The Mouse That Roared: An Introduction to Nairn Jazz

It’s a balmy Sunday evening and over 300 jazz fans are taking their seats in the conference room of an elegant seaside hotel. The place is buzzing. Many of the audience members haven’t seen each other since the last jazz concert, a few months ago, and there’s a great deal of anticipation about the return visit of the favourite American jazz musician about to appear onstage.
You might think that I’m about to tell you all about some Mediterranean jazz festival or an American jazz party, but this is actually the build-up to a concert at the Newton Hotel in Nairn, the picturesque Scottish seaside town which, over the last decade, has put itself firmly on the jazz map. Like something out of an Ealing comedy, the highly personal and often eccentric Nairn International Jazz Festival is now a player on the world-stage of jazz.
The festival was founded by Ken Ramage, a local greengrocer with a passion for the music. In the early 1990s, he decided to stage a series of jazz concerts featuring such big names as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and the Scottish singer Carol Kidd. These proved so popular that Ramage, inspired by the classic documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, boldly went on to develop the Nairn International Jazz Festival.
Like Newport – which was also, famously, the setting for the well-loved Hollywood musical High Society – Nairn, with its big old houses, stunning views across the Moray Firth and beautiful surrounding countryside – is a splendid location for a festival. It only took a few years for it to emerge as a mecca for the creme de la creme of the jazz world who routinely descend on the wee town every August for the annual festival, and at various times in between, for one-off concerts and weekend events.

As Ken Peplowski, the clarinet and saxophone star, tells an audience which has just been blown away by his dynamic, exciting performance: “We love coming here. There’s such an amazing scene here. Sometimes I tell people, and they don’t believe me. Then they come, and they realise it too.”

The day after his sell-out concert at the Newton, Peplowski is waiting at reception for a lift to his next gig: a late morning concert at a restaurant where, in true Nairn style, the audience’s tickets include their elevenses. There’s just one problem: his bass player, London-based Andrew Cleyndert, isn’t around. A couple of inquiries later and Peplowski learns that Cleyndert was whisked off earlier to do an extra gig: at, of all places, the local nursery.

Only in Nairn would this very typical sort of last-minute addition to the itinerary be cooked up. Many a time, during the festival, word has spread through audiences that there’s to be an extra concert or that somebody has started a little jam session somewhere. It’s all part of the event’s charm.

As is the fact that Nairn is very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the concerts to see this: people line up to thank Ken Ramage and to request that certain bands or musicians be invited back. As often as not, the musicians are the first to request a return visit – and Peplowski’s requests start on Sunday evening and continue through to the workshop he gives pupils at the local secondary school on the Monday afternoon.

The late cornet star Ruby Braff came to Nairn several times – and, in fact, played his last-ever gig there. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was treated to trips to Loch Ness and Cawdor Castle during his stay, but it was the dolphins in the Moray Firth which particularly appealed to him. Legendary bass player Ray Brown found the golfing opportunities (the Newton Hotel looks out on to the splendid West Golf Course) as much of an incentive as the musical ones. Other jazz musicians have managed to cram in visits to nearby Brodie Castle – which has been a venue in past festivals – to their schedule, as well as visits to distilleries.

Ruby Braff was also one of a number of musicians who head for Nairn before anywhere else in Scotland, and who have effectively been adopted by festival-goers as one of their own. Since the festival has always been a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, there has long been a degree of favouritism towards pianists – the late Ralph Sutton and Gene Harris loved coming to Nairn – and singers who, as often as not, Ramage first heard on Michael Parkinson’s radio show.

The characteristic which, more than any other, puts Nairn jazz in a class of it own is its laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Musicians and audience members mingle before concerts, after concerts and during the intervals: there’s no attempt at the segregation which is now the norm at jazz events. John Bunch, the veteran American pianist, loves the fact that “the musicians get to hobnob with the fans”. Indeed, the musicians usually stay at the same hotels as the punters, and it’s really quite surreal to see great American jazz men emerging from the newsagents on the High Street, or to hear them extolling the virtues of the local chippie’s curry sauce.

For cornettist Warren Vache, “the most rewarding feature of the Nairn Jazz Festival is its intimacy”. Vache, who has been a regular visitor since the early days, says: “The concert venues are generally smaller, allowing more contact with the audience and this sometimes makes for very special music. I remember doing a duo concert with Ralph Sutton several times in Nairn, and it always seemed as though we were performing for friends in a sitting room.”

And in case you think you need jazz aficionado credentials to get a kick out of Nairn, bear in mind that large chunks of the audience are local folk who have discovered jazz as a result of the festival. Prepare to be converted ….

* A preview of this year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival (Aug 3rd-8th) will be posted next week, but if you can’t wait, visit www.nairnjazz.com for information.

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