A strange set of circumstances led Jim Mountjoy to suggest a jazz festival for Cork in 1978. Little did he know how his idea would snowball, writes Des O’Driscoll

YOU’D imagine that possessing little interest in jazz, and never having attended any music festival aren’t the best qualifications for setting up one of Europe’s top jazz festivals. But that didn’t stop Jim Mountjoy, the man who established Cork’s long-enduring event way back in 1978.

A strange set of circumstances aligned for the birth of a festival that celebrates its 40th incarnation this year.

First up, in 1977, minister for labour Michael O’Leary introduced a new bank holiday that created a long weekend at the end of October.

Next, in May 1978, Mountjoy – then marketing manager of the Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain Street in the city – received a visit in from the organisers of a bridge event who had booked the premises for the holiday weekend.

As is befitting of bridge players, they weren’t in his office for long before they put their cards on the table. “They’d been out in Blarney the year before, and they said to me, ‘What are we moving for? We’ve no complaints about Blarney’. So I just said fine,” recalls Mountjoy.

Despite his apparent nonchalance, he suddenly found himself with a bank holiday on the horizon, and a lot of empty rooms. Then came the lightbulb moment. The regular sessions at the hotel with Cork jazz stalwart Harry Connolly and other musicians had been doing quite well. What if they could be extended into a mini-festival?

Mountjoy bounced his idea off various other people in Cork, including Evening Echo jazz columnist Pearse Harvey and local jazz buff Ray Fitzgerald.

The idea soon snowballed into something much bigger. Others in the Metropole’s hierarchy saw how it might make sense, and cigarette brand John Player agreed to put up £7,000 to become the festival’s sponsor.

It was a steep learning curve for all concerned, as letters and landline phonecalls were exchanged between organisers, agents and artists.

Ella Fitzgerald in Cork Airport for the Cork Jazz Festival in 1980. Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey is behind her on the steps. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

For an inaugural event, they still managed to put together an impressive lineup that included three English jazz legends: Ronnie Scott, George Melly and Kenny Ball.

Mountjoy later recalled that Friday, October 27, 1978, was a red-letter day for Cork. “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.

It was onwards and upwards from there as the steep learning curve was accompanied by growth that saw the likes of Art Blakey, Ella Fitzgerald and Sonny Rollins come to Cork over the next few years.

By 1982, Guinness had replaced John Player as sponsor of a festival that soon escalated to have a budget of over £200,000.

Mountjoy admits he didn’t always love all the music on offer, or enjoy the hassles of dealing with the thousands of people who’d be trying to get into Metropole over the bank holiday weekend, but he did get a thrill out of organising a festival that really was unique in Ireland.

“The way I looked at it, you had to sell Ireland, you had to sell Cork, and you had to sell the jazz festival,” says the marketing supremo.

Journeys abroad to promote the Metropole by day would also involve promoting the festival by night as Mountjoy went to see how equivalent events were run in Italy, New Orleans, San Francisco, etc. A ferry from Swansea to Cork was hyped as the ‘jazz boat’, complete with music to entertain British revellers on their way to the festival; a ‘jazz train’ even ran from Dublin.

Hardcore jazz fans who came to Cork at the October weekend had plenty to entertain them; less-serious punters could still don straw boaters and enjoy the fun. Hotel beds were filled; beer kegs were emptied.

Mountjoy’s fondest memories, however, come from some of the people he encountered during his time with the festival.

He recalls particular friendships with the trombonist Turk Murphy, and legendary drummer Panama Francis.

He remembers Cleo Laine and John Dankworth ruffling a few feathers in the early days when they refused to attend a John Player promotion event because of their anti- smoking feelings.

Mountjoy also had regular dealings with Norman Granz, the legendary impresario who did so much for the development of jazz in the US, battling racial prejudice along the way. It did take a bit of trying for Mountjoy to even get to speak to Granz.

“I used to ring and I’d get through to his secretary Miss Drinkwater, and that’s as far as I’d get. So I decided to ring at about 5.30am their time. And I dare anybody not to answer if the phone is ringing at half-past-five... ”

Granz had a surprisingly pleasant reaction to being woken and that early hour, and over time, he began to regularly sent his artists to Cork.

“One of the reasons for that was that they’d go to other festivals and they wouldn’t be sure they’d get their money.

“Whereas, with all our contracts, because of the type of sponsor we had, the musicians were assured they’d be paid.”

From organisers, to artists, to the festivals’ punters, it really was a win-win situation. One that we’re still reaping the benefits of today.

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