When Ella Fitzgerald came to Cork
The First Lady of Song played two memorable concerts at the jazz festival in 1980, writes Des O’Driscoll
IN LATE October 1979, the members of the welcome committee of the Cork Jazz Festival stood at Cork Airport nudging each other.
“It must be him,” said one, pointing at a black man who had just got off the flight from London. “You go check.” One of the committee nervously approached the visitor and asked, “Are you Mr Peterson?” When the reply came as a gruff “No!”, they knew they were in trouble. Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist and supposed headliner for their festival, wasn’t coming. He was too ill to travel.
As it turned out, they got along without him very well. Over the next few days, Leeside would swing to the likes of Art Blakey, Humphrey Lyttelton and a young violinist by the name of Nigel Kennedy for the second incarnation of a then John Player-sponsored festival that was already building quite a reputation.
Once bitten, twice shy, however. So when the committee landed the ultimate headliner the following year, they resolved that nothing could go wrong. Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey was despatched to London to ensure that Ella Fitzgerald really did make it to Cork.
He met the 63-year-old singer in Heathrow with her female assistant, and they waited for the flight in the VIP area. Fitzgerald requested a Perrier water from the attendant, and when she was told they were out of it, the star wouldn’t have anything else.
Despite the lack of absence of her favourite tipple, Harvey remembers a warm and pleasant figure — “a real lady”. She did express her unhappiness at not being able spend more time in Ireland as, despite an already gruelling series of dates, her tour manager had booked her for more gigs.
Before Fitzgerald even took off from London, the Irish welcome had begun. The Aer Lingus staff made a big fuss of their guest star when she arrived at the plane, with the captain announcing over the tannoy that he was a big fan of her music. He then slipped on a tape of her tunes to a rousing cheer from the other passengers.
In Cork, a delighted Fitzgerald pulled her fur coat around her after descending the gangway in the autumn sunshine before a bevy of reporters, local dignitaries and relieved festival chairman Jim Mountjoy. Mission accomplished for Harvey.
Fitzgerald, however, had one more task to fulfil before she left the airport. She wanted an Irish stamp on her passport. For some reason, the immigration officials weren’t too inclined to fulfil this request for the great jazz singer. She emerged disappointed to meet the festival chairman.
“I went back in with her passport,” recalls Mountjoy. “The immigration officer was a bit tetchy about it, but he stamped it, and then wrote the word ‘souvenir’ across the stamp.”
The Cork Examiner reported: “The delighted Ella released her normally guarded passport to interested onlookers who discovered that her mother was an American Cherokee Indian and that her second name was Jane. Apparently she has kept these facts secret from the public until this late stage of her career.”
A limousine supplied by Ford, which still had a big manufacturing plant in the city and was one of the corporates that weighed in behind the jazz festival, transported the star to the Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain Street where she stayed for her time in Cork.
The two concerts were a huge success. “When she went on stage, she gave it her all. She was quite old by then, but you could still see that she really had something special,” remembers Harvey. “She also had a really good rapport with the audience and they loved her.”
Harvey, who also wrote a jazz column for the Evening
Echo, later recalled: “When she sang on stage it was possible to hear a new rugged timbre in her voice which, though it indicated the sad and inevitable passage of time, it seemed to lend a new dimension to much of what she sang.”
Immediately after her second gig, Fitzgerald facilitated a brief press conference in her crowded dressing room in the Opera House. Marian Finucane – then a 30-year-old who was among a large number of RTÉ staff in Cork for the Labour Party conference that weekend – was among those who asked a question of the American, but Harvey remembers the young broadcaster getting a cool response from the nonplussed singer.
At least by then, Fitzgerald was probably after getting access to her favourite French mineral water, and Mountjoy recalls that her rider included a request for chicken soup. She also quipped that she still had a bottle of Irish whiskey at home that she had been given on a visit to Dublin decades earlier.
In the morning, before she left the hotel, the American singer told Mountjoy she’d have loved to have left her room to come see Australian trumpeter Bob Barnard and his band, who were playing the late night session in the Metropole ballroom. “But she said she was afraid to come down in case she’d be mobbed,” says Mountjoy.
When Harvey went to bring Fitzgerald back to the airport, she cut a tired figure. Instead of relaxing or making the most of her surroundings, it was back on the plane for more gigs, and she grumbled that her booking agent had signed up for more than she had realised.
Within a few years, her health would really start to suffer. Fitzgerald went through several hospitalisations in the mid-1980s. In 1993, both her legs were amputated below the knee due to complications from diabetes. The First Lady of Song died in June, 1996, aged 79. For the 2,000 people who were lucky enough to see her sing in Cork, however, she will always be fondly remembered.
Ella Fitzgerald in Cork Opera House for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival in 1980; below, getting off the plane at Cork Airport with Pearse Harvey.