The seductive enigma of jazz

TRYING TO write about jazz is a bit like trying to paint Connemara. The subjects are so elusive that to describe it conclusively is nigh near impossible and the writer or artist is reduced to focusing on an individual moment that most responds to or echoes their personal or artistic talent.

In both cases this is due to their elemental nature and their absolute refusal to be artificially moulded into a definite entity.

When jazz began to evolve from its multifarious foundations and make itself felt as the powerful music force it now is, it was deemed to be a grossly irrelevant, noisy and vulgar expression, with absolutely no aesthetic value, of an ignorant, illiterate, and downtrodden people and deserving of nothing but the utmost contempt.

But jazz was resilient and, despite being marginalised, its influence grew in stature to become one of the fundamental genres of modern music, a fact that suggests it expresses the spiritual essence of the human heart and soul.

Like all things that touch the heart and soul, jazz defies definition or description. It oscillates from the big band performance of a Count Basie or a Duke Ellington to the sole and anonymous musician or singer alone in the dark corner pouring out his heart and soul as much to himself as to anybody who cares to listen.

Within these extremely loose limits, the punter can explore the full range of human joy and suffering from the exuberance of Louis Armstrong or Lionel Hampton to the extraordinary dignified and individual expression of human tragedy in Carmen Mc Crae’s version of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’. The real beauty, and indeed excitement, of this is that jazz is a never ending changing river of emotion obeying no rules except those of an individual heartfelt expression of the spiritual or mundane human experience. The punter, and sometimes the musician or singer, never knows what is coming next.

My first experience of jazz was trying hard to catch the strains and melodies of Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball outside Seapoint Ballroom - when they played the famous Salthill venue during the early sixties - being too young and not having either the money or the know how to get inside.

Throughout the seventies and eighties and into the nineties, the jazz scene in Galway was dominated by the wonderful All That Jazz band, consisting of the various members of the Dooley family.

One of the highlights of the first Streets Festival in celebrating Galway’s quincentenary in 1984, was the open air concert they gave as they blasted out their own particular brand of Dixieland to the seething bopping sea of people that were jammed into Quay Street.

After that, my interest in and knowledge of jazz waned being reignited by a chance purchase in, of all places, Schiphol Airport. Meanwhile the Galway jazz scene had grown to such an extent that a number of years ago the first Galway Jazz Festival took place. Now in its eighth year, the festival has thrived and, because of this, jazz has spread gradually, if somewhat slowly, to all parts of the city and county.

In Salthill, five years ago, The Bal hosted a jazz session every Sunday evening from 7pm to 8pm, for a number of summers. More recently, The Black Cat restaurant, wine, and tapas bar holds many wonderful jazz sessions during the week without comment, without fanfare, so that along with the wonderful food and wine, the punter can also sit, listen, and relax in what has to be the best kept jazz secret in town.

With venues like this, there is hope for us all and if the Galway Jazz Festival continues to inspire others to open similar oases such as The Black Cat, it will have added immeasurably to the cultural life of the city.

The eigth Galway Jazz Festival runs from October 10 to 14. For more information see www.galwayjazzfest.com

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