How Cork started jazzin’ — the fes­ti­val’s founders take us back to the be­gin­ning

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

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - GUINNES CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL - Des O’Driscoll

You had to sell Ire­land, you had to sell Cork, and you had to sell the jazz fes­ti­val

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.

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 an­ti­smok­ing 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 win­win sit­u­a­tion. One that we’re still reap­ing the ben­e­fits of to­day.

Jim Moun­joy, right, with Ella Fitzger­ald and Pearse Har­vey at Cork Air­port in 1980.

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