Before yesterday I had not heard of Maeve Brennan. Last night I fell in love with her. I was introduced to her by the Irish Jazz singer Emilie Conway via a captivating performance combining the spoken word and music.
Brennan grew up in Dublin in the years immediately following the 1916 Easter Rising. Both her parents were actively involved in that failed insurrection, her father condemned to death then reprieved and imprisoned. After his release he participated in the brutal civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty that gave independence to 26 counties, leaving 6 of Ulster’s counties still in the United Kingdom. Echoes of what many saw then as betrayal by former allies who signed the treaty resonate today in arguments about the presently invisible border, a border which may need to be made more visible if the UK fails to reach a satisfactory solution on it’s proposed departure from the EU – a decision that threatens to be every bit as divisive for Britain as the 1922 treaty was for Ireland.
But that is by the way. In the 1930’s Brennan’s father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the USA. When the rest of the family returned to Dublin Maeve remained. She is best known for her columns in the New Yorker as “The Long Winded Lady”. But, like many other Irish and Irish/American writers, she was a master of the short story, as this tribute piece by Ann Enright in The Guardian from May 2016 makes plain.
Emilie Conway is a singer who discovered Jazz whilst on a visit to Chicago in 1999. She has, in the past, performed concerts featuring the songs of Billie Holiday among others. This latest set, of which last night’s performance at Portlaoise’s Dunamase Arts Centre may have been the last (there is nothing on her website to indicate any planned future gigs), is her musical tribute to the writer. It was compiled to celebrate the centenary of Brennan’s birth and was performed in New York and Chicago, as well as Dublin, last year.
Conway’s voice has the ability to encompass a number of different styles and this lends itself to such an innovative event. From the near operatic style of traditional Irish ballads, sung in Irish, at the commencement of the set, through swinging jazz standards, to the raw harshness of an alcoholic’s diatribe in Gershwin’s Vodka, she brings a poet’s sensibility to every number.
The first half draws on Brennan’s writing about Dublin family life and the inability of couples, in that time and place, to properly communicate their emotions. The second half is a meditation on those New Yorker columns, and the loneliness and insecurities of the woman behind them. At one point Emilie hides her cocktail dress beneath a trench coat and becomes that lonely, insecure, writer, seeking a voice in which to express her contempt for the pretensions of the actors, artists, musicians and, yes, her fellow writers, with which she came into contact every day in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Emilie, too, delivers her own prose poem to the Washington Square Hotel and the generation of young writers and musicians that lived, worked and played in and around it. Accompanied by skillful improvisations from Johnny Taylor’s piano this was, for me, one of the highlights of the whole show.
I congratulate Michelle de Forge for having the courage to devise a series of concerts she calls Jazz in the Mezz, utilising a previously underused space within the Dunamaise Centre, to introduce Jazz to the people of Laois. The problem is that, outside of Dublin and Cork, there is no appreciation of, or appetite for, Jazz in Ireland. I fear that the experiment may be viewed as a failure. Certainly that is the only conclusion to be reached from the small number attending last night’s event.
I have pondered this absence of Jazz from the Irish cultural scene and have developed a theory about it. I have heard that, in the decades following independence, the population was force fed Irish traditional music and culture in an attempt to counteract generations of Anglicisation. Moreover, under the oppressive influence of the Roman Catholic
Church, jazz was seen as “the devil’s music”. So, whilst the rest of Europe and North America embraced jazz before its evolution into rock, the Irish were unaware of its existence. When the resistance to tradition finally took hold, rock was ready and waiting to be adopted by a generation eager to dismiss what they derided as ‘diddly-aye’ traditional music in favour of rock and blues, giving us Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and so many others. Only now, thanks to people like Emilie Conway and Suzanne Savage, are the Irish beginning to understand the connection between their own folk traditions and the roots of Jazz.
If a performance by Emilie Conway is billed anywhere near you in the future, I urge you to attend. You will not be disappointed. Whatever her chosen theme, you can be sure that her voice and her interpretation of the music will delight you.