All that jazz: Festival goes back to its roots

In just a few days, Cork will transform into a bubbling hub of jazz as the 41st Guinness Cork Jazz Festival takes place. Kevin O'Neill speaks to new festival director Sinéad Dunphy about this year's events, as well as plans for the upcoming years.
All that jazz: Festival goes back to its roots

Sinéad Dunphy, new director of the Cork Jazz Festival, pictured at the launch of the newly refurbished and illuminated Berwick Fountain on Grand Parade, Cork. Picture: Michael O’Sullivan / OSM PHOTO

THERE are just days to go before Cork erupts into a celebration of all things jazz.

More than 1,000 musicians from 20 countries will descend on Leeside for the 41st Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.

Every venue in the city, from the smallest bar to the biggest halls, will play host to music in some form or other. This is in addition to street parades, outdoor spectacles and pop-up performances in some less-than-expected locations too.

Headline acts include Laura Mvula, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Cork’s own Brian Deady.

This year, City Hall is joining the list of venues, hosting four events across the weekend, while Cork Opera House, St Luke’s Church, the Everyman theatre and so many more bars and clubs will take on a veritable feast of music.

The 41st edition of the festival is a landmark one, too. It marks the first under the tenure of Waterford native Sinéad Dunphy as festival director. Formerly the brains behind the Cork International Choral Festival, Ms Dunphy assumed the role earlier this year and immediately set about putting her own stamp on things.

In addition to adding some jazz flourishes to an eclectic line-up, she wanted to reconnect with city communities and open the festival up to as many as possible.

That all starts with one of the many new additions to the festival: a ‘Day of the Dead’ style parade through the streets on Thursday to kick off the festival in style.

“It all kicks off with the parade; that is another new facet of it,” Sinéad said.

“It is exciting and scary. The lads in Community Art Link have done an incredible job. It is going to be a spectacle and I am really excited.

“I wanted to bring the festival back to its roots in terms of jazz but, also, it is a festival. To me, that means that it should be open and accessible to everyone and that means open and accessible in the streets.”

Brass street bands have become a common feature of the jazz festival in recent years, with the jazz parade proving a popular element of the festival. But Sinéad wanted to open up this element of the proceedings even more.

“The introduction of the artist in residence programme is in full operation — we chose Paul Dunlea as our inaugural artist in residence,” she said.

“We are working with clubs in New York, London, New Orleans, Boston, Madrid, Berlin and Paris to try and really open it up for cultural exchanges. That is a really exciting programme to show us taking a really active role in supporting jazz music.

“It is about thinking outside the box and trying to think about what we can do for the music and make a real impact.”

Such programmes will see youth groups creating new music as part of a cultural exchange and interaction between people of different backgrounds, which Sinéad was keen to see happen.

In addition, this year will see the Jazz Festival’s first ever commissioned work: ‘Unity,’–a blend of sound and visuals, the show is from David Duffy, a composer and artist known for his work with Eat My Noise, and will take place at St Luke’s Church. It promises to be one of the most interesting elements of a varied festival programme.

“It is going to be an incredible show,” Sinead said. “That was something I wanted to do, to commission something. We discussed this in January and thought it was a really interesting project that we could undertake. It is really exciting and it is the start of something new.

“Without a doubt, commissioning is something we want to do more of. As with any festival, you want to be part creator and producer. Hopefully, this is just the start of a long tradition of commissioning new and original work for the festival.”

Part of this involves the artist in residence programme from the 2018 festival which, it is hoped, will lead to some interesting collaborations and new work at the 2019 festival.

Sinéad has approached the entire process with one eye on the coming years, she added.

“There will be more collaborations and we will be more creative about how we approach the festival,” she said.

“Rather than it being a case of identifying an artist, booking them and leaving it at that, we want to be creative and be more involved in what we are producing. It is about the jazz music genre being supported by the festival. Whether that is through commissions, collaborations or other things, we want to be a big part of that.”

Plans for the coming years are already in place, Sinéad added.

“We have nearly got the entire 2019 programme for the Everyman and for City Hall finalised and it is just a matter of finalising details with a few other venues.

“We even have a couple of artists in for 2020 and, as for 2021, we’ll see.”

While she was remaining tight-lipped on who is lined up for the coming years, she said that fans of the festival should be excited to see what is coming next.

“You have to work around touring schedules but when you approach an artist, you can sometimes give them a few options,” she said.

“There is more room for artistic decision making when you are looking at a longer scope. It is nicer to have a longer lead-in time to have the freedom to be playful and creative with the programme.”

Looking a few years ahead helped to secure some bookings. But, Sinéad added, the ‘Cork’ factor is what sealed the deal for many.

“The name is there,” she said.

“The festival, by reputation and by activation, is incredible. It has been for 40 years.

“There was probably more of a dichotomy between jazz and non-jazz over the last number of years so I’ve tried to bring that quite heavily back in favour of jazz.

“A lot of the artists are aware of that and they are excited by that. All over the world, the major jazz festivals — the Montreal one, for example - have very little jazz.

“A lot of them are going for roots style, blues-heavy and folk-rock that might lean into jazz.

“That is what those audiences want but, in Cork, we have a very trusting jazz audience. We have done for 40 years because this festival has done an incredible job of building trust.”

That is not to say that Cork is excluding non-jazz acts this year, though. Cork Opera House will host the Academic, All Tvvins and Jenny Greene, while the likes of Delorentos, Ejeca and Wyvern Lingo are also on the agenda at other city venues.

“For us in Cork, it is about finding the balance. How can we be the top promoter of quality jazz music but also maintain audiences? Luckily, we are blessed with a trusting audience that allows us to do exactly that,” Sinéad said.

One of the key things that the new director wanted to do was to bring big name jazz back to Cork.

The closing concert will see the Maria Schneider Orchestra play City Hall. One of the biggest names in jazz, it was a coup for Sinéad’s first festival.

And, as far as she was concerned, only one venue would suffice.

“City Hall is more known for classical concerts — I used it every year for Choral Festival — and the acoustics are just beautiful,” she said.

“It is the biggest venue in Cork so it made sense that the biggest festival in Cork would start using it. It was an obvious one for me and gave me more power to programme.”

With eyes firmly fixed on 2019, 2020 and 2021, the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival is set to grow even further under Sinéad’s stewardship.

She said: “Jazz could have been seen as niche, but not in Cork. Every venue in the city is doing something and it is almost like satellite festivals.

“People want improvisational, real jazz. It’s not just the bank holiday weekend, it is happening every week of the year.”

For full listings and ticket information on all events, see

More in this section

Sponsored Content