Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival

Inaugural event welcomes old jazz hands Bruce Adams, Jim McDermott and a new generation of players

'Jazz can be rarefied and slightly scary for people, so we want to make it user friendly,' says Bob Quick, associate director of the inaugural Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival, which will take place in the County Tyrone town from February 6 – 8.

'We want to cultivate new audiences and make this a long term project, so instead of hardcore jazz we will favour popular tunes from the Great American Song Book by the likes of Cole Porter, Michael Buble, the Rat Pack or Nina Simone.'

It's an admirable approach, and one which Quick hopes will encourage a new generation of Northern Irish musicians to get hooked on jazz and return for future festivals.

A trombonist and graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Quick has lived in Omagh since 1978 when he accepted a teaching post with the Western Education and Library Board, where he eventually became deputy director. Retired since December 2013, he is now concentrating his energies, organisational skills and experience on this new project. 

Like Quick, his fellow committee members – who include jazz guitarist Paul Maguire and saxophonists Mike Reynolds and Pat O’Kane – have been performing with the Strabane-based St Eugene’s concert brass ensemble and the Big Brass Band for more than 30 years. Quick knows, therefore, what fans of the genre want to see. He also knows that programming arts festivals is not what it used to be.

The Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival is supported by small grants from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the local council, but is relying on its own resources and ticket sales to generate the profits which will pay the musicians taking part. 'Big budget arts festivals and centralised grants are a thing of the past,' insists Quick, 'so we have to become more self sufficient.'

Many of the 22 players who make up the Big Brass Band are teachers who play a key role in encouraging new, young talent in schools and in the community. Quick notes how, west of the Bann, the brass band scene is healthy, especially in Fermanagh, where there are champion bands like Murley and Churchill and dynamic young teachers like Steven McGee, Simon O’Hare and Stephen Crooks who run summer schools, the students of which will no doubt be inspired by the Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival lineup.

Headlining the festival will be the award-winning trumpet player Bruce Adams, who will appear with the Big Brass Band at the Strule Arts Centre on Saturday, February 7 and afterwards in the more intimate setting of the Café Rue in Main Street. As I discovered when we spoke on the telephone, Adams – a Glaswegian who now lives in Leyton Buzzard – has not lost his strong Scottish brogue or his laconic sense of humour. 

'I’ve been at it since 1963, the year of the great train robbery, and it’s been a lot of fun – good craic as you would say over there. I’m still having fun and still looking for more.'

Adams was just 14 when he won the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. 'I beat the ventriloquist Keith Harris and a group of Kossack dancers from Bradford,' he recalls wryly. A year later, Adams left school and set off on tour with his father Bob, a guitar player and variety artist. They performed on the QE2 and other cruise ships, appeared at Expo ’67 in Montreal and entertained the troops in Aden on the same bill as Tony Hancock. 

'I was having the time of my life and couldn’t understand how anyone would want to do anything else. I soon learned not to take myself too seriously and developed a sense of the ridiculous, for you couldn’t invent some of the things that happened along the way.'

Adams has played with jazz greats like Benny Carter, Buddy Tate, and Milt Hinton. He has appeared at key festivals and clubs on the European jazz scene; hallowed haunts like the Caveau de la Huchette in Paris, a venue which became known as the 'temple of swing' when Sydney Bechet, Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton played there.

Recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, Good Bait is just one of the seven albums which showcase Adams' talents – after all, Adams was named Top Trumpet at the British Jazz Awards in 2000, 2006 and 2008. His previous visits to Northern Ireland include the Derry Jazz Festival. 'I had to go into rehab after that,' he jests. 'I have played in Armagh, Newry, the Europa Hotel in Belfast, and I always notice how there is a good mix of younger people at shows over there.'

Another seasoned jazzman who appreciates the emergence in the North of Ireland of young players like Sam McGinty and the Morrow twins is Derry-born saxophonist Jim McDermott, who has performed with Van Morrison and collaborated with Irish tenor, Colm Wilkinson, best known as the original Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

Together with Rodney Foster on piano and Alan Niblock on bass, McDermott makes up the Merchant Trio, who occupy a regular slot at Bert’s Bar in Belfast. At the Strule Arts Centre café, McDermott will serve up the festival’s Saturday Jazz Lunch in the company of Gerry Bradley (piano) Peter Doherty (bass) and Roland Kehoe (drums).

When we speak, McDermott asks me if I know the origin of the word 'gig'? I admit I don’t, so he explains: 'When, in the early days of jazz, black American musicians traded syncopated rhythms on the street corners of New York and scored with passers by, they said, "God Is Good". For me, that’s the bottom line. Jazz has to be entertaining.'

The sultans of swing, who call themselves the Palais Swing Band, will provide the Friday night festival gig at Bogans. They will be fronted by Gerarda McCann, the busiest lady in town, for she is also billed to appear elsewhere with the Big Brass Band and with the Ray Moore quartet. Another local group who will add their rhythm and blues to the mix are the John Packer Blues Band.

But there is also room for emerging talent. Keen to encourage young jazz performers, Quick was determined that the Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival will stage the final of a jazz competition for instrumentalists, percussionists and singers aged 16 – 25. 'There are established jazz festivals in Derry-Londonderry and Limavady,' Quick concludes. 'But now it is the turn of Omagh to prove what we can do.'

Visit the Omagh Jazz & Big Band Festival website for more information.