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Wigan International Jazz Festival can still blow its own trumpet almost four decades on

2 weeks ago

Wigan International Jazz Festival can still blow its own trumpet almost four decades on
Jazz icon Maynard Ferguson with the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra's tumpet section (Ian is front left). Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

Wigan International Jazz Festival helped put the town on the map, welcoming famous musicians like Ronnie Scott, the Count Basie Orchestra and Georgie Fame to name but a few.

Beginning 1986, Wigan International Jazz Festival attracted some of the world’s finest jazz artists and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best jazz festivals in Europe.

And almost four decades later, it’s still going strong.

Director and co-founder Ian Darrington is delighted to say this year’s four-day festival, running from Thursday, July 11 to Sunday, July 14, will be the 39th: “And that’s been a challenge. Usually music festivals like this have a lifespan of around 20-25 years,” he says, “but due to our determination and enthusiasm, and the support of a wonderful audience across the North West we have been able to keep it going.

Ian conducting Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Mill at the Pier, around 1988. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival
Ian conducting Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Mill at the Pier, around 1988. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

“That’s an achievement in itself.”

Before he dreamed up the festival Ian was a visiting music teacher for schools across the borough and became director of the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. 

He smiles: “We went all over the world, and performed in lots of different countries and we were on TV regularly. It was a wonderful time.

“In those early days we developed an audience around Wigan, mostly through family and friends to start with, and we realised we could sell a venue.

“We started Wigan Jazz Club filling concerts once a month.” And the festival grew from that, with its first home the Mill at the Pier, where it stayed for 20 years.

Steve King. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival
Steve King. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

“It was seen as a marvellous opportunity to promote Wigan and the newly opened Wigan Pier – we got visitors from just about every country in the world, America, Australia, and Europe – and it gave the youngsters an opportunity to perform on an international stage alongside professional musicians.

“We developed a global reputation for jazz, and we have had big names.”

As well as national artists, international stars like Diana Krall and Maynard Ferguson, and Frank Sinatra Junior came: “It was positive from every angle, and we always got great feedback.”

Wigan International Jazz Festival now has a new home at The Village on the Green.

Jazz is going through a transitionary period, says Ian, with a lot of new names coming through that many people don’t know.

Wigan Youth Jazz Training Orchestra. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival
Wigan Youth Jazz Training Orchestra. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

“That’s our new challenge,” he admits.  “A lot of the old icons we used to book are no longer here, they’ve joined the big gig in the sky. But we are raising the profile of younger artists like Ben Holder who is playing with his quartet on the opening night, and he is absolutely brilliant and one of the best entertainers you could hope for.

“A lot of people don’t know him yet, but once they’ve heard him they’re fans.”

Jeff Hooper is headlining on Friday, with Paul Higgs and Pavane taking centre stage on Saturday, and The Steve King Big Band on Sunday.

Regeneration Big Band. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival
Regeneration Big Band. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

There are afternoon concerts on Saturday and Sunday with Wigan Youth Jazz Training Orchestra,
Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, and the Liam Byrne Sextet playing the music of Art Pepper and Chet Baker on Saturday, and the Regeneration Big Band and Nicola Farnon Trio on the Sunday.

For those people who don’t know jazz, Ian says: “Jeff Hooper is an internationally celebrated singer who used to sing with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, and that will be a marvellous concert with well-know songs expertly and wonderfully performed.

“Paul Higgs is a trumpet player who was with the National Youth Orchestra many moons ago and he’s bringing a band called Pavanne which he formed a few years back and they perform special compositions of his, beautiful music. If you’re not out and out jazz fans, the Saturday night is the perfect show because there’s a classical tinge and a Latin feel on some of the numbers, it’s not loud, aggressive and confusing jazz.

Ben Holder. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival
Ben Holder. Credit: Wigan International Jazz Festival

“But equally there’s such a lot of energy with Ben Holder and I think he would carry everybody along. 

“My advice would be to just come along and see it as a wonderful social occasion; enjoy the atmosphere and have a chat. It’s a lovely night.

“I think if people arrive without a smile on their face, they normally leave with one, whistling the songs they’ve heard. And that’s what we want.”

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