Tag Archives: Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival

Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Norrie Thomson

Norrie Thomson first became an Edinburgh International Jazz Festival driver in 1987 when he was still working with HM Customs & Excise. He says: “Each year until 2000, when I retired after 38.5 years, I took annual leave to cover the jazz festival.

“When I started as a driver at the festival, bands would come for several days at a time – during which the driver effectively became the band’s ‘roadie ‘. Prior to the start of each festival the drivers would get notice of what bands were to appear and would ask to drive their favourites. It also often happened that, subsequently, band leaders would request drivers that they had dealt with previously. Many lasting friendships were built up over the years this way. Work allocations were made by Frances Burgess [mother of saxophonist/clarinettist John Burgess].

“As volunteers, the drivers were worked pretty hard at times putting in many long, unpaid, hours of work. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and made a valuable contribution to the running of the Festival. A typical example of a volunteer driver’s experience at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival would be:

  • Edinburgh Airport or the Waverley Station to be meet the band on arrival at the airport or train station and take the musicians to their hotel.
  • Discuss the band’s itinerary with leader or manager and arrange pick up times.

“The bands were worked pretty hard and earned whatever they were paid. The norm was several gigs each day. The driver would assist with loading and unloading band equipment. This would often be done under frantic conditions. Gigs often followed each other with little time to spare and considerable distances to travel.

Tomas Ornberg                                                                                                                                               “Tomas, a Swedish musician, was a very fine reeds player and leader of his Blue 5 and the Swedish Jazz Kings, and had played the festival on many occasions. In addition to the fine Swedish members of his band, Tomas often used top musicians from the jazz world – Bob Barnard, Roy Williams, Kenny Davern, Bob Hunt, Joep Peeters, Martin Litton, Keith Durston to name a few.

“My first experience with Tomas was in the early 1990s, but was the band’s first choice of ‘roadie’ thereafter. The band’s manager and Tomas’s partner was Irene Biermans, a Dutch lady.

“Over the years Tomas and Irene became great friends of mine and we corresponded regularly swapping news of our respective families.

“Whenever we met Tomas would always say to me: ‘I’ve got my clarinet’. This resulted from one memorable festival night when I got a phone call from Tomas, at about 1am, saying that he had lost his clarinet. The Swedish Jazz Kings had been doing the last slot in the Speigeltent, which had been erected on top of the Waverley Market ,and he thought that he must have left it there.

“I quickly dressed, got in my car and drove to the venue, which was still open. I searched around but couldn’t see the instrument. I called Tomas and asked him to describe the case that the instrument was in. He said it wasn’t in a case. I then resumed my search with this new knowledge. I eventually found it hidden behind a large sheet of plywood. I took it to Tomas’s hotel and gave him the clarinet. I think that he almost burst into tears as he had only recently paid a considerable sum of money to Kenny Davern for the instrument.

“The other memorable, regular event relating to both bands was the world class trumpeter /cornettist, Bent Persson ‘playing’ his mouth piece during various trips. (My worst experience of this was outside of the festival when I drove the Swedish Jazz Kings from Ayr to Inverness – Bent ‘played’ all the way.)

“Another one of the class musicians in the Swedish Jazz Kings was the wonderful bass-sax player Frans Sjostrom. His hobby was model aeroplanes. One of my neighbours had a model aeroplane shop and I introduced them to each other. Eventually Frans suggested that he would be some time and that I should go home and he would get the bus. Later on I was told by my neighbour that Frans had spent a considerable amount of money in the shop.

“In recent years Tomas suffered from poor health and in mid May 2018 I received the sad news from Irene telling me that Tomas had passed away.

Larry Adler                                                                                                                                                “In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to the famous harmonica player, Larry Adler. Before his arrival, I was told that he had to be treated gently and that he was old and a bit frail (he was in his 80s at the time). He would be arriving at the airport with his manager. I allocated an experienced driver to meet them.

“The driver contacted me to say that both persons had been safely delivered to their hotel and that Adler was the oldest man that he had ever seen that wasn’t dead and that his manager was a young Philippino woman!

“Later, during his stay, I, with another couple of volunteers, met with him in The Hub where we spoke to him (or rather he spoke to us) about his life in music. It was like talking to the history of jazz. The only irritating part of it all was his habit of bringing himself into everything – ‘When Gershwin accompanied me playing Rhapsody In Blue’, ‘When Ellington accompanied me playing the St Louis Blues’, etc.

“He did tell us that it was the American comedian, Jack Benny, who persuaded him to become a professional musician.

Leon Redbone                                                                                                                                          “Leon Redbone came to prominence in the UK through his rendition of ‘So Relax’, the soundtrack to Inter Cities sleeper service. Before this and after he was well known in the jazz / blues world as a fine singer and guitarist. He appeared at the EIJF at least twice.

“On one occasion, I assigned a driver to meet him off the 3pm train from London, King’s X. Round about 3.15pm I got a message from the driver saying that Redbone had not arrived on the 3pm train. I told the driver to wait for the next train which was due at 3.30pm. At about 3.45pm I got another call saying that he wasn’t off the 3.30pm arrival and that there wasn’t a black man on the train. What’s the point of putting artistes’ photos in the programme?! He had arrived on the 3pm train, couldn’t see anyone from the jazz festival, jumped into a taxi and went to his hotel!

Stolen Keys                                                                                                                                                    “The first Saturday of the festival has always been ‘Mardi Gras’ in the Grassmarket. This is one of the free events and consequently is very busy. Because of this, vehicles cannot go into the main part of the street but have to stop either in King’s Stable Road or the main road through the Grassmarket.

“One such Saturday in the mid noughties one of the bus drivers had to take a band of young musicians from New Orleans to play at the Mardi Gras. The driver stopped the bus on the main street, opposite where the band was to play. The band members objected to the fact that they could not go into the Grassmarket and that they would have to cross the road to get to their destination. The driver left his bus to see if any better arrangements could be made. When he returned, the band had disappeared along with the bus’s ignition key.

“I was informed of this situation and with the driver took steps to retrieve the key. I also cornered the band’s road manager and, in no uncertain terms, told him that what had happened was tantamount to theft and that if a similar situation occurred I would have no option but to call in the police.

“Unfortunately, the band members demanded an apology from the driver. What did he have to apologise for? He had done nothing wrong. I decided that the band would have to arrange its own transport and advised the driver accordingly.

‘Big Al’ Carson                                                                                                                                          “Probably the most aptly named musician who ever played at the festival. He hailed from New Orleans and weighed in at 38 stones (532 lbs). When travelling by air he had to book two seats. When travelling round Edinburgh the only suitable transport was a black taxi although he could squeeze into the front seats in the passenger section of a mini-bus.

“Big Al was at two festivals as a vocalist and sousaphone player. He was fortunate, as was the festival, in that he could fit in comfortably to the jazz or blues parts of the event.

“As could be surmised he had a prodigious appetite. One afternoon he was playing at the blues festival, located at the Caledonian Brewery. The brewery had a pub within the grounds, reserved for artistes. The beauty of this establishment was that there was no charge for food or drink! Every so often, a tray of about 12 Scotch pies was provided. On the occasion to which I refer, Big Al ate the whole lot and looked for more.

“He was a lovely man, always grateful for the trouble that was taken to look after him. He was always afraid that he was being a nuisance. I only once saw him angry. I had to drive him from Edinburgh to Prestwick Airport. He was going to Oslo by Ryanair (there were no Scandinavian flights from Edinburgh at the time).

“I accompanied him to the check-in desk where he was told that he would have to pay $160 excess baggage. He queried this, stating that as he had paid for two seats he should be allowed two lots of baggage. Ryanair being Ryanair would have none of this. This caused Big Al to become agitated and increasingly angry to the extent that the check-in person was threatening to call the police. I eventually managed to calm him down. His parting shot to Ryanair was that when he left Norway to return to the States he would be travelling with a real airline.

Lonnie Donegan                                                                                                                                          “Lonnie Donegan had been a hero of mine since the mid 1950s when he was with Ken Colyer’s band and with Chris Barber. However, it was with ‘The Rock island Line’, recorded in 1954, that Lonnie became internationally well known.

‘I prided myself in that I had nearly every recording that he had made together with some private stuff and radio broadcasts. In August 2002 he appeared at the Festival. He was not a well man at the time and I collected him from the premises of a chiropractor to take him to the Queen’s Hall where he was performing that evening. He sat hunched into the corner of the back seat of the car and was accompanied by his son, Peter. He was quite talkative and was looking forward to the evening’s concert. I genuinely thought that he wouldn’t make it.

“I attended the concert, in the company of Bill Gunter, the washboard player from the Californian band, Cell Block 7, that I was driving during the festival. Like myself, Bill was a big fan of Donegan.

“The concert time arrived and Lonnie bounced onto the stage and proceeded to entertain the capacity audience for the next two hours. The transformation from a small, hunched-up man in the back seat of a car to what appeared to be a human dynamo was incredible. I was really please that I had met and spoken to him.

“Three months later, in November 2002, Lonnie died.

The Golden Eagle Jazz Band                                                                                                                “Another band from California. A great bunch of guys many of whom I have stayed in touch with since the ’90s.

“One of the jobs the band had was a publicity session at the Gyle Shopping Centre. The band was on a slighly raised stage. The trombonist, Glenn Calkins, had the biggest bag of mutes that I’ve ever seen. The bass player, Robin Tankard, a dep from Liverpool and the Merseysippi Jazz Band, was a bit of a joker. Glenn had just finished playing a solo using a baby’s potty as a mute and had laid it on floor. Robin kicked the potty out in front of the band and the public, thinking this was a band of buskers, started putting money into the potty. By the end of the gig there was £45 in the potty. Dick Shooshan the leader said to me that this was almost like begging. I said that it was begging!

“The band stayed in Edinburgh for a week after the festival ended and played each evening in the Carlton Hotel. Each day the band played in Princes Street Gardens and always the potty was to the fore! The musos earned their beer money for the week this way.

“In honour of the band’s visit to Scotland a poem was written. [Scroll down to read.]

 

Road Managers                                                                                                                                “Over the years I have found that some road managers seem to create situations to demonstrate to their clients just how well they are being looked after. This, of course, can backfire as the following examples show.

“An internationally famous vocal group is due to land at Edinburgh Airport. The group’s road manager has stated that three limousines are required, one for each vocalist. The band accompanying the vocalists are to be transported in a mini-bus. I have to go the airport to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

“The vocalists arrive together with the band. Only one limousine appears. The male vocalist jumps in and departs leaving the two female vocalists and the band. I speak to the female vocalists, apologising for the absence of the two limousines. The ladies tell me that they are glad because they wanted to travel with the band.

“The second situation is reasonably similar. Again, we have a well known vocalist travelling with his backing band. The road manager has demanded a nice car for the vocalist and a mini- bus for the band. The arrival location is the Waverley Station. Because of the station parking situation, I go into the station to meet the party whilst the nice car (a Mercedes) and the mini-bus are waiting in Market Street at the back of the station.

“As we emerge from the station, I indicate to the vocalist where his car is. He tells me that he doesn’t want a car. He wants to travel with the band. Again, this is a crazy thing. The driver has had to drive from Barnton to the Waverley at the height of the rush hour for nothing.

The Music                                                                                                                                                                    “One of the main advantages that I have gained from the many years that I have been involved with the Festival is the number of recordings that I have done – always with the band leaders permission, I may add. These recordings will end up in the Edinburgh / Scottish Jazz Archive eventually.

“I have only once been refused permission to record and after listening to the band I was glad!

* The 2018 Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22.

Haggis-2

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Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Fiona Alexander

Edinburgh Jazz Festival - 1990s & 2000s coversFiona 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.

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Joe Temperley with the World Jazz Orchestra, 2012

 

“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

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Ellington’s World Comes to Edinburgh

One of the most prestigious – and ambitious – items in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme is a concert by a brand-new, specially-formed band on the penultimate night of the ten-day event. And, bizarrely, we have the Olympics to thank for it ..

Festival producer Roger Spence explains: “The idea is that in the Olympic year, when people are coming from all over the world to London, we thought we could create a concert programme which reflects jazz as an international music. In recent years, we’ve established the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra – the concept of which is to blend eight Scottish musicians with eight international ones – but with the World Jazz Orchestra, every single member of the band comes from a different country – we have musicians coming from all over the globe.”

Taking this idea and running with it, 100-metre style, Spence realised that there was one obvious body of work from which a programme could be formed for this melting pot band. “We know that jazz is international but we wanted music with a universal appeal and for a big event like this, we had to choose a composer who is regarded by many as the very best – so we chose Duke Ellington. And the wonderful thing about Duke Ellington as far as this project is concerned, is that he wrote music inspired by music and countries all over the world. We can reflect different flavours of world music through the prism of one composer.”

The choice of Duke Ellington led straight back to Scotland and to the jazz festival itself: over recent years, the great, Fife-born baritone saxophonist and one-time member of the Ellington band Joe Temperley (pictured above) has forged a strong relationship with the festival. “He was the obvious choice to lead the World Jazz Orchestra,” explains Spence. Temperley is more familiar than most with the vast Ellington repertoire: not only did he play in the band, following the death of its original baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but he has also – in the context of his membership of Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – played many of the Duke’s seldom-performed suites.

And key excerpts from one such suite are at the heart of next Saturday’s concert. Along with such exotic pieces as the Far East Suite and the Latin-American Suite, the orchestra will play some of Ellington’s landmark Black, Brown and Beige, which was performed for the first time by the Ellington band for its Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. This historic concert in aid of Russian War Relief was sold out (3000 seats) days beforehand but the demand for tickets remained so intense that a further 200 people were seated on the stage.

For Ellington aficionados, the 47-minute tone poem, which fused jazz, blues, spirituals and Spanish influences, and reflected the Afro-American experience from the arrival of the first wave of slaves off boats in 1619, was a thrill to hear – though the critics were not as quick to embrace this, the jazz composer’s first, full-blown suite. Jazz critics worried that he was forsaking jazz (though he had written a number of extended compositions before, including Symphony in Black which had similar themes), while the classical world was dismissive of his aspirations as a “serious” composer.

Indeed, Ellington – who later said: “We stopped using the word jazz in 1943; that was the point when we didn’t believe in categories” – never performed it again in its entirety in concert though he recorded numerous versions of it. Some parts of it – notably the magnificent spiritual Come Sunday, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and performed by him at Carnegie Hall almost before the ink had dried on the arrangements – have taken on a life of their own. On the Ellington orchestra’s 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, Come Sunday was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Since then, vocalists as diverse as jazz singer Lee Wiley and soul singer Gladys Knight have performed it – and in Edinburgh next week, it will be sung by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whom Temperley recommended for the job.

For the octogenarian musician, it’s a joy to be able to bring this music to an Edinburgh audience. “I love Black, Brown and Beige,” he says. “It’s one of my very favourite Ellington suites. I’m particularly fond of the version with Ben Webster where he plays the solo on The Blues. We’ll be doing that piece in Edinburgh, with the Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo following in the footsteps of Webster, Al Sears and Paul Gonsalves.”

Of course, Black, Brown and Beige – as with all of Ellington’s work – was written specifically for the musicians in his band at the time; for their individual and combined sounds. Temperley says: “The secret of Ellington’s success was the ‘Ellingtonians’ – Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges etc. He wrote for them. It was like a Shakespeare company. It was more than a band; it was a collection of individuals that came together and were marshalled together in an unusual way – those different voicings he used, like two trombones and a baritone.. He did not have those in mind harmonically; he was thinking of the personalities of the musicians who’d be playing.”

Given this, is it more of a challenge to play Ellington’s music; do you approach it differently? “I would say so. If you play a Basie arrangement, it’s pretty straight-ahead. With Ellington, you have to bear in mind the people who went before, and not try to impersonate them. Of course you’re influenced by them, but you shouldn’t try to sound like them.” A tall order – but Temperley and his international team will no doubt have earned their gold medals by the time they’ve completed their Ellington marathon.

* The World Jazz Orchestra plays at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 19, 2012

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