Gerald Dawe on Jazz and the Belfast Festival
The Belfast writer and poet recalls falling in love with the form and seeing the stars perform at Queen's University
It was probably listening to my aunt's stories of looking after Judy Garland during the fading star's last great hurrah in London's Palladium that sparked my interest. Along with her stories about Frank Sinatra and the swooning English girls who fell head over heels in love with the crooner in the 1950s.
Our house always had music somewhere – from piano practice to the big awkward radio set that sat brooding in the corner of the living room. Workers Playtime, Edmundo Ros gave way on the Light Programme to Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee, and by the end of the 50s into the early years of the 60s, the radio gave ground to the transistor and more emphatically to the glumpy record player that took over the front room.
My mother enjoyed jazz. She listened to it on the radio, and when her brother was home on leave and when he finally left the RAF and settled briefly back in Belfast, he brought records with him.
The television, which formed part of our communication centre, sat under the radio, and between them both the sounds of British jazz started to filter through: Acker Bilk's 'Stranger on the Shore; was a signature tune, Kenny Baker, with his bouncing 'Brylcreem' hairline, George Chisholm and the cool, perplexing beauty of Cleo Laine's voice with Johnny Dankworth, a seemingly shy presence in the shadowy background of whatever show it was we were watching.
She sounded so different, so cool to what was breaking into air time – in my recollection Helen Shapiro and Dusty Springfield. There was something so utterly contained in her voice that even when she went off on one of those scat-like A cappella riffs – part madrigal, pure invention – I wasn't sure what to make of it. The calm seriousness, the conviction, the controlled flights of invention – for a young lad it was all quite breathtakingly uncertain what was going on.
There was a jazz combo I used to love hearing called The Peddlers, and on one show in which they were guests (which included a brilliant version of 'Misty') Cleo Laine appeared after their set. The mood she created on our black and white TV was haunting. It was literally mysterious.
When the chance came around many years later, during the Belfast Festival at Queen's, I went along to hear Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth talk about their music and play little extracts.
It was in (I think) the old Music Room, one of the smaller lecture theatres, and to my remaining embarrassment there were about 20 people present. That's what it seems like in memory, at least; my discomfort at being one of a few and not really knowing where to look; but they talked and joked and we had a session, unplugged before unplugged happened. I'll never forget that. This is what real artists do. The size of the audience isn't in view.
The Festival made those kinds of things happen. Great professionals, great artists would be around for a day or two and the hype of today (where so much is about meaningless celebrity) was away in the future. Belfast owes a lot to the Festival at Queen's.
But Belfast also owes a lot to all of its own musicians who have played their hearts out over many decades – jazz, pop, R'n'B, punk, folk, traditional Irish, choral, classical, country… you name it. Maybe it's time for their art to be civically recognised too, once and for all.
What are your fondest memories of the Belfast Festival? Add them to the Belfast Festival Anthology website.