I'm bringing jazz back to Cork in a big way

There’s a new woman at the helm of Cork Jazz Festival which gets underway tomorrow. COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with Sinead Dunphy, who talks about reading Shakespeare at eight, her varied career and this year’s exciting festival line-up
I'm bringing jazz back to Cork in a big way
Festival Director Sinead Dunphy launches the Dia De Los Muertos Jazz Parade, which opens the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival on Thursday 25 October.  Picture: Clare Keogh

THE dynamic Sinead Dunphy, who is the new director of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, is on a mission “to bring the festival back to its jazz roots”.

In recent years, the programme included rock and pop music acts but Sinead wants to “augment” the festival’s standing across the world by emphasising jazz.

While Sinead can appreciate jazz festivals introducing a commercial element by booking rock bands, she believes that there’s a strong appetite for jazz in Cork.

“The festival is part of the cultural fabric of the city. The feedback we’re getting from punters and stakeholders is really positive. Bringing jazz back in a big way is the starting point of our vision and as with the Cork International Choral Festival (which Sinead managed prior to her latest job), there will be an important educational element. We are going to be doing cultural exchanges. The Jazz Youth Orchestra from New York is coming over and will work with the Cork School of Music’s youth ensemble and big band.”

Cork musician, Paul Dunlea, has been announced as the inaugural artist-in-residence of the festival during the 2018/2019 period. A trombonist, he will be supported by the festival in his professional career.

“He will be platformed here and on a much wider stage,” says Sinead. “We’re also talking to Ronnie Scotts in London about the same thing. This festival is about the development of the jazz art form.”

Sinead says that the aim is to grow the festival so it emulates the success of major international jazz events like Montreal and New Orleans.

“Our festival has the potential to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world and my foremost intention is to bring Cork and its jazz offering to the main stage of the world where we belong.”

When Sinead joined the Cork Jazz Festival in January, this year’s event hadn’t been programmed. She describes the experience of taking over the festival as being like “a baptism of fire”.

Estimated to be worth €35million to the local economy, nearly 1,000 jazz musicians from over 20 countries will fly into Cork this October Bank Holiday weekend. Headline acts include China Moses, Laura Mvula, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Stanley Clarke, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Sinead says that booking the latter is “a big coup”.

“Maria, who’s from New York, is the jazz diva of composition, arrangement and conducting. She is an absolutely stellar musician. She has never been to Cork before. When I contacted her agent, I was told that she wouldn’t be available until 2022. But I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I knew she was quite an activist, petitioning congress for equal pay for artists. I saw that she’s very vocal as a feminist. I decided to put a nice email together and I sent it to Maria’s PA. In it, I said that I’m not one for programming on the basis of genitalia. Musicians have to be good enough. But at the same time, it’s important to look at the programme and if you see that there’s a gap, then you should address it.

Artist Paul Dunlea and Festival Director Sinead Dunphy at the launch of The Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2018. Picture: Clare Keogh
Artist Paul Dunlea and Festival Director Sinead Dunphy at the launch of The Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2018. Picture: Clare Keogh

“Maria said she agreed with what I was saying. Within two hours , I had the Maria Schneider Orchestra confirmed for the festival. That’s incredible for me, to take a punt on one of the biggest jazz stars.”

The programme also includes a Dia De Los Muertos (parade of the walking dead), a parade with free jazz in the city including open air gigs. There will be flash mobs on the streets, a live multi-disciplinary theatre and jazz show, a swing jive in City Hall and an event in the Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place.

It’s an ambitious festival, in keeping with Sinead’s drive. The 36-year-old Waterford native, who has been living in Cork for 18 years, had enough points in her Leaving Certificate to study medicine. But she opted to do drama and theatre studies at UCC.

Growing up, Sinead was a member of Waterford Youth Drama.

“That was my saviour. When I was young, I didn’t speak. I was called my mother’s shadow until I was about ten. I knew how to speak and could ask for whatever I wanted but I was so shy. My weekly drama class got me socialising.

“Then, when I went to secondary school, speech and drama teacher, Mary McNamara changed my life completely. She got me debating and doing public speaking. She gave me a whole new confidence.

“When I was 16, UCC’s philosophical society invited me to debate. I did a lot of national stuff as well.”

These days, Sinead comes across as an extrovert, a big change from the quiet girl that she used to be.

“I still have my moments and can hide away from the world for a day or two. You can get a pain in your face from smiling at people!”

As a child, Sinead was a “real bookworm” and a very advanced reader.

“By the time I was eight, I had read most of Shakespeare. The library was down the street from where we lived. Dad would bring me and he had to get adult books out for me such as novels by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. I was that way inclined. I was a really sad nerd. I had friends but I was very quiet. I’m a lunatic now!”

Sinead has always had her head screwed on. Fiercely independent with a can-do attitude, she put herself through college by working in bars part-time.

She ended up managing the Gateway Pub on Barrack Street, now called Barbarella. “I turned it back into a live music venue,” she says.

Having gigged with her “bluesy jazz folk music” in Waterford, Sinead started performing in Cork venues.

After graduating from UCC, she was approached to take over a pub on South Main Street, now known as Ziggys.

“Then I decided to be an adult and get a real job. I worked in a bank for a while. I ended up doing all the in-house accounts for the bank. It was brilliant experience but it was in Bandon and it was tough going up and down.”

Sinead worked for a spell at an accountancy firm. All the while, she was gigging and had started managing bands.

“I never had just one job,” she explained.

Then a business development job came up at the Cork Opera House.

“That’s where I came into my own. I realised I really wanted to work in the arts full time.”

Sinead progressed to becoming marketing and PR manager at the Cork Opera House. After a while, she was approached to run the Cork International Choral Festival.

“I’d say John Fitzpatrick (director of the choral festival) nearly died when I started working with him. I was a bit bolshie. I’ve learned that maybe men haven’t got as much testosterone as me. I never knew I was scary but people say that I shouldn’t be crossed.”

Sinead puts her fearless attitude down to her parents. Her father, who is nearly 80, retired when she was a child. To bring in extra income, Sinead’s mother took in student lodgers.

“She ended up becoming accommodation officer for the Waterford Regional Technical College. She has a reputation for getting up and doing stuff. And my father, to this day, is still helping people. My parents are such goers. That’s why I am this way.”

After doing all she wanted to do with the choral festival, Sinead was ready to move on to a new challenge when she got chatting to people from the jazz festival.

What started out as a casual conversation progressed to a job offer. “I had always wanted to work with the jazz festival but it seemed very closed with no way in. When I was interviewed for the job, I was told that another person in the running for it had pulled out.”

Sinead signed a contract and is revelling in her new job.


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