From boutique venues to ‘funky dumps’, there’s more to the city’s jazz history than meets the eye
Missing wardrobes, sensitive egos, overwrought bowels… as long-standing director and administrator of Glasgow Jazz Festival, Jill Rodger has dealt with them all, giving her fraught moments but also a rare fund of stories, the less libellous of which will be aired as the festival marks its 30th anniversary later this month with three specially prepared walking tours around the Merchant City quarter which hosts many of its events.
The walks are led by Glasgow Music City Tours*, who specialise in guided tours of the venues and other landmarks which have contributed to the city becoming, in 2008, the UK’s first Unesco City of Music. I’m sitting with Rodger in what might be termed the festival’s heartland of Candleriggs, where the Scottish Music Centre adjoins the City Hall and the Old Fruitmarket.
This 30th festival prepares to welcome such luminaries as Darius Brubeck, Joe Locke and Carol Kidd, as well as a “30 Under 30” strand celebrating a new generation of Scottish jazz players. The tour has been created by Alison Eales, who is completing a PhD on the history of Glasgow Jazz Festival. The many anecdotes, therefore, will cover not only the festival, but the wider context of Glasgow’s jazz history, including such episodes as the city’s first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in the Paramount Cinema, later to become the Odeon, Duke Ellington’s haggis-hunting forays during the 1930s, or Miles Davis playing the Apollo in 1973, back to the audience, as was his wont.
It was Davis, during a later visit, who sent Rodger and her colleagues desperately hunting for Evian water – not a widely obtainable commodity in Glasgow at the time. They finally sourced a crate from Peckham’s in Central Station. Some of the festival’s other rider requests – the sometimes bizarre items demanded for backstage – make interesting telling: injections of vitamin B12 half an hour before stage time, a dialysis machine...
Then there was the BB King concert when the blues guitarist arrived from Spain with an extremely upset stomach. Rodger had to find a late-night chemist and purchase the sorely needed Imodium, which King took offstage while giving his band unusually extended solos.
She’s seen her fair share of extempore shopping excursions, not least when Hammond organ ace Jimmy Smith arrived from the States to find that the airline (which was also sponsoring the gig) had lost his luggage. Rodger was told by the airline to take the disgruntled musician out and buy him everything he needed. “It’s just as well because his luggage didn’t turn up until midnight,” she recalls. It was Smith, too, who, on another festival appearance was driven to his venue, the Tramway, only to declare: “I ain’t going in there. It’s a funky dump.”
He meant funky as in dirty, and it took a few beers in the nearby Lord Darnley to mollify him enough to take the stage.
Funky or not, the Tramway was superseded by the more central Old Fruitmarket, which the jazz festival was instrumental in transforming from a neglected shell to the popular venue it is today, consolidating the Merchant City’s “cultural quarter” status. Prior to refurbishment, however, the roof was less than rain or bird-proof, and Rodger remembers performances by the likes of Carol Kidd and Martin Taylor disrupted by less than respectful pigeons and starlings.
Interrupted in a rather different way was the Dutch drummer Han Bennink, playing in the Tron Theatre on a Saturday afternoon when he found he had competition from an Orange march outside. Unfazed, Bennink started playing along with the pummelling Orangemen. Whether or not a free-improv cover of The Sash featured on his next album we can’t quite recall.
• Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 22 June until 3 July, www.jazzfest.co.uk. *Fiona Shepherd, The Scotsman’s chief pop critic, is a founder of Glasgow Music City Tours