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[24 AUG 00] COVENTRY JAZZ FESTIVAL
History A-Plenty For Jazz Festival Venues
BY PETER WALTERS

A 600-year-old guildhall, Britain's first post-war theatre and a church crowned by one of Coventry's famous three spires all take starring roles as the city's jazz festival expands into new venues this year.

St Mary's Hall courtyard - photo by Chris Studman 1997St Mary's Hall, built in 1342 and once the home of the city waits, Coventry's medieval town band, provides an historic setting for solo saxophone star John Surman during the Marconi Coventry Jazz Festival, which runs from 24-28 August.

The hall, which served as a prison for Mary, Queen of Scots in 1569, became an armoury during the English Civil War and was used by the writer George Eliot as the setting for a trial scene in her novel Adam Bede.

Coventry's Belgrade Theatre, the first theatre to be built in Britain after the Second World War, hosts two of the festival's biggest stars, piano legend McCoy Tyner and Andy Sheppard, currently Britain's best-selling jazz artist.

Belgrade TheatreOpened in 1958, the theatre takes its name from the capital of the then Yugoslavia, whose government made a special gift of timber to be used in the auditorium. In its early years it pioneered both the work of the playwright Arnold Wesker and the Theatre in Education movement.

The organ in another new venue, 14th century Holy Trinity Church, plays a central role in one of the festival's more unusual concerts, featuring keyboard player Steve Lodder and saxophonist Mark Ramsden. The pair will be playing music from their Above The Clouds collaboration, which blends the themes of contemporary jazz and early music.

Holy Trinity, standing alongside Coventry's blitzed cathedral - another of the city's three spires - has an important musical history. Records for its organ go back more than 400 years and its stained glass features many musical instruments.

The great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons was married in Holy Trinity and the novelist George Eliot worshipped there when she lived in Coventry in the 1840s. The church also possesses one of the finest medieval wall paintings in the country, soon to be restored, and a 17th century charnel house, yet to be excavated.

Further evidence of Coventry's distant past surfaces in the name of Castle Yard, outdoor venue for two major sessions, including the festival's blues day.

The courtyard was a jumble of temporary buildings until a restoration scheme in nearby Hay Lane ten years ago, which turned it into a quiet oasis surrounded by office buildings. Archaeologists working on the cleared site discovered remains of Coventry's Norman castle, destroyed in the Middle Ages and later incorporated into the adjoining St Mary's Hall.

Castle Yard was one of the successes of last year's festival, but its pedigree as a venue pales alongside the city's Hotel Leofric, which has been staging jazz and blues for more than 40 years.

The hotel, the first to be built with British money after World War Two, became the home of the Warwickshire Jazz Society back in 1959, the year Britain's first motorway opened to traffic and Fidel Castro took power in Cuba.

Denys BaptisteThis year's line-up of artists playing the Leofric include Mercury Prize winner Denys Baptiste, the Tina May quintet and the UK Jump & Jive All Stars, but the jazz roll-call over the decades features Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes and Kenny Baker and the hotel was an early proving ground for some of the biggest names in British rock music.

Cream, the supergroup formed by Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, played their first gig there. Blues singer Long John Baldry was appearing at the club the night his single 'Let The Heartaches Begin' went to Number 1 and boasted in his backing band one Rod Stewart.

Guitar legend Jeff Beck was besieged in his car outside by screaming girls on the night he played the Leofric and a pianist named Reg Dwight passed through on his way to becoming Elton John.
  

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CWN / Tourism / Coventry & Warwickshire Promotions / 24 Aug 00

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