception with people from the recording company, and I saw this man fawning over Frank Sinatra. He put his hand on Sinatra’s shoulder, and Sinatra snapped at him: ‘Get your hand off the material, creep!’ I saw this and thought: ‘Oh f**k, I’m not going to try to speak to him!”
Luckily, other big name stars proved much more approachable. Through a “Rasputin-like” boyfriend in the business, Duncan met Lena Horne in London in the 1960s and confirms that she was every bit as elegant and beguiling in real life as she appears on film.
“She looked amazing – so composed and elegant in a white tailored suit – and she sounded amazing. She did this song The Eagle and Me, just voice and bass, and it made a big impression on me.” So much so that Duncan slips into song, and proves that her memory for good lyrics – in this case those of a protest song – is better than her memory for dates and chronology.
Indeed, there’s some dispute between them over when exactly Duncan met Forrie Cairns, the Glasgow-born clarinettist with whom she worked in various trad bands over the years – but what they do agree on is that it was during the auditions for Stars in Your Eyes, the TV show which she went on to win, and that the first song he heard her perform was Jimmie Rodgers’s hit, Honeycomb – which, of course, Duncan pauses her story to sing.
“It suited my ukulele playing because, like many of these tunes, it only had three chords – and that was about my stretch,” she laughs. “When I got on the TV show Stars in Your Eyes, they put me with Geraldo’s orchestra. They said to me: ‘Do you want to leave the ukulele?’ And I said ‘no, I need it!’ I was singing Pennies From Heaven while this stagehand was dropping great clumps of coins onto the stage from above – like missiles.”
Cairns recalls: “When I heard her for the first time, I immediately asked her if she would be interested in joining my group. She said she would have to ask her mother! Fortunately, her mum said yes and we appeared the following Saturday night at Whitecraigs Tennis Club.”
From the Forrie Cairns All Stars, Duncan and Cairns were recruited into the hugely popular Clyde Valley Stompers, led by Ian Menzies, and it was with the Stompers in 1959 that the gravelly, bluesy, Americanised Duncan vocals were first recorded – on the LP Have Tartan Will Trad. The JazzBeat award for Top Singer followed soon afterwards.
It’s little wonder Duncan doesn’t remember details as she was on such a gruelling treadmill at the time – this was, after all, the age of the trad jazz revival, when jazz bands regularly topped the pop charts and filled dance halls.
“I never got time off,” she explains. “I sang in Dundee with the mumps because Ian Menzies said it was just swollen glands. It was awful. I thought my face would never go back to normal.” When Duncan, Forrie Cairns and his pianist brother John were all injured in a late night car crash in September 1959, it was front page news in Scotland. Two days later, Menzies assured Evening Times readers that the trio would be out of hospital and on the stage that night “at a Woodend tennis club hop”.
In 1971, following an accident abroad which left her with five slipped discs and resulted in a year in hospital, Duncan decided to jack in the singing game altogether. “All I could think about was the pain – the idea of sitting in vans all day put me off returning. I decided to train as a hairdresser and really liked it – it was the first time I had had any female friends; in the bands it was all men.”
However, it turned out that hairdressing was not Duncan’s calling and she gradually returned to full-time singing, a transition that ushered in a chapter of her life which included setting up home with her partner, bass player extraordinaire Ronnie Rae, and forming her own trio – Rae, plus two up-and-coming talents, Brian Kellock (piano) and John Rae (drums) – in the mid-1980s.
It also included a broadening of her repertoire and development of her style through working with younger musicians and through participation in workshops in the States; a format which she brought back to Scotland with her fondly remembered Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops which ran during the Glasgow Jazz Festival for more than a decade.
These days, Duncan performs less frequently – though she notched up both Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Fringe appearances last summer – but is regularly called upon for her teaching skills at jazz singing workshops, the next of which takes place in August. Until then, expect her to be busy rearranging the mantelpiece in her Garelochhead home so that the household’s latest Lifetime Achievement Award is centre stage ….
* Fionna Duncan is one of the tutors on the Pathhead Vocal Jazz Workshop which runs August 18-19. For more information, visit www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops
First published in The Herald, June 9