Michael Moynihan: Hitting the right note as we allow visitors to take over the city

The recently launched #CorkSoundsGood campaign brings to mind a well-established festival in Michael Moynihan's native city
Michael Moynihan: Hitting the right note as we allow visitors to take over the city

Members of the Hyde Park Brass Band playing at the Cork Jazz Festival opening night outside the Metropole Hotel. Picture: Clare Keogh

Congratulations to begin this week’s offering — something light after the budget a couple of days back, what?

The kudos go specifically to Eoin Kennedy and all involved with the #CorkSoundsGood campaign for visitcork.ie, the organisation charged with attracting people to the Deep South.

This specific campaign revolves around the sounds of the city in all their infinite variety — a terrific choice. To me, focusing on the audio side is an inspired choice because it brings that other level of appreciation for the visitor (and the resident), engaging a different sense to load on the impressions and reinforce one’s attachment to a particular place.

I speak now with a certain amount of authority on the visitor experience because I am lately returned from a visit overseas myself, the first in some years — to Bordeaux in la belle France, a straight hop from Cork Airport.

(Unfortunately on this trip I didn’t sample any Château MacCarthy, a wine from the Haut Medoc {not for the want of trying — several accompanying travellers} as it has long been subsumed into another vineyard, but take it as evidence of a long-lasting bond between Cork and Bordeaux; the château was founded back in the eighteenth century by a MacCarthy from north Cork.)

Thankfully, there were no delays or detours en route, but on the hour-and-a-half flight home I still had time to consider something other than the €28 one of my assistants forked out for a ‘must have’ tote bag from the Librairie Mollat (alors).

What really draws people to a city?

Beauty, prices, location, climate, friendliness — all of these are valid reasons, of course, but do you really want to rely on adventitious geography, or the humour of unreliable citizens? What if the cost of living rises? What if it rains?

The answer is simple. You take the element of chance out of the equation and create another reason for people to visit your city. In Cork, there’s an obvious case study for this: the Jazz Weekend, a festival which has been drawing people to Cork for over four decades.

Because of this longevity, I think we tend to overlook the fact that the end of October wasn’t always a matter of hearing someone murder Take Five or Sketches of Spain as you strolled the city. The Jazz came about through planning and choice and was a deliberate move.

Well, up to a point. A few years ago in these pages the birth of the Jazz Festival was spelt out, and it’s a story which offers plenty of lessons for us now.

First of all, the first Jazz Weekend was in 1978, but the conditions were already in place for its creation - the previous year, the then minister for labour, Michael O’Leary introduced a new bank holiday — one which would create a whole new long weekend at the end of October. (Is it a coincidence that the said O’Leary was a Corkman? Surely not).

The following May (of 1978), Jim Mountjoy of the Metropole Hotel met with the organisers of a bridge event who had booked the hotel for the holiday weekend.

As Mountjoy recounted to this newspaper five years ago: “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.” Mountjoy had a lot of empty rooms in the hotel to fill, however, for a brand-new bank holiday.

When he thought of the popular jazz sessions in the Metropole, however, everything came together: why not have a jazz festival running for that October weekend?

He checked out similar events around the world to see if there were any lessons to be learned, and one smart move was to orient everything towards the festival. 

Justking Jones from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble playing at the Cork Jazz Festival opening night in the Metropole Hotel last year. Picture: Darragh Kane
Justking Jones from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble playing at the Cork Jazz Festival opening night in the Metropole Hotel last year. Picture: Darragh Kane

Older readers may remember that the ferry from Swansea to Cork was known as the ‘jazz boat’, with music on board to entertain British fans on their way to Cork, while a ‘jazz train’ even ran from Dublin.

(Long-suffering Irish Rail customers can chime in at any time about the proverbial crowds to be found on the intercity trains every year on that weekend.)

One of the keys to the success of the Jazz Festival was its twin-track approach. The diehard jazz fans who wanted sensitive homage paid to the stylings of John Coltrane had their tastes catered to; those whose interest ran to When The Saints Go Marching In as a backing track to a few drinks enjoyed the weekend just as much.

As an example of how to carve out your own date in the calendar, the Jazz could hardly be beaten, in fact. For one thing, the opportunity arose and was taken: if Mountjoy - or any other operator with their eyes open at the time - had delayed, that opportunity would have been gone.

The stroke of luck that created a new bank holiday weekend wasn’t sufficient in itself. It had to be availed of, and it was.

Using jazz as the vehicle was another master stroke, and a key lessons for anyone seeking to encourage people to visit Cork. At this remove the success of the festival looks inevitable, but even in the late 70s jazz was a musical form whose time had been and gone, to be frank.

Those pre-festival sessions in the Metropole Hotel might have been successful but they didn’t have queues going down MacCurtain Street and down onto Patrick’s Bridge. Credit again to the organisers for seeing the potential in jazz, and in particular to the form as being open to interpretation.

Music critics might sniff at the lack of appreciation for Brad Mehldau on the streets of Cork, but for many visitors the musical genre is an excuse rather than an objective.

Underscore Orkestra Trio: Jorge Kachmari (Saxophone), Brian Leach (Guitar) and Jack Egan (Bass Guitar) at the launch of the Jazz last year. Picture: Clare Keogh
Underscore Orkestra Trio: Jorge Kachmari (Saxophone), Brian Leach (Guitar) and Jack Egan (Bass Guitar) at the launch of the Jazz last year. Picture: Clare Keogh

The number of people who claim to have spent the weekend in Cork without hearing a single note of bebop might be disappointing to jazz fans, but there’s a completely different way to view the festival also: as a civic event drawing thousands of people to spend money in the city on an off-season weekend in the winter.

(There’s an entirely different discussion to be had about the number of Cork people who skedaddle out of the city for the festival to leave it open to the hordes descending from Dublin, but that’s for another day. And another column.)

The lessons from the establishment of the Jazz Festival are clear for those seeking to plant a flag on another weekend in the year. Identify the gap in the market, do your research, and allow for a broad church when it comes to appreciation of the festival.

Readers may feel there are too many of these festivals as it is. That one weekend in Cork and one alone is enough for outsiders.

And that’s a valid point of view. After all, we don’t want to be mistaken for Galway.

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