A Dedicated Jazz Venue for Ireland
It was with a certain degree of envy that I perused the excellent articles featured in the inaugural edition of the JMI. It was clear that many had been the product of various public lectures over the last few years, sparing their authors the trauma of the dreaded print deadline. Having said that, there’s nothing like the anxious tone of an editor to focus the attention on the topic at hand – in this case, its that hoary old chestnut, venues. Oh no, I hear you sigh, not another impassioned plea from an arts organisation pleading for a ‘space of their own’. But bear with me, members of the jury, for the defence will ably demonstrate the overwhelming case that their client, the Irish jazz community, have just cause to seek reparations in the form of bricks and mortar for the practitioners and audiences of this burgeoning artform.
In his introduction to the first issue, Toner Quinn alludes to the fact that Irish jazz, while ‘not without its problems’ has enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth over the last decade. One could argue that those very same problems are part and parcel of the current vitality of jazz in Ireland. Dysfunctional artforms, like families, tend to be so much more interesting, and infinitely better company, than their well adjusted counterparts. Those within the community would also state that many of the critical issues facing the music have been addressed, with varying degrees of success, over the last ten years. Organisations like Improvised Music Company, Newpark Music Centre and others have made significant progress in the areas of education, recording and performance, and the music is enjoying a media profile that is surely the envy of many of its peers. But success brings its own challenges and chief among those is the provision of adequate performance space for this genre that relies so heavily on the live experience.
In advancing the argument for a dedicated jazz venue, it’s necessary to look at the existing environment for jazz performance. A quick scan of the entertainment listings will point to plenty of activity, but when is it taking place and, more importantly, where? Certainly, the major international acts are performing in the salubrious surroundings of Vicar Street et al, but how many local musicians or breaking acts can fill a 600-seater venue? Further probing of the listings will reveal that the backbone of local performance is ye olde Irish pub, and much of this on the graveyard shift of Sunday lunchtime, Monday or Tuesday evening, etc. Even this bastion of performance is dwindling, surely a reflection of the receding role of the public house in Irish cultural life. It’s clear that the changing nature of the licensed trade has rendered the happy co-existence of pubs and live music moribund. The new breed of uberpublican, who will doubtless have invested millions in a gleaming new pint factory, is no longer satisfied with the comparatively low spend generated by a clientele that likes music more than beer, particularly in Dublin. This would be borne out by our own experiences with The Pendulum, a twice-weekly club focussing primarily on local musicians, with occasional visiting international soloists. Having moved venues four times in as many years, I have ample experience of the difficulties in trying to convince publicans of the aesthetic, as well as financial gratification, that live music can bring. Interestingly, our present home is JJ Smyths on Aungier Street, Dublin 2, a traditional Dublin pub, family owned, and as far removed from the multimillion pound gargle temples as you could imagine. Need I say more.
None of the above is to say that I think pubs are a suitable space for jazz performance in the first place, but I look forward to the deregulation of this cosiest of cartels with great interest, heralding the entry into the market of individuals who see a more meaningful role for pubs than the new breed of opportunistic price-fixing philistines. Apart from the obvious difficulties of presenting music in pubs, complete with barmen who insist on waiting for the reflective ballad to load the glasswasher (do they teach them this at college?), hyperactive fire alarms, the quaint habit of flashing the lights for ‘time’, and the TV commentary from the UEFA Champions League wafting through from the lounge, this environment has served to reinforce harmful misconceptions about jazz and the people who make it. Most damaging of these is the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between jazz and alcohol, or worse, that the music exists as a subservient aural backdrop to the communal activity of drinking. It’s no exaggeration to state that the attritive effect of working in this environment has contributed to the under achievement of successive generations of Irish musicians. It’s hard to believe in your artistry when nobody’s listening.
In many ways, IMC’s experiences with the Pendulum are symbolic of the nomadic existence that has been the lot of Irish jazz since its genesis in the 50s. Effectively, jazz musicians have been practising slash and burn agriculture, moving on from one ad hoc venue to another. With less and less fallow ground available, it’s high time for jazz and its fellow travellers such as improvised and world music to put down some roots, and there is compelling evidence that, to paraphrase the Charlie Parker composition, ‘Now’s The Time’! A recent feasibility study conducted by IMC points to overwhelming support for a dedicated venue, and the three thousand plus attendance at our summer open-day in Temple Bar coupled with capacity houses at ESB Dublin Jazz Week is indicative of the dramatic growth curve in the jazz audience base. The global trend that has seen the advent of jazz as a conduit for a rounded, holistic music education is also gaining currency in Ireland, and the fifty musicians graduating from the LGSM programme at Newpark Music Centre annually is assuredly a portent of things to come. Not to put too fine a point on it, these musicians need a place to play, and the audience needs a place to hear them.
While the swelling of the state’s coffers has had obvious benefits for arts infrastructure in Ireland, it’s still early days. With construction costs at £145 per square foot, and inflation set to spiral in the building industry, this is a challenging time for anyone in the arts to embark upon a major capital project, the support of schemes such as Minister Síle de Valera’s ACCESS funding programme notwithstanding. A recent article by Helen Meany of the Irish Times highlighted the proliferation of new theatres and arts centres around the country, sounding a cautionary note on the inherent danger in building venues where demand and usage has not been proven. While many of these new venues profess to be ‘multi disciplinary’, the reality is that music comes a poor second to installation-driven activities such as theatre production and visual art, and basic requirements such as flexible acoustic design, adequate PA systems, and pianos, are a rarity. With the best will in the world, it’s nigh impossible to present one-off concert events if your space is tied up for a three-week theatre run or exhibition. Too many arts centres around the country are biased in this regard, a reflection that the upper echelons of Irish arts management are dominated by theatre professionals, and it may be time for a quota system to be introduced, where venues have an obligation to programme a minimum number of music events per year. Ironically, they may find that a diverse music content will create new audiences and generate some much needed cash flow – the lean ‘n’ mean music economy requires a fraction of the subsidy that goes into areas like theatre production.
Have audience, have artists, will travel. What next? Equally important to the practical considerations outlined above are the spiritual, aesthetic and ideological appetites that a dedicated jazz venue will satisfy. Jazz in Ireland needs a home, a place that audiences and practitioners can look to for inspiration, innovation and security of tenure. If you’re in any doubt as to the efficacy of such a proposal, ask yourself the following question: A friend is visiting Dublin for the weekend from another EU capital. He or she is a jazz fan, and asks you where is the best place to check out some music that Saturday night. Where will you recommend? The stark answer is that no such venue exists. Dublin is the only major European capital without a dedicated performance space for jazz and related music. When it doed have one, it will be a catalyst for growth, an engine for creativity, it much the same way as the IFC serves Irish cinema, IMMA serves contemporary art, Firkin Crane serves dance, etc.
By now it’s clear that what we’re talking about is much more than four walls, a stage and a PA. Why stop there? An auditorium should be just one element of a building that has many roles, including rehearsal space, practice rooms, and an archive and information resource. The sum of all these parts is a working building that educates, entertains, incubates and informs, its doors open seven days and nights per week, and built for a fraction of the cost of a new opera house or the proposed relocation of the Abbey Theatre. Above all though, it will be a tangible edifice to the aspirations of all who care about jazz, and the lodestone for the future development and nurturing of this artform that values creativity and freedom of expression so highly.
IMC has proposed exactly such a centre to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under their ACCESS funding scheme, and by the time you read this, it’s likely that we’ll have some indication as to whether our bid was successful. I hope they make the right decision and lend their support to an area of music infrastructure for which there is such emphatic demand. When we made our first revenue application to the Arts Council in 1991, Irish jazz was in pretty bad shape and needed a strong injection of remedial treatment. Those measures have proved very effective and not only is the patient now off the critical list, it’s in rude health. The Arts Council’s support, as well as that of corporate and media sponsors like ESB and the Irish Times, has wrought immeasurable changes in the Irish jazz arena, and has set in train a chain of events that makes the provision of this space inevitable. Two years into the new century, it’s time that artists, students and audiences of this major twentieth-century artform can perform it, learn about it and appreciate it in an environment that does it justice. The defence rests.
First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 2 (Jan–Feb 2001), pp. 10–13.
Published on 1 January 2001
Gerry Godley is Artistic Director of Improvised Music Company, a resource organisation for jazz and related music in Ireland. He presents the world music programme Reels to Raga on RTÉ lyric fm.