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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.
One of the very few drawbacks of living in our little corner of Ireland is that we don’t often get an opportunity to hear live jazz. There is, of course, plenty of music from other genres. In the last while I’ve seen performances from Barbara Dickson, the Black Family, Hazel O’Connor and, just the other week, a rip roaring, stand up and stomp your feet, performance from the versatile Jack L, back on home turf ahead of a UK tour to promote his latest album.
And, of course, there are many semi-professional bands and solo artistes doing pub gigs every weekend. But jazz, the music that spoke to my generation, that was written about so eloquently by Kerouac and Ginsberg, the rhythms and melodies, and alliterative lyrics of “The Great American Songbook” that underlies the best tracks of the best rock artistes of the last half century, that music is rare in our neck off the woods. Indeed, I suspect it is rare most everywhere these days.
So, when I learned that the innovative manager of our local community arts centre had commissioned a series of intimate jazz concerts in a small and hitherto under-utilised part of the building, I was delighted, and eagerly obtained tickets for the first which took place last evening. The artiste who had been chosen to fill this first experimental spot, it turned out, has flu. But she has friends in the business and was able to obtain a stand-in at a few hours notice. Never having seen the intended performer, I have no idea what I, and the handful of other jazz lovers present, missed. What I do know is that the stand-in is an incredibly talented singer.
She took me on a journey back to my first ever experience of live jazz, when, at just 15, I saw Ella Fitzgerald perform in a large theatre in London as part of a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour.
And she took me, lyrically, to New York and Paris and London’s Barclay Square. She asked me ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’ If only I were fifty years younger I’d say ‘yes’ to that in a nano-second.
She gelled beautifully with the two musicians accompanying her despite never having met them before. That, I suppose, is one of the delights of jazz standards – everyone who plays jazz knows them and even though they lend themselves wonderfully to endless reinterpretation and soaring improvisations, once you’re in the groove instinct takes over and there is a certain inevitability about the direction the music will take you in.
The young woman I speak of is called Suzanne Savage and it was no surprise to me to discover, from her Facebook page, that, among her accomplishments is listed chorister at Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin. The beauty of her soprano voice was evident last night. So, too, was her ability to use that voice as an instrument, bending notes, scatting along with the string bass and allowing the pianist space to riff while she moved her body with the rhythm before returning to the melody like a swallow returning to its nesting place after a sojourn in warmer climes, having just soared away into the rafters and roamed the basement of the former gaol that is now the Dunamaise Centre.
I can still hear her rendition of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ in my head as I write this. Her voice contained delightful echoes of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne but was, without doubt, first and foremost, Suzanne Savage, a unique and wonderful sound to savour.
And she took me back to another concert, late in 1978 or early in ’79, another time when I was entertained by a stand-in because the billed solo instrumentalist couldn’t make it. On that occasion the stand-in was a very young man who sat on a high bar stool and played the coolest, and the hottest, acoustic guitar set imaginable. In a venue where the quieter passages of other concerts were often marred by the sound of conversations being carried on at the back of the room, he held the whole company in enthralled silence. His name? Martin Taylor. Within months I heard he had replaced Django Reinhardt, dueting with Stéphane Grappelli.
Will Suzanne Savage ever enjoy the fame of Martin Taylor? She is certainly earning rave reviews for her highly innovative current project which showcases her versatility. But jazz these days is no longer part of the mainstream of entertainment. Although Michael Bublé has had phenomenal success in recent years, and Imelda May seems to be doing okay, in an industry that prefers boy bands and potty mouthed young women, I fear that someone like Savage, however talented and passionate about her art, will struggle to gain recognition beyond the ever decreasing circle of lovers of jazz and other avant garde genres.
I hope I get another chance to hear her perform – she deserves a much bigger stage and audience than she had last night. The Albert Hall in next year’s jazz promenade concert would not be too wild an ambition. Clare Teal, are you listening?
A couple of years before I left school some of my class mates started bringing jazz records they’d purchased in specialist music shops in London. It was my introduction to a style of music that came to be known as Modern Jazz. A development from swing, this free flowing form of music was pioneered by various instrumentalists who had cut their musical teeth with one or more of the Basie, Ellington and Goodman bands of the 1940s.
Zoot Sims and his brother Ray were members of the Benny Goodman band in 1946-7, Zoot on saxophone and Ray on trombone. Afterwards Zoot joined the Woody Herman band. There he worked alongside Stan Getz and Al Cohn, establishing his reputation for an intensely melodic style of playing influenced by, and building upon, Lester Young’s laid back vocabulary. It was his work with the Gerry Mulligan sextet that I remember most fondly from that time.
I used my love of jazz in my novel Transgression. A young woman arrives in London in 1947 where, through her friendship with a medical student, she discovers live jazz in a Soho club.
The main thing, so far as Mabel was concerned, was that he appeared knowledgeable about jazz. He could talk for hours about the difference between Basie and Ellington, knew all the new combos, could explain why Monk was so much cooler than Moreton, compared Mulligan’s swinging baritone with Sims’s tenor playing, said he was looking forward to hearing the result of the latter’s partnership with Getz and Cohn now he’d left Benny Goodman and joined Woody Herman’s new line-up.
Of course, the time would come when she realised some of this was complete tosh, made up to impress her. For now, she was grateful for the opportunity to see and hear musicians performing in the flesh.
The atmosphere inside the club was all she had expected, and more. They were able to sit close to the small platform on which the musicians played. She could see the tendons in their necks straining, their cheeks puffed out as they blew into the mouthpieces of their instruments, their fingers flying across the valves that changed the timbre of the notes they played. Sweat poured from their hair lines, dripped from their chins, and light flashed brassily from the curved surfaces of trumpets and saxophones.
And that is my final contribution to the 2016 atoz challenge. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all 26 as much a I’ve enjoyed writing them.