During an interview with the Irish Times in August 1979, Louis Stewart declared that ‘The best thing you can do for jazz in Ireland is to make it illegal’. Stewart, considered Ireland’s greatest jazz guitarist, was lamenting the limitations of a jazz scene during what was arguably still its heyday, or at least the tail end of it.
Stewart died in 2016 and his life has recently been added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), where he joined his old bandmates and fellow Irish jazz legends Noel Kelehan and John Wadham. Other luminaries of the scene also in the DIB include bandleader Mick Delahunty, musician and critic George Hodnett, trumpeter and bandleader Earl Gill; singers Agnes Bernelle, Ottilie Patterson, Dara Ó Lochlainn and Anne Bushnell, and pianist ‘Professor’ Peter O’Brien, a famed practitioner of Harlem stride.
There has been a jazz scene in Ireland since the late 1910s – a 1919 Valentine’s Day performance by ‘Mr. Gordon’s “Jazz Band” of 5 U.S.A. Naval men in uniform’ at the Royal College of Surgeons was reported in the Irish Independent, for example. But newspaper ads aside, much of what we know about the early Irish scene stems from anti-jazz campaigning. In the early 1930s the Gaelic League, with puritanical priest Fr Peter Conefrey as chief spokesperson, launched their overtly racist campaign against the perceived immorality of jazz. The music was seen as malevolent, sexualising and pagan, ‘borrowed from the African savages by the anti-God movement, with the object of destroying morals and religion’ (An Camán, 2 Dec. 1933, 6). The genre was the subject of dáil debate, was an influence on the heavy-handed Dance Halls Act of 1935 and was largely purged from the official airwaves of 2RN/Radio Éireann.
Jazz continued to be played live, however, albeit in small, esoteric venues. By the mid-1940s it had become a popular Irish youth subculture (making it nearly illegal really did give it a boost) and by the 1950s had found a home in the Green Lounge on St Stephen’s Green. By the end of that decade, jazz was accessible in Dublin several nights a week – if you knew where to look.
Despite its steady growth, it was still difficult for musicians to make a living playing jazz alone. Many devotees had to leave Ireland to get steady work, gaining solid international reputations, but minor recognition at home. Louis Stewart, for example, was actively sought out as a young musician by Benny Goodman, and later worked for extended periods with the likes of Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and George Shearing, shuttling back and forth between Dublin and London and international tours to earn money while raising a young family. On the other hand Anne Bushnell, probably the most accomplished Irish jazz singer of her generation, never made the commercial breakthrough she deserved at home and failed to preserve her best work on record.
Pianist, composer and arranger Noel Kelehan, a key figure to emerge in the early 1960s, fronted a quintet, the Jazz Heralds, that gigged around Dublin and cultivated a cult following for modern jazz. Kelehan also formed trios with Louis Stewart and bassist Jimmy McKay, playing a residency at Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel in the mid-1960s, and with Martin Walsh (bass) and Ian McGarry (drums), which held a Shelbourne Hotel residency for several years. From the mid-1960s the Noel Kelehan Big Band, an eighteen-piece ensemble, played weekly at the Olympic Ballroom. The Noel Kelehan Quintet (1976–81), with John Wadham (drums), Frank Hess (bass), Keith Donald (saxophones) and Mike Nolan (trumpet and flugelhorn), recorded an LP produced by Kelehan, Ozone (1979) – one of the first jazz albums by Irish musicians. But despite all this activity, Kelehan largely earned his living working with RTÉ and became the most prolific and successful conductor in the history of the Eurovision song contest (so far at least).
Like many others, trumpeter Earl Gill was pulled from jazz into the showband world of the 1960s, enjoying early career success but ultimately devolving into parody (among Gill’s final showband performances were as ‘Tim Pat’, a lonely farmer, and others dressed as a circus clown). He returned to jazz in the mid-1970s, supplementing his income with band management and theatrical music productions. Revered drummer John Wadham was one of the few able to get by largely on an Irish jazz diet, including session and radio work, but to do so he lived with his parents for much of his forty-year career.
From the early 1960s the Dublin jazz scene was found in small venues hosting jazz nights dotted around the capital, as well as in hotel residencies. From 1965–71 American saxophonist Jim Riley and his wife, Sheila, ran the Fox Inn (known as ‘The Fox’) at Ballymadun, Ashbourne, Co. Meath. This unlikely rural venue attracted international stars including Jon Hendricks and Keith Jarrett. From the 1970s, the Baggot Inn, primarily a rock venue, ran packed-out jazz nights that have become the stuff of legend. Jazz festivals began to crop up too, featuring the best of indigenous talent and esteemed visiting artists. The largest of these, the Cork Jazz Festival, started in 1978.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the tiny upstairs function room above J. J. Smyth’s bar on Aungier Street became Dublin’s first dedicated jazz and blues venue. During the 1980s a new generation of Irish jazz performers also came of age, including Honor Heffernan (b. 1953), Mary Coughlan (b. 1956), Ronan Guilfoyle (b. 1958) and David O’Rourke (b. 1960). In December 1986 a dedicated (if short-lived) Irish publication, Jazz News, was launched. The scene, however, continued to be niche.
Today, jazz can be heard in various residencies and dedicated nights, and Irish jazz festivals continue to attract local and international talent to annual events in Cork, Derry, Galway, Limerick, Sligo, Bray and Westport. When J. J. Smyth’s closed in 2017, Arthur’s Jazz and Blues Bar on Thomas Street took up the mantle, hosting jazz and blues acts several nights a week. Jazz has also become the subject of more serious study with under- and postgraduate courses and research opportunities becoming available at several third-level institutions – so as we say farewell to the scene’s foundational stars, a new generation looks certain to keep Irish jazz alive and swinging.
- George Hodnett, ‘Jazz: Setting the scene’, Irish Times, 18 Sept. 1963
- Damian Evans, ‘The creation of meaning and identity in the Dublin jazz scene, past and present’ (Ph.D. thesis, Technological University Dublin, 2016) https://doi.org/10.21427/D7X32C