Obituary: Mike Hart, founder of Edinburgh’s International Jazz and Blues Festival, musician, sailor, pilot

Mike Hart MBE
Mike Hart MBE
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Michael Warner Hart MBE, jazz musician and founder of the Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival. Born: 23 March, 1934, Inverness. Died: 11 December, 2018, aged 84.

Growing up in an Edinburgh which during the 1950s and 60s became a potent crucible of revivalist jazz, Mike Hart went on to make a major contribution to the Scottish jazz scene as a musician, bandleader and organiser, and at an international level through his creation, in 1979, of what would become the biggest event of its kind in Britain – the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival.

From that first, four-day venture, much of it hosted in pubs, the festival grew to become a major event on the international jazz calendar, with hundreds of performers from home and abroad appearing in concert halls or more casual and intimate venues.

Hart, who died after a four-year battle with throat cancer in this 40th year of the festival, was born in Inverness, an only child, whose father, a former engineer, moved his family to Edinburgh and established an antiques business which became well known, run by Mike’s mother in Cockburn Street then later in St Stephen’s Street, Stockbridge.

Following a miserable period at boarding school in Bedfordshire, Hart was enrolled at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, famously a jazz hotbed in its own right, producing such formidable players as clarinettists Sandy Brown and Archie Semple, trumpeter All Fairweather and drummer-pianist Stan Greig.

Hart, already inspired by the international revival of interest in traditional jazz, naturally became one of the “Royal High School Gang”, as they were known, and was still in his mid-teens when he started playing drums with the local Gavin’s Gloryland Jazz Band.

An extraordinary number of top-class players were emerging from Edinburgh at that time, and a seminal encounter occurred one night in the West End Café, when Sandy Brown, regarded by many as one of the greatest clarinettists to come out of the UK and an intimidating figure, invited the teenage Hart to sit in with his band. Hart would later recall that he “nearly fell over but immediately accepted”, and would play with Brown several times, including a memorable 1952 trip to London which included the “The Big Jazz Show” at the Royal Albert Hall.

By the time he returned to a bubbling Edinburgh jazz scene from National Service with the RAF during 1952-54, he had taken up the banjo. He joined another well-known local jazz name, trumpeter Charlie McNair, then went on to establish his own Mike Hart’s Blue Blowers and before the Fifties were out he had co-founded a longstanding outfit, the Climax Jazz Band, with whom he made his earliest recordings.

By this time, of course, the Royal High School had been left far behind, an engineering course at Ramsey technical College failed to engage, and he kept body and soul together through diverse occupations – agricultural feed adviser, sailing boat skipper, variety club producer and, latterly, following his beloved mother’s footsteps into the antique trade. Jazz remained the one constant.

In 1960 he married his first wife, Moira, whom he met through the art school jazz crowd, and they had two children, Susan and Michael. His restless lifestyle, however, was hardly conducive to domestic harmony and the marriage didn’t last. He continued to tour, including tour-managing the White Heather Club variety show with Andy Stewart, Jimmy Shand and company.

He continued to establish new bands, including, in the mid-Sixties, his own New Society Syncopators, later becoming Mike Hart’s Scottish Society Syncopators, with whom he toured abroad, recorded and broadcast (the late Alastair Clark, Scotsman journalist, pioneering music writer and broadcaster, arranged at least one recording session for the Syncopators in the former BBC studios in Edinburgh’s Queen Street at the end of the 60s).

It wasn’t just jazz that consumed Hart, however. By the late 1970s, he became interested in deep sea fishing, on one trip to Madeira, with the deep sea angling specialist and author Trevor Housby, landing a 180lb bluefin tuna.

He raced his Dragon class keelboat out of Granton, going on to gain his pilot’s licence and fly a Cessna light aircraft: that was later supplanted by a three-wheeler Triking sports car, in which he and his companion Meryl rallied with fellow enthusiasts.

The jazz bug, however, never let up, and in the late Seventies the concept of a jazz festival in his home town started to seriously percolate. Inspired by a visit to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, by the end of 1978 he had mounted a three-day, single-venue jazz event in Edinburgh and, in August of the following year, the first Edinburgh Jazz Festival ran for five nights, mainly in pubs and hotels, featuring a mixture of home-grown bands and visitors such as L’Orpheon Celesta from France and the USA’s Oregon Jazz Band.

He would remain director for 25 years, pushing the event with dogged determination and remaining heavily involved after standing down. In 1995 his work for jazz was recognised by an MBE, and also by a citation from the City of Sacramento.

“In the early days, the Jazz Festival ran on Mike’s adrenalin,” the event’s producer, Roger Spence, recalls. “I remember going with him to Dryburgh’s Brewery to sell them sponsorship. His pitch was based on enthusiasm. He had been to California, had seen a vision of a Jazz Festival in Sacramento and was sure it would work in Edinburgh.

“Mike wasn’t thinking about the money to be made, he was just thinking about how great it would be to have Edinburgh’s pubs and clubs packed with jazz for a week – and especially the international bands and stars from the classic New Orleans and swing styles that made Sacramento such a dynamic event. Dryburgh’s said yes, and very quickly astonishing lists of international names, from Teddy Wilson to Buddy Tate, were making their way to Edinburgh.

“One man’s vision changed the nature of Scottish Jazz.”

Graham Blamire, author of Edinburgh Jazz Enlightenment – The Story of Edinburgh Traditional Jazz, writes: “Mike Hart would never have claimed to be an innovative or particularly original jazz musician but he was a fine player, both as a member of the rhythm section and in his solo work. He could be a volatile and demanding individual, but he had vision, energy, and determination and, when he wanted, a great deal of charm.

“He was a major influence on Edinburgh jazz for a very long time, and leaves behind a rich legacy in memories and recordings and a famous jazz event that will be his enduring memorial.”

Hart is survived by his two children and three grandchildren. By his own admission, he couldn’t be described as the perfect father, says his daughter, Susan, “although he always kept in touch with his kids and was very proud of their achievements. Nearing the end of his life he became much closer to his family, especially his grandchildren, and enjoyed holidays with them seeking sunshine and the high life right to the end.”

That high life will be appropriately celebrated at his funeral at Edinburgh’s Warriston Crematorium on 28 December, followed by live jazz at the Counting House.

Jim GilchrisT