INTERVIEW: Eddie Lee of the Sligo Jazz Project

Alan Broadbent and Eddie Lee at Sligo Jazz Project 2014


Bassist, composer/ arranger, producer, educator and administrator EDDIE LEE (full biography here) helped to run the first Sligo Jazz Project in 2005. It is now one of the most successful and highly regarded festival and summer school programmes of its kind, and Eddie Lee is now its Director.

This year's teaching faculty included for the first time saxophonist Andy Middleton, guitarist Jeanfrancois Prins, and vocalist Judy Niemack, alongside regular tutors Paul Clarvis, Mike Nielsen, Brian Priestley and Stephen Davis, and for the last time in the capacity of musical director, pianist Alan Broadbent.

Sarah Chaplin interviewed the tireless and unassuming Irishman, to capture his reflections and insights, and to hear about his plans for the Project's tenth anniversary year in 2015.

Sarah Chaplin: Eddie, what have been your personal highlights from this year?

Eddie Lee: For me personally, it was being handed a bass by two eminent bassists Steve Rodby and John Goldsby on stage, at the end of the International All Stars SJP final gig, and be invited to share a tune with them. The session in Hargadons with Paul Clarvis was also beautiful. One of my all-time favourite moments of this week was when Steve Rodby started talking about jazz education at his duos gig on Thursday night and he got very emotional and sounded so impassioned – because it’s how I feel too.

SC: And the Youth Academy?

EL; It's something we only introduced for the first time this year – it’s been a howling success – those kids as young as 9 playing Chameleon at the final concert was certainly one of the highlights. Seeing Cathal Roche take their limited experiences of other music genres and encourage them to turn it into jazz – that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

This week’s been pretty emotional all round what with the tributes to Charlie Haden, and I was particularly struck during one of the lectures when Alan Broadbent was showing us his score and going though The Wayfaring Stranger. You could see exactly how he put emotion into the music, on the page, into the score. He was showing us how to listen more intently – and I could see it’s all there in his music but not in an obvious way. Like when the dark clouds in the lyrics came through as this mass of thin high strings in his music. Incredible!

SC: Looking back over the past 9 years, what have been some of your best achievements and fondest moments?

EL: Our first event back in 2005 was just a weekend in October with 5 tutors and 35 participants. One of the guys I organised it with applied to the local arts council and got a bit of money from them, and when I saw what could happen at something like that, we decided to try and run a summer school. I remember coming back from a trip to Boston in spring of 2006, and seeing a Rufus Reid instructional DVD called The Evolving Bassist had arrived in the mail. I realised we still hadn’t secured a bass tutor for the summer. It was a long shot but I emailed him to see if he would be interested and within 10 minutes I got a reply and he said he was available and would love to come - that is probably still my best achievement! We then tried for 3 years to get John Riley – and then he came three years running.

I always try and mix it up a bit with the types of bands and tutors – this year we had all kinds of stuff - funk, gypsy, hard-bop, straight-ahead. We invited The Bad Plus, Christian Scott and Pee Wee Ellis over to play in addition to all the tutors playing in various line-ups. Bringing more than a dozen musicians together to teach and play is always really exciting – there’s an electricity that happens when you do that – they all come with different ideas and it gives a certain edge to the music when they get on stage with people they’ve never played with before and everyone’s hyper-sensitive to each other. All the events here are like world premieres of one sort or another, right back to the first ever one when Rufus Reid, Mike Nielsen, Greg Burk and Michael Buckley played – I guess that’s still one my fondest moments.

SC: Everyone could see that the young people benefited hugely from this week, and I’ve talked to some of the younger adults who tell me they’ve been coming every year since they were teenagers. What for you is the value of learning jazz from a young age?

EL: I grew up with no jazz in the house, listening to mainly rock and roll and trying to teach myself an instrument. There was no music education round here back then, so I came to playing jazz very late. These kids are experiencing something that’s just not available in the classroom. I think it’s great kids getting grades and playing classical stuff, but this last week will have given them something that’s so much more than just playing the dots on a page – there’s a whole big love thing going on with the music, it’s about expressing yourself, they get to hang out and see how it’s done professionally. Steve Rodby even said the best question he’s been asked all week was by a child. That’s really saying something.

SC: Given your track record of attracting stellar tutors and reliable bookings year on year, things seem pretty secure for the SJP, but it can’t be easy maintaining that level of quality and momentum. What’s your biggest challenge looking ahead?

EL: Well the arts budgets in Ireland have come down 30% and a lot of annually funded organisations have gone now. A few years back, the arts council said once we are well established there might be a chance to get annual funding, but the prospect of that is now zilch. The good thing is, they seem to like what we do here - we get project funding mostly on the strength of the wonderful video that Ita Callagy and her team shoot and edit for us – that’s our main accompanying material and to be honest it’s the proof in the pudding - the Arts Council can see exactly what we’ve been up to. Because of their support, we can offer a jazz summer course for the price of a modest package holiday – it’s incredible value for money compared to other similar courses of this kind, and that’s really important to me, but a real challenge in itself to maintain this level of affordability. We may have to look to corporate sponsorship in future, but to be honest I haven’t had time to go down this route so far.

SC: Over the past 9 years, you’ve not only established the course and the festival, but you’ve also put Sligo on the map and done something special for the town – surely it wont be long before you’re on a par with Monterey here on the west coast of Ireland!

EL: I don't know about Monterey but it’s a nice thought. There was one tutor last year who came up when Mike Stern and Victor Wooten were soundchecking and said ‘hey man, what are you guys doing here?’ – meaning fetching up to play in a little town like Sligo. Comments like that make you realise you’ve brought people somewhere they never expected to end up playing jazz.

The venues have been fantastic and they’re so into the music – we couldn’t have done any of this without the help of the Hawks Well Theatre, the 5th on Teeling (a new club this year) and Rafferty’s – we probably have done something for the profile of Sligo and its leisure offer - I keep telling Failte Ireland every year that we’re boosting cultural tourism, but in their eyes it doesn’t generate a high number of bed nights so it’s not on the same scale as a big rock festival.

SC: What’s been the hardest lesson looking back?

EL: It was probably realising what the upper limit on numbers is for a thing like this. In 2007, we had 100 people enrolled and St Edwards school was bulging at the seams. Rufus Reid turned to me and said ‘Eddie you’ve become a victim of your own success…’ It’s not a conventional education event – it’s always organised chaos - I suppose that’s the essence of jazz too, and there were still only the 4 of us running it back then so now I’ve built up a bigger bunch of people to help out. There was one year where I did it all myself – that was pretty crazy.

SC: How have you responded to participants’ feedback?

EL: I think we nailed it for the very first time last year from the point view of the summer school – people were telling me they wanted to play more, so we instituted the 6 o’clock jam session. To be honest, it sounded like it might be overkill given the other nightly jam session after the gigs – but it’s made a big difference to participants, especially given the fact that the average age has come down hugely in the last few years – so this early evening jam has given the younger ones more of a chance to play. On top of that, we put someone in charge of running the jam sessions who would actively encourage people to play – and that’s also proved a good move.

SC: What would be your top tips for someone wanting to launch a similar festival and/or jazz summer school in some other remote part of the world?

EL: Well you have to be completely mad to begin with! Seriously though, I would say that the secret to our success is that we raise enough funds to bring fees right down and make it inclusive – very few people can’t afford to come – our whole raison d’etre is to give everyone a chance to learn from the best possible people in jazz education. St Edwards School where we run the course might be a bit primitive but it works well - so you also have to be imaginative about what’s available and not only that, it takes a lot of equipment to set it up properly. So I’d also recommend applying for whatever funding is available right from the start. In Ireland, there’s Music Generation funded by U2 to the tune of £5m. Their aim is enable every person under the age of 18 to get an opportunity to learn an instrument. It’s very strictly run on a matched funding basis – but since I was already a member of Sligo’s Music Education Partnership, we became the first county in Ireland to get a Music Generation grant – we already had the right structure in place and met their criteria so we were ahead of the competition – we even beat Dublin to it.

I’d also recommend going to some courses yourself before you set one up. I went to the Global Music Foundation course in Tuscany two years running and it changed my life – I learned a lot as a musician and found it very inspiring. You need to understand what people want out of it.

SC: What ideas have you got for the 10th festival next year?

EL: We’ve provisionally booked one of the best bands around to be the core of the teaching faculty next year – I can’t say which one just yet, but they’re an amazing group of guys. Normally we bring a bunch of individual tutors together from all over to be the faculty but I thought it could be interesting to have a band who are really tight and used to playing together to lead the teaching. I’m also hoping to get a couple more leading musicians to join the team, who for one reason or another to do with dates weren’t able to come this year but still want to come. On the festival side, we can never compete with the major European jazz festivals which have a totally different level of funding, but given the uniqueness of our set-up, we have been lucky enough to attract some amazing musicians, often as a stop-off point on a European tour, so there will be plenty to look forward to.

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