A history of the Cork Jazz Festival in 10 classic gigs

A history of the Cork Jazz Festival in 10 classic gigs

Des O'Driscoll on the musicians Cork Jazz Festival down through the years.


For Cork jazz veterans, it’s an ‘I was there moment’ – the first gig of the first jazz festival. Event founder Jim Mountjoy recalled:

“At around eight o’clock, in the evening, a dark, thin Londoner called Ronnie Scott sauntered on stage in the ballroom of the Metropole Hotel and told an audience of 300 people that it was the first time he’d seen dead people smoke.”

Scott then picked up his saxophone and blew the first notes of Cork’s first ever jazz festival. Presumably, the brand most were smoking was John Players, the cigarette company who’d chipped in about £7,000 to become the festival’s first sponsor.


The first lady of song flew over from London for two gigs, for which she was paid a reported £16,000. Though obviously weary from a gruelling European tour, and keen to rest up at her room in the Metropole Hotel, when it came to the live shows, the 62-year-old did not disappoint.

Ella Fitzgerald. Picture: Irish Examiner Archives.
Ella Fitzgerald. Picture: Irish Examiner Archives.

This newspaper reported: “One ecstatic patron was heard to comment at the end of the first of two 70 minute shows — ‘It was worth rebuilding the Opera House for that alone’.

"From the moment she opened with ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ to the encore ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’, Ella displayed an amazing versatility in voice and movement that brought the capacity house to their feet on more than one occasion.”


The tenor sax legend turned 89 recently, but he was a relatively fresh-faced 51-year-old when he travelled to Cork.

It was a big year for the New Yorker, as he’d also just guested on the Rolling Stones’ comeback album Tattoo You, and was about to hit the charts on the record’s hit single, ‘Waiting On A Friend’.

Rollins took to the Opera House stage wearing a red hat and white shirt, and festival cofounder Pearse Harvey remembered Rollins’ performance as being a “revelation”.

He laid on an unforgettable exhibition of technical virtuosity which, allied to a bewildering capacity to improvise with the greatest of ease, left his audience spellbound.

"His performance, albeit a bare hour, and not long enough by half for some punters and he was given a deafening ovation at the end of what was truly a wonderful concert.”


Cork fans got to see the jazz giant just in time. A year later, Gillespie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a condition that would curtail his appearances until his death in 1993 at the age of 75. Pearse Harvey wrote of the gig:

"Gillespie’s 15-piece outfit was a multicultural ensemble that featured a wide strata of exotic jazz talent, as well as his regular combo, Mario Rivera on reeds, Ed Cherry on guitar, John Lee on bass and Ignacio Berroa on drums.

“True to form, the Opera House concert was a wild success, though we could have heard a lot more from the man himself, who was content to favour a set of conga drums over his trumpet."


Stormy weather caused a bit of bother for organisers in 2002 when postponed flights meant a hasty juggling of schedules.

Thankfully, Esbjörn Svensson and his Swedish trio did make it to Cork for a gig at the Everyman that signalled both his own emergence as a major star, and the Nordic nations’ status as a stronghold of contemporary jazz.

One attendee remembered a particularly impressive version of ‘Behind the Yashmak’:

“It built and built to this incredible crescendo and the haunting sounds that the bass player was making with his bow on the bass were unlike anything I had ever heard before, the place went absolutely bonkers at the end of it

EST would return to Cork in later years, including for an amazing double bill at the Everymanwith Avishai Cohen, but tragically Svensson was killed in a scuba- accident in 2008, at the age of 44.


One of the great challenges for the festival over more than 40 years has been to get the balance right between a programme that’s both credible and commercially viable, one that caters for serious music fans and also those who flock to the city purely for a bit of fun.

Organisers say they have had to include more non-jazz acts in recent years to keep the crowds flocking to the city, while purists often mention the Cork Opera House rock-music bill as an example of the festival’s slippage.

Back in 2004 we saw a packed gig that was heralded as showing the way forward.

Amp Fiddler wasn’t exactly jazz, but his 21st century funk drew from some of the same wells, and indulged those who wanted to marvel at great musicians, as well as allowing a clubbier crowd to shake their stuff.


Even with a festival roster that included Herbie Hancock, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran, the Texan pianist’s first visit to Cork stood out as something special.

The gig came a year after the release of his Double Booked album, and while the Robert Glasper Experiment’s live show was very much in the jazz category, it also portrayed his awareness of what was going on in other genres, most notably the soul and hip-hop that would become even more apparent on his future records.

Accompanied by ace collaborators Casey Benjamin, Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave, Glasper treated attendees to a set that one moment was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the next mind-bendingly experimental. Benjamin’s vocoder playing was a joy, not least on a swampy, mashedup version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Overall, a perfect concert of highly relevant 21st century jazz.


The Blur frontman unleashed an amazing line-up of acts from his Honest Jon’s label at the Savoy for a very special gig in 2011. From Africa, we had the sweet sounds of Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara; and the madcap fun of South Africa’s Shangaan Electro, playing the frenetic hybrid of electronic dance and traditional rhythms that had emerged from the townships of Limpopo.

A history of the Cork Jazz Festival in 10 classic gigs

Albarn himself tried to stay as lowkey as possible as he took to the stage with his Rocket Juice & the Moon ensemble, a true supergroup with incredible music history in their collective bones.

Nigerian drummer Tony Allen had been a key part of Fela Kuti’s band; while Flea is the renowned bass player with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and at times the stage was filled further by legendary house producer Theo Parrish and the Hypnotic Brass Band.

Technically, the tunes might not have all been jazz, but in terms of spirit and innovation, it was very much in the right place.


One area the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival should probably pay more heed to is the explosion of young British talent that has emerged in recent years.

Thankfully, the Triskel got it spot-on in 2015 when they billed this Manchester group for a Sunday headliner gig.

Just like many of their contempories, you get the feeling that, while this trio has done the hard yards studying and playing jazz, they’ve also spent a bit of time at the dance music clubs of the city that spawned them.

Again, for those with open ears who wanted to get a sense of a genre moving with the times, this gig was a real treat.


Triskel has formed close ties with legendary European label ECM in recent years, and this gig was one of the fruits of that alliance.

In many ways, this beautiful meditative music was a product of the continent to the east of us, rather than drawing from the jazz world across the Atlantic. Bach featured strongly, and we also heard hints of Norwegian folk.

As this newspaper’s reviewer wrote of those European links:

“In Gustavsen’s hands, it’s a mine of musical inspiration as rich as that upon which the great American jazz tradition rests.”

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