The Belfast jazz scene is poised excitingly on the verge of a golden era. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the city is full of extraordinarily talented young musicians many of whom have returned home to Belfast having developed their skills in jazz colleges throughout the British Isles and even in America.
These musicians, passionate about the music and dedicated to creating careers in jazz for themselves, are forming bands, opening clubs and developing all sorts of creative and imaginative initiatives.
Foremost amongst these young talents are guitarists Mark McKnight, who studied at the world’s most legendary jazz college, Berklee, in Boston, and Joel Byrne-McCullough, who studied in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and drummer David Lyttle, who studied in Canada and New York.
Already these players, barely into their twenties, have gigged, not only with their peers in Belfast clubs, but with internationally renowned performers like Jacqui Dankworth, Bobby Wellins and Jean Toussaint and on national tours.
So precocious are such emerging talents that musicians only recently regarded as up-and-comers themselves, like avant-garde composer Brian Irvine, whose work has been interpreted by contemporary music virtuosi like Joanna MacGregor and Billy Jenkins, and trumpeter Linley Hamilton, who has worked with Van Morrison, now almost seem like elder statesmen!
And meanwhile a massive contribution continues to be made by pension-age veterans who have graced the scene since their own long-distant youth, like the hugely admired New Orleans-style Apex Jazz Band, who are now in their fifth decade of music making in Belfast and who were inspired by seeing Louis Armstrong playing in Belfast in 1962.
With such generation-spanning creativity jazz-loving visitors, whether their poison is Dixieland or mainstream or bop or hard bop or gypsy jazz or contemporary, can be confident of being able to groove to the sounds they love in some pub or club somewhere in Belfast.
The Black Box, 18-22 Hill Street www.blackboxbelfast.com
The Black Box symbolises how Belfast is reinvigorating and renewing itself. Once a warehouse, it has been reinvented as a performance space with perfect sightlines. It often features top local jazz acts.
Café Vaudeville, 25 Arthur Street www.cafevaudeville.com
Opulent and seriously fancy looking – what else would you expect from a one-time bank? – Café Vaudeville is yet another Belfast city centre building that has recently been transformed from its original function into a social or entertainment centre. And we can surely agree that it’s a lot more fun going into a building to have a drink and to hear jazz - there are gigs every Saturday evening (6.30pm to 8.30pm) with Ken Haddock and his band - than it is to go into a building to meet your bank manager.
Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street www.hastingshotels.com
In the bad old days the world’s press famously used to base themselves in the Europa while reporting on the latest grim news from the city. Jazz bands were resident in the bar in those bad old days, and now, in an era when the news from Belfast is getting better and better, there is still a jazz band resident in the bar on Saturday afternoons, now led by the versatile veteran Gerry Rice, on saxophone.
The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street www.thejohnhewitt.com
The John Hewitt is unique twice over: firstly it is owned by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre and consequently is the only bar in town that is - intentionally - non-profit making. And secondly it is the only bar in town named after a writer, the great Belfast poet John Hewitt, who died in 1987. The New Orleans-style Panama Jazz Band has a Friday night residency.
Kitchen Bar, 36-40 Victoria Square www.thekitchenbar.com
Moving a few doors up the street from the location where they had been established since 1859 may have confused a few of the Kitchen’s regulars but the new venue is bigger and more comfortable and still every bit as friendly as before. At time of writing, plans to bring trumpeter Linley Hamilton back for a residency were in motion.
No Alibis Bookstore, 83 Botanic Avenue www.noalibis.com
Is No Alibis a venue that also sells books? Or is it a bookshop that also puts on gigs? Well, it is primarily a bookshop – a world-renowned crime fiction-specialising bookshop at that – but so frequent are the gigs becoming that one can understand the confusion. Musicians from all over Ireland, including Louis Stewart, have played the delightfully cosy and down-to-earth venue as have Americans like Jean Toussaint. And the advantage of having a gig in a bookshop is that if there’s a big, long, boring drum solo you can always pick a book down off the shelf for a browse!
Sonic Arts Research Centre, Cloreen Park (off Malone Road) www.sarc.qub.ac.uk
Opened in 2004 by, I kid you not, Karlheinz Stockhausen, the seminal avantgarde composer who was awarded the supreme accolade of being depicted on the sleeve of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Queen’s University-owned SARC is a purpose-built performance space of radical design – essentially a vast, stunning cube - used for academic research but also for gigs by visiting contemporary jazz artists like Ingrid Laubrock, and Matthew Bourne.
Moving on Music, www.movingonmusic.co.uk
Moving On Music continues to bring innovative artists to audiences around Northern Ireland and the border counties.
The annual Moving On Music festival in March features a range of innovative international artists alongside local talent, exciting stagecraft workshops and a selection of fascinating celluloid treats. Audiences are taken on an eclectic journey of world music thanks to a diverse showcase of events that cover a wide spectrum of genres from folk to funk to free jazz.
The Belfast Festival at Queens www.belfastfestival.com
One of the leading arts festivals in Ireland and the UK has a particularly strong jazz programme.
Dizzy Gillespie and Ornette Coleman, two of the most influential names in the history of jazz, have both played Festival concert hall gigs, the latter enterprisingly commissioned to compose The Belfast Suite, to be performed with Irish traditional folk musicians. The composition that Coleman produced, legend has it, comprised five notes!
Veteran bassist Jackie Flavelle, like all creative musicians, found the mid-sixties showband scene musically stifling and unsatisfying. His escape route from the massively popular but musically conservative Dave Glover Showband must have felt like a miracle because he was, out-of-the-blue, offered a job with the Chris Barber Jazz and Blues Band, one of the most respected in Europe.
In ten years with Barber, Flavelle toured internationally, made a number of albums and even recorded with Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart.
After a solo album in singer/songwriter mode Flavelle returned to Northern Ireland where he became a stalwart on the jazz and blues scenes. Now nearly seventy, Flavelle still gigs tirelessly, working with his own John Coltrane-influenced jazz band Giant Steps, his own blues band the Essence, his own folk-soul band Sushi and as a session man for the likes of Duke Special and Bap Kennedy.
Apex Jazz Band
In 1966 England won the World Cup, the Beatles released their greatest single 'Strawberry Fields Forever' – and Belfast cornet player George Chambers formed the Apex Jazz Band.
In the decades since the England football team have never again come close to winning anything and the Beatles have become part of history but the Apex remain Northern Ireland’s most successful and internationally respected New Orleans-style jazz band.
Over the years the band, who currently play every Tuesday in Windsor Tennis Club, have recorded eight albums and played festivals in America, England, Scotland, Germany and Holland.
Ask Chambers what his current ambitions are and his reply is immediate: 'To stay alive!' declares this remarkable veteran without whose unflagging dedication the Irish traditional jazz scene for the past several decades would have been so much the poorer.
Trumpeter Linley Hamilton is the most versatile of musicians for he has worked with folk immortal Paul Brady, with rock legend Van Morrison and with soul stars the Commitments as well as with countless other distinguished names in all sorts of musical genres.
But Hamilton’s main work is in the jazz field and when he is not touring nationally with the likes of singer Jacqui Dankworth he leads his own band, the Blue Note Band, who are resident in Madison’s, and has a residency in Kitchen Bar, Tuesday evenings 9pm
Hamilton is a sensitive, lyrical player and an eloquent improviser. His 2003 album …Up To Now, inspired by the music of the likes of Freddie Hubbard, was acclaimed in the prestigious British magazine Jazzwise and elsewhere.
Although guitar virtuoso Mark McKnight is still only in his twenties he has already notched up several mightily impressive achievements. At the age of 17 he reached the final in Birmingham’s 12,500-seater NEC of a national competition organised by Guitarist magazine; in 2001 he won a prestigious national competition for guitarists, the Ernie Ball/Musicman Guitarist of the Year; and after that he won a scholarship to the world’s most esteemed jazz college, Berklee, from which he has now graduated.
Initially influenced by Steve Vai and Joe Satriano and then by Frank Zappa, McKnight has a formidable technique but avoids flash, his playing instead characterised by its sensitivity and harmonic sophistication.
Guitarist Joel Byrne-McCullough is one of many young Belfast jazz musicians who have returned home from jazz colleges in England and America and who are revitalising the scene here.
Byrne-McCullough developed his jazz skills in Newcastle where he was awarded a music degree. On his return to Belfast he joined Linley Hamilton’s Blue Note band, with whom he still plays at their Monday night Madison’s residency. He has also gigged as a duo with Dublin guitarist Louis Stewart, the most internationally renowned Irish jazz musician ever.
'That was completely amazing,' he enthuses. 'I’ve been listening to his records for years and I love his playing. His technique is flawless, he’s always playing for the music, he’s always playing what he believes and nothing from his guitar is superfluous.'
There are many experts who predict that in decades to come some young guitar ace will be talking about Byrne-McCullough in similarly awed tones!
Despite looking young enough to have difficulty getting served in bars – actually, truth be told, despite looking so young that one is surprised to see him allowed out on his own - drummer David Lyttle has already had a couple of radically different musical careers. As a youngster he was a star of Irish traditional music touring America and recording with the Lyttle Family and he also worked as a DJ on the dance music scene.
But it is as a jazz musician that Lyttle has really made his name for he has a wonderful technique, extraordinary agility, and a wittiness and a sensitivity that are exceptional.
Lyttle is also in demand as an accompanist for visiting international jazz artists such as Konrad Wieszniewski and Jean Toussaint.
Saxophonist Gerry Rice began his career at the age of sixteen with the Jimmy Compton Jazz Band – which means that it only took him 47 years to release his debut album, 2004’s Gerry Rice With The Arthur Acheson Jazz Orchestra.
In the meantime he had worked, amongst others, with the Dave Glover Showband and with the Witnesses, who supported the Rolling Stones at Belfast’s Ulster Hall, a gig halted by the police after mere minutes, so hysterical had the crowd become.
Rice’s versatility – he plays alto, tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet and flute – has also meant he has been in demand in showbiz circles and he has gigged with Frankie Vaughan, Harry Secombe, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Mathis and Dana.
In jazz mode, for several years he has led the popular resident band on Saturday afternoons in the Europa Hotel.
Imagine, if you will, a shades-wearing, black-clad bohemian taking the stage and earnestly declaiming poetry in Russian … and being elbowed aside by a cheesy singer who begins an unaccompanied rendition of a disco standard … and a dozen bedraggled-looking oddbods, deviants and miscreants straggling in from the back of the room, raucously joining in the singing. Imagine all that and you might have some idea of the flavour of a Brian Irvine gig – or at least the first two minutes of a Brian Irvine gig.
The internationally acclaimed Irvine, with his Ensemble, creates music that is audacious and risk-taking, incorporating free jazz, stand-up comedy, tango, cartoon music, Pythonesque-silliness, noise, animal impressions, contemporary classical music, Dadaism, spoken word samples, iconoclasm, dizzying pastiche, slapstick and a million other things besides.
The achievement is, by virtue of effervescent theatricality and a sense of fun, to make difficult music accessible.
'When I first got to Belfast
Boy was I surprised
To see all those happy people
And those big laughing Irish eyes.'
'The Belfast Blues', 1969
So sang American bluesman Juke Boy Bonner after being blown away by Belfast fans’ passion for blues – a passion also experienced in the sixties and seventies by Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup and other legends.
Inevitably local musicians, captivated by seeing their heroes, began forming their own blues bands. Indeed Belfast’s renown as a blues hotspot dates back to that era when pioneers like the Van Morrison-fronted Them dominated the city’s pubs, clubs and dives, playing a music that was more raw, more exciting and more exhilarating than any ever before heard in the city.
Them became the first Belfast band to have a British hit record, with 'Baby Please Don’t Go' in 1965, and it is some measure of the band’s prowess that the record’s B-side was the immortal 'Gloria', a song since covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Grateful Dead to Patti Smith.
Later in the decade the now-legendary Rory Gallagher, determined to escape showband hell and play the blues, moved from Cork to Belfast where he formed Taste and found international fame.
Thus two of the greatest blues artists these islands have produced, Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher, began their careers in Belfast and what unfailingly delights visiting fans is to discover that many of Van and Rory’s contemporaries - like John Wilson, who drummed in both Them and Taste - are still playing blues in Belfast and still thrilling audiences with the visceral power of their music.
Bluesmen sing fondly of 'Sweet home Chicago' but on a good night local fans feel that they don’t need to leave Belfast to hear blues at its irresistible best!
Belfast Empire, 42 Botanic Avenue www.thebelfastempire.com
Old hands reminisce that when Rab McCullough started his record-breaking Thursday night residency in the Empire beer cost 10p a pint, downloading referred to drinking till you fell over, Keith Richards hadn’t yet discovered drugs and BB King was still walking behind a plough. Well, they’re exaggerating a bit but by any standards a weekly residency that has lasted nigh on twenty years is phenomenal and a tribute to the enduring power of McCullough’s hard-rocking music.
The Black Box, 18-22 Hill Street www.blackboxbelfast.com
The Black Box symbolises how Belfast is reinvigorating and renewing itself. Once a warehouse, it has been reinvented as a performance space with perfect sightlines and fine acoustics. American bluesmen like Phil Guy and locals like Henry McCullough, Lee Hedley and Ronnie Greer have played the venue.
Errigle Inn, 312–320 Ormeau Road www.errigle.com
Van Morrison, Phil Guy, ex-Muddy Waters harmonica player Carey Bell, Lowell Fulson and Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell are amongst countless great blues names who have played the famous upstairs room in the Errigle, never mind every local blueser worth his salt. Currently home to the weekly Real Music Club, Chris Smither and Maria Muldaur have recently played the venue.
The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street www.thejohnhewitt.com
The John Hewitt is unique twice over: firstly it is owned by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre and consequently is the only bar in town that is - intentionally - non-profit making. And secondly it is the only bar in town named after a writer, the great Belfast poet John Hewitt, who died in 1987. The likes of Mississippi bluesman Boo Boo Davis have gigged in the unpretentious, atmospheric bar.
Kelly's Cellars, 30-32 Bank Street www.kellyscellars.com
Kelly’s is one of Belfast’s great bars, in which pints of beer have been sunk, often – and I speak from experience here - in vast quantities, for centuries. The music room upstairs books the likes of the Mike Wilgar Band on Friday nights.
The King's Head, 829 Lisburn Road www.kingsheadbelfast.com
The expensively designed music room of the King’s Head features excellent sound and good sightlines, making it an ideal venue for the Budweiser Blues Party Nights, on the first Friday of every month, which are fronted by the tough, harmonica-led Lee Hedley Band.
Kitchen Bar, 36-40 Victoria Square www.thekitchenbar.com
Moving a few doors up the street from the location where they had been established since 1859 may have confused a few of the Kitchen’s regulars but the new venue is bigger and more comfortable and still every bit as friendly as before. You can catch harmonica wizard Lee Hedley and his band here every Friday from 6pm to 8.30pm.
Madison's, 59-63 Botanic Avenue www.madisonshotel.com
Rab McCullough, one of Belfast’s great bluesmen, plays a Sunday afternoon residency in the stylish, convivial Madison’s, located in one of Belfast’s most elegant streets.
Ireland’s most distinctive blues guitarist, Ronnie Greer plays with a ferocity and an exhilarating intensity that is of world class, his unusual blending of bebop jazz elements with Chicago blues making his musicianship unmistakable.
Greer’s prowess has been recognised internationally as well, for he has played with such legendary visiting bluesmen as Memphis Slim, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Dr. John, Carey and Lurrie Bell and Lowell Fulson. Indeed Fulson, moved by Greer’s extraordinary playing during one of their gigs together, sighed and declared, 'Man, you sure make me feel homesick!'
Folk Roots magazine described Greer as 'one of the most visceral and exciting blues guitarists in Europe', Rock‘n’Reel called his playing 'astonishing', and the British Blues Review hailed him as 'the most authentic Chicago-style guitarist in the country,' sentiments with which anyone who hears the Ronnie Greer Band live will surely agree.
Hard-rocking blues guitar hero Rab McCullough was in his fifties before he became a pro musician – and it was success in America that enabled him to jack in his day job: a third place in the 21st International Blues Challenge in Memphis, a storming guest appearance at the WC Handy Awards jam session, appearances with top bluesmen Lonnie Brooks and Tab Benoit – and suddenly Andersonstown Leisure Centre was looking for a new lifeguard.
In the last several years McCullough has had success after success. Signing for the French label Dixiefrog – one of the most important blues labels in the world – has raised his profile and his albums have been critical and commercial successes, rapturously reviewed in magazines like Blues In Britain.
McCullough’s Thursday night residency in Belfast’s Empire Bar is the most successful blues residency in Belfast’s history having lasted for almost twenty years – and indeed is one of the longest-running in Europe.
Harmonica wizard Lee Hedley first made waves on the British blues scene in 2001 when he played a live session on Radio 2’s Paul Jones Rhythm & Blues Show, a programme that is unmissable listening for every British blues fan.
Since then Hedley has further honed his skills touring with top Chicago players like ex-Muddy Waters guitarist John Primer and ace showman Phil Guy, the flamboyant, guitar playing younger brother of Buddy Guy.
Hedley has named his biggest influences as Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul Butterfield and, especially, Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
And those who check out Hedley’s gigs at the King’s Head’s Budweiser Blues Nights on the first Friday of every month and elsewhere feel that something of the power and glory of those great names can be experienced when Hedley himself lets rip.