In conversation with Richard Fitzpatrick.
My life has taught me that all roads lead to jazz. Take Van Morrison or Rico Rodriguez who played trombone with ska bands — he became a great jazz arranger in his time.
You take the likes of Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson, angst-ridden punks as youngsters but as their ears develop and become more subtle ultimately they all drift towards jazz. It’s musicians’ music.
Blues men came out of the fields with acoustic guitars into the cities of Chicago and New York in the north where it became ultimately something that wasn’t blues anymore so they called it jazz.
The same is true down south in New Orleans there was creole sounds, country music. There was everything slipping in so, what do you call it? You call it jazz.
It’s probably why people associate jazz with older people or senior musicians.
The point being that there comes a time when you don’t get off on pop anymore.
Or you’ve lived long enough to know that punk or rock’n’roll can only bring you so far. There comes a point where you’re looking for something more subtle.
As a listener — because I’m only a mediocre musician — my love of jazz came from my brother-inlaw Kevin in Canada who sent me brilliant compilations.
A lot of the artists — that I discovered through him I still listen to. People like Leo Kottke.
One of my favourite jazz festival gigs was Lowell Fulson. He was an electric bluesman from the Deep South. He played the City Hall, the day after my youngest child, Nanci, was born. So I brought my other daughter Martha with me —she was a toddler.
She sat on my knee as quiet as a mouse, happy out. I remember people saying, ‘Are you mad bringing a child to the concert?’ But I’d no other option! It was October 1985. That will always be a special gig.”
I Started playing trombone in the Barrack Street Band in Cork from a young age, about 10 or 11 years old, which got me into jazz. This was about 1990. I’m in the Army Band now 20 years and the people I started with in Barrack Street are working with me professionally now as well.
I’ve made lifelong friends out of it.
I’d be very heavily influenced by big band music — recently Maria Schneider’s stuff. Going back it would be the classics like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
I love the Atomic Mr. Basie album — the writing, the playing. I don’t think I’ve heard another band play like that. I had it on a tape when I was 12 or 13 and I must have worn the tape out — I played it relentlessly.
It’s very hard to put your finger on the buzz of playing live jazz music. There’s obviously set templates that the bands will stick to, but you’re actually creating in the spur of the moment.
And it’s let me do tons of stuff. I’ve played all over the world — in the Lincoln Center in New York, the top jazz clubs in New York. I’ve just finished a European tour with Michael Bublé. I run the National Jazz Orchestra and we’d be lucky to get 300 people to come to a gig, but night after night with Michael Bublé — and I know it’s a different demographic; it’s more of a pop crowd with him — but it was all big arenas.
It’s fairly nuts. I got that gig last minute. They were in the middle of a tour. I had to come in and replace someone. I’d no rehearsal. The first night in Manchester I was just glued to what I had to do.
It didn’t dawn on me that we played to 40,000 people.
I probably didn’t have a choice in the matter. My late father Bill [chairman of the Jazz Festival for many years] had a really good jazz collection and hi-fi set-up in the sitting room.
Probably my earliest memories is him playing it very loudly when I was a young kid in the Seventies – blasting it out with Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald.
I remember in my early teens being slightly annoyed by it when you rebel against what your parents are into, but it’s always been there. It was only later that it revealed itself as one of the main influences musically for me I love the freedom of jazz.
I’ve always listened to tons of music. Music can get very formulaic. Jazz can also get very formulaic but it’s the openness of the form — jazz can be incorporated into a lot of kinds of music. I was really into hip hop in my late teens.
On A Tribe Called Quest I’d hear samples of jazz tracks that I’d heard my dad play 10 years previously.
When I started getting into house music you’d hear the influence of jazz in house — the freedom to play around with the form to go anywhere musically. That still is the appeal for jazz for me. At home, it’s definitely the music I listen to most.
It’s true in all forms of music, but particularly in jazz — there are two schools.
One who want to push it forward and do different things with the form — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t —and one school who were happy that jazz was perfected by Miles Davis in 1962 and no need to do anything more.
I find that side of things very staid and frustrating.
I want something new from the music. That’s one of the key definitions of jazz — that it’s new and pushing boundaries.
I have my mother to blame for my love of jazz music. She had a phenomenal record collection when I was growing up.
Every now and again she would play a piece of jazz music and I just loved it. l fell in love with the likes of Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald.
I was in my late teens, and it wasn’t cool for me to listen to jazz. It was something I listened to at home. In the 1990s my friends were listening to Pulp, Oasis and Blur.
I ended up buying some of my own CDs and loved it. It’s why I became interested in the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival in my mid-twenties.
All my friends were going to Rearden’s over the Jazz Weekend but I wanted to hear jazz. I knew if I volunteered it was a way for me to listen to some jazz music.
So I volunteered and I absolutely loved it. I was kind of based around the Metropole Hotel — and as you know the Metropole is the home of the Jazz — so for me it was seeing different people and musicians coming in and out of the Metropole, and of course listening to lots of jazz.
It opened up a whole new world to me — that there were other people who liked jazz.
I remember sitting in the Metropole one year and I got to hear the Habenera from Carmen.
When you hear a trio doing that improvisation played in the double bass, you realise there’s such a talent in a jazz musician being able to improvise — to take a piece of music and to play with it in three or four different ways."
My introduction to jazz was when I heard Kind of Blue by Miles Davis at 16 years of age. I was listening to BBC Radio 3. I sought it out, and I Bought a secondhand copy down in Alan Prim’s Record Shop In Youghal.. I still have that copy and I never looked back.
I think most of us would agree that it’s the jaw-dropping moment when as a teenager you realise there’s more to music than what you’ve been fed, but I wouldn’t have been broadcasting my new-found love in school.
You had fellas going around with denim jackets with studs and Queen or Thin Lizzy written on the back. None of that stuff interested me.
I was already outside of the mainstream. My most memorable jazz gig was probably in 1990 when I went to see John Surman in the Camden Jazz Festival in London. I had just met the lady who was to become my wife. I went on my own and was exploring London.
Surman was playing with the drummer Jack DeJohnette. They did this amazing concert — saxophone with electronic sounds and synthesisers and this very disciplined, complex and very virtuoso drumming from DeJohnette.
I was blown away. Years on, about 10 years ago, John Surman came to the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival with De- Johnette on the Everyman stage.
The then festival director Jack McGowran asked me if I’d introduce the concert, which I happily did. And now he’s back again this year at the festival to play a solo concert at Triskel as one of the ECM concerts celebrating its 50th anniversary, as he’s a veteran musician on the label. It will be wonderful.
As a young teen, I was interested in jazz for the aesthetic. I looked at the record covers and saw all these guys like Miles Davis as being very exotic and cool.
A couple of years I started realising the whole hip hop relationship to jazz so I got right into it then. Even now, I stop dead in my tracks sometimes when I see a record on Blue Note.
Also in Cork we were quite lucky when I was growing up that a lot of the big jazz names were coming to the Cork jazz festival — it was always quite a big, internationally respected festival.
All through the years I got to meet a lot of the people who were very influential on the hip hop music I was playing. I eventually got into their music second-hand.
A lot of my musical heroes would be people like Roy Ayers, for example, and I got to meet him and interview him many times. Lots of the elder jazz cats at the Cork jazz festival were actually surprised when youngsters would come up to them with records to sign.
They were impressed with the knowledge we had of their careers.
Initially when the hip hop thing came there was a little resistance but a few years lots of the older jazz guys started realising that it was going to give a second wind to their career.
For good jazz-infused hip hop, there’s a guy up in Belfast, Leo Miyagee, and it’s like as if he drops from 1994, just like The Pharcyde or A Tribe Called Quest.
He’s an amazing rapper.
If I had to go for one album it would be The Unseen by Quasimoto.
Jazz purists might go, ‘What the hell is this?’, but it’s very much in the spirit of jazz and what Miles Davis and the pioneers were doing. It’s freewheeling. I couldn’t stop listening to it when it came out in 2000.
■ Leo Miyagee and Stevie G perform at the River Club at the River Lee Hotel at 11pm, Saturday, October 26.