Alison Kerr (in black, at piano), listening to the Hot Antic Jazz Band, Drones, 1987
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