Alison Kerr

Scotland’s first jazz festival was born out of an experiment, 40 years ago, when local antiques-dealer and banjo-player Mike Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital.

Its success, plus a visit to the Sacramento Jazz Festival, inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh International Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.

But it was in 1980 that the EIJF began to operate a policy which helped define it: it began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight.

Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections.

The jazz festival continued in this manner until the mid-1990s, by which point the blues festival had been added, the dates no longer fell within the main Edinburgh festival period, and the pub trail had come to an end.

In 1997, the festival was produced, for the first time, with Assembly Direct (now Jazz Scotland), ushering in a new era in which even more sub-genres of jazz were represented at the festival, and new collaborations and projects were championed, but always with a basic respect for classic and trad jazz and the keepers of the jazz flame...

Alison Kerr, journalist and jazz writer

If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I wouldn’t be writing about jazz now… It was August 21 1986, and I was 14 years old when I first accompanied my dad on one of his annual week’s worth of jaunts to Edinburgh during the jazz festival. By this time, he had a jazz festival routine – he booked a week off work, bought a festival rail pass, resumed a smoking habit that hadn’t been indulged since the previous festival, and met up with different pals (with varying degrees of interest in jazz but an equally strong interest in beer) at the many licensed premises that doubled as venues.

This was the era of the Pub Trail, when brewers sponsored the jazz festival, the packed programme resembled a paperback novel, and you could hear local and international bands in pubs all over the city. On my first day at the jazz festival I heard the French group who instantly became lifelong favourites – the Hot Antic Jazz Band. And my fate was sealed ..

That was one strand of the festival. The other was the one with ticketed gigs, usually an afternoon or evening-long session with two or three sets featuring different bands. When the festival introduced their now-fabled Gold Star Badges, you could dip in and out of three or more gigs in a night, and follow your favourite bands or soloists around town.

In our case, this invariably meant legging it from somewhere like the Festival Club on Chambers Street over to the Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square and then to the Royal Overseas League on Princes Street – where, that first year, I saw the pianist whose appearance in Edinburgh was the reason for mine, the nimble-fingered Dick Hyman – before the inevitable mad dash for the last train back to Glasgow.

Those early years at the jazz festival undoubtedly ruined me for everything that came later. I particularly relished the lack of segregation between audience and musicians - which meant that when I emerged from my front-row seat at the end of a gig, my father would tell me he had just had a pint with one of the musicians we’d admired earlier in the day.

Probably the greatest gift the jazz festival gave me – apart from these unique opportunities to spend time with my dad – was the chance to hear some of the greats from the heyday of jazz. The veteran jazz musicians I was privileged to hear during my teens reads like the personnel listings of favourite records from the golden age of jazz - Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Grey etc.

Thanks to the jazz festival, I heard Art Hodes, who had played piano for Al Capone. I heard Al Casey, who had been in Fats Waller’s bands. And later, as a young journalist, I received annual invitations to his New York jazz festival from Dick Hyman.

By the late 1990s, the pub trail was gone, and the informality that we had loved was a thing of the past as the musicians we wanted to hear were playing in the sobering (and non-smoking!) Hub venue and being kept well away from the audience. Our favourite musicians might still be coming to the festival, but if they did it was usually just for one or two concerts. The festival had rolled on to a new era. But what luck to have lived through those early days and to have had just about enough nous to appreciate that what I was witnessing was special – and to have kept a record of it.

Roy Percy, bass player

I first played the festival in 1986, with John Elliot’s Dixieland band, when we won the youth band award. The following year I did the festival “proper” for the first time, with Swing 87 and Fapy Lafertin, the best of the gypsy guitarists.

That year, I drove guitarist Al Casey to Pollock Halls of Residence (where, almost unbelievably, he was staying!) in my 1964 Rover P4. I took the longest route I could think of so I could chat to him, as he was so friendly. He kept asking: “Is this a Rolls Royce?”

At the halls, I made him a hot chocolate in the shared kitchenette and asked him about Fats Waller. “Best fun, strongest pianist I ever knew. So inventive too. I was a kid and learned so much, so quickly too. I gotta pee now.” And that was it. Afterwards he went back to asking me about my car!

Fraser Urquhart, pianist

My first Edinburgh Jazz Festival experience was ten years ago, right when I first succumbed to the jazz that my dad had always played at home. It was this same year that I also realised just how much I loved hearing jazz played live as opposed to on record. This was the time I first saw Brian Kellock play, and I recall just how much I loved his approach to music. I still do.

It’s terrific when the masters visit the festival. I vividly remember seeing James Moody; he was the first veteran jazz giant I had ever seen. You know when you're listening to the real thing!

Norrie Thomson, volunteer

I became a driver for the festival in 1987. At that time, bands came for several days at a time during which the driver effectively became the band's “roadie”. Before the start of each festival the drivers would get notice of which bands were to appear and would ask to drive their favourites. Often bandleaders would request drivers that they had dealt with previously. Many lasting friendships were built up over the years this way.

The bands were worked pretty hard. The norm was several gigs each day. The driver would assist with loading and unloading band equipment - which would often be done under frantic conditions. Gigs often followed each other with little time to spare and considerable distances to travel.

Probably the most aptly named musician who ever came was Big Al Carson, a vocalist and sousaphone player from New Orleans who weighed in at 38 stones (532 lbs). When travelling by air he had to book two seats. In Edinburgh the only suitable transport was a black taxi - though he could squeeze into the front seats in the passenger section of a mini-bus.

He had a prodigious appetite. One afternoon he was playing at the Blues Festival, located at the Caledonian Brewery. There was a pub within the grounds, reserved for artistes. The beauty of this establishment was that there was no charge for food or drink! Every so often, a tray of about 12 Scotch pies was provided. On this occasion, Big Al ate the whole lot and looked for more…

He was a lovely man, always grateful for the trouble that was taken to look after him, and always afraid that he was being a nuisance.

Fiona Alexander, Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival producer

My first brush with the festival was in the late 1980s when the Festival Club was in the University Staff Club in Chambers Street. As a newcomer to jazz, I was amazed by all the music happening – three concerts running simultaneously on three floors with audiences moving from one space to another.

1997 was my first year working with the festival. We wanted to develop it, adding more contemporary jazz, whilst retaining the established focus on traditional jazz and including the special musical collaborations only happening in Edinburgh.

What’s been particularly exciting is developing relationships with musicians and seeing the progress through the years – so the UK premiere for The Bad Plus took place here and they returned several years later with Joshua Redman playing one of the best concerts that I have ever heard.

The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22. Visit

For more memories from the 40 years of the festival, visit