All that jazz... Play it by ear, says festival chair Fiona Collins

All that jazz... Play it by ear, says festival chair Fiona Collins
All that jazz! Fiona Collins, Chair of the Cork Jazz Festival Committee.

“My mum is a huge music enthusiast and it was through her I discovered Jazz and became a real Jazz fan. The was the reason I became a volunteer; it was really to get to hear some Jazz music.”

There are some things in life that can taken for granted while there are other things that leave a mark. Fiona Collins’s love of jazz led to the Bandon native becoming a volunteer for the Guinness Jazz Festival. That was, by her reckoning about 15 years ago, but it became the starting point of a relationship with the festival that has led to her becoming its chairperson three years ago, a role that also is voluntary.

“I’ve been volunteering that long and have been on the committee for about eight or nine years,” she reckons.

One of her earliest jazz festival experiences was meeting the late Bill Johnson, the genial and long-serving chairman who passed away in 2011. “Such a lovely man,” she recalls, “and he loved the festival.”

Fiona has a background in event organisation and as chairperson, she describes her role somewhat enigmatically as “multifunctional,” a state of affairs that seems to differ little from her time as a festival volunteer.

“As a volunteer, no day is ever the same over the festival,” she confirms.

A festival is a complex event and the sense of variety that flows from that is part of the attraction for Fiona and one suspects the reason why she approaches the job with equanimity. When asked to consider the kinds of things the festival gets right she responds to say “with every event, there are some things that just don’t go to plan but that’s half the fun – figuring things out and making sure that everyone who attends still has fun.

“I love the community part of it and bringing music to those who may not get out for it. I also love the street activities and having families involved and groups like Music Generation – they are the future of the festival in Cork.

Having started out at the festival as a volunteer Collins currently finds herself in a position of great responsibility for the festival, albeit still in a volunteering capacity. What is it that keeps her interested and committed?

“Honestly, it’s a belief in how good the festival is for Cork from both a cultural and business perspective. It provides so much to the city and the fact it has been running for over 40 years just strengthens that,” she maintains.

There has been for Fiona the reward of enjoying some privileged experiences, such as when the legendary pianist Herbie Hancock brought his The Imagine Project tour to the Everyman Palace Theatre in 2010.

“I was lucky enough to be backstage – about 10 feet away from him. It was magical,” she enthuses.

If organising a festival is a huge task programming it is an equally onerous endeavour. The Jazz Festival that we know now is bears little resemblance to the one that was founded over 40 years ago and is even a different beast to the one Collins first joined as a volunteer. So then, what kind of considerations are discussed when it comes to booking acts for recent programmes?

“Jazz has evolved over the years and we and the venues try to cater for as many as possible with the programming,” she says flatly.

Given that there is no typical audience member for the jazz, who are they hoping to appeal to with this year’s programme?

“Everybody, of course,” she exclaims. “Get out and come to Cork – see what’s happening.

“The vibe of the weekend is also great – it doesn’t matter if you’re out for a coffee or out for the night, you can’t miss it,” she insists.

So looking ahead to this year’s festival and getting down to specifics, if Fiona met someone who arrived into Cork and knew nothing about the jazz festival, what would be the one thing she’d recommend them to do or go see?

“Kurt Elling will be great,” she says without hesitation of American jazz singer and songwriter who brings his A Century of Heroes show, which sees him pay tribute to jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Jon Hendricks, Shirley Horn and Nancy Wilson, to the City Hall on the Saturday.

“Pop into the Metropole Hotel, home of the Jazz, if you can but also just take a walk around the city centre, you’d never know what might pop up,” she counsels.

And what of Collins herself? Are there certain things she wants to see this year? Her response is most apt.

“I will play it by ear,” she says sagely.

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