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Walter Remembers Solly Lipsitz

Here is the tribute to Solly which Walter wrote last year.

News of the death of Solly Lipsitz on 30th March marked the end of an era for me, and for all those other young enthusiasts in Northern Ireland who owe him so much for the impact he had on our lives.

In a region where so many are labelled as either Protestant or Catholic, Solly was different. He was an active member of the vibrant Jewish community, which once flourished in Northern Ireland and he was the fount of all jazz knowledge.

His passion for the music, and his understanding of it, was unique and unsurpassed.

There is nobody who can replace him.

Solly was born in Dublin in 1920. A fortuitous time for someone who dedicated his life to jazz in that the classic jazz period coincided with his early years.

When he was about the age of 9 the family moved to Belfast and from that point on he started on the path which led him to being the pivotal figure in the lives of so many of us.

I have a strong belief that jazz is a young people’s music. To my mind when we experience jazz early in life, it stays with us for the remainder of life.

So how did Solly come to have such great influence? As a performer he tried piano for a short time, but then settled for the rhythm section taking up both ukelele and guitar.

He played for several local bands at one time or another, the Embankment Six and the Tony Martin All-Stars to name but two.

But it was when he ran a unique establishment, Atlantic Records, in Belfast’s High Street, that he had significance for young aspiring jazz musicians and other enthusiasts.

It wasn’t just a record shop. It was to become throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, a gathering place and a debating chamber.

Solly always loved an argument and you had to demonstrate that your interest was genuine to be fully accepted.

He imported recordings from America helping and advising collectors to start or add to their personal libraries.

A man of forthright views and considerable intellect, he was highly approachable and became a lecturer at Belfast College of Art and Queen’s University.

He loved to discuss the origins of jazz and how it developed, and for him the influence of the Chicago players seemed paramount.

But his jazz idol was Louis, and one of his treasured possessions was the photo of them together in the 1950s when Louis came to town.

As a writer too he established himself as an authoritative voice on jazz. For many years he was correspondent and jazz critic for the Belfast Telegraph, and at times wrote for other newspapers and national jazz publications.

He wrote with knowledge and passion.

I still have copies of his reviews of performances at the Holywood International Jazz Festival which ran for 18 years locally.

He was usually very positive but didn’t pull his punches when he felt it necessary.

It was Humph who, paraphrasing Graham Greene, described Solly as 'Our Man in Belfast!'

The internationally acclaimed Belfast Festival at Queen’s owes a debt to Solly Lipsitz.

In December 1961 the Student Representative Council made the decision to run an Arts Festival.

The university Dramatic Society became involved.

So too did the Jazz Club who turned to Solly for help in setting up and compering a major concert featuring a number of local bands.

The Embankment Six, The Rodney Foster Jazzmen, the White Eagles, a group led by Julian Russell and the Norman Watson Quartet all participated in Jazz at the Whitla.

It was a sell out and the foundations were well and truly laid for decades of later festival successes.

The glory days of the Guinness Spot are still remembered when major American artists were resident in the venue for a week at a time.

And for him a personal highlight was in 1982 when his All Stars took part in the festival and were recorded by the BBC.

To have in his band John Barnes and Roy Williams, Dick Charlesworth and Colin Smith, Dave Fleming and local boys Malcolm Gooding and David Smith, was a tribute to his influence throughout these islands.

When Decca became interested in recording a local jazz band in the early 60s, it was Solly who recommended that the Rodney Foster Jazzband should be engaged, and he produced the session which was released as the LP ‘Swinging Shillelaghs.‘

A major first for Ulster jazz.

My own fondest memories of times spent with Solly take me back a number of years to when he and his partner Anne, with my late wife Mary and myself, would meet for dinner on regular occasions.

We all loved good food and fine wine, and those evenings stretched well into the next day. The conversation was ceaseless, but the main ingredient throughout was jazz.

When Solly was the genial host he would produce countless LPs, the covers carefully hidden, and then the questioning would start.

‘Who is this?'

'When was it?'

'Who is in the line-up?‘

Even in entertainment there was always education. An Honorary Member of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts he became Keeper of their Diploma Collection representing donated works by artists elected to Academician of the RUA.

For many years he was a close personal friend of distinguished painter Neil Shawcross who painted his portrait on several occasions.

In 1971 Solly contributed to an Arts Council of Northern Ireland publication, Causeway which reflected in detail on the local arts scene.

As well as tracing the early influence of jazz in this part of the world, he wrote of the links and the inspirational interplay between literature and jazz. There are references to his great friend the poet Michael Longley, and to Philip Larkin, both of whom acknowledge the personal significance of jazz, but perhaps in remembering the greatness of Solly, and what he did for jazz in Northern Ireland, these words of his sum up at least part of that story.

‘We should be proud that the art of jazz flourished In Ulster for two or three decades,that we own a small corner in the history of this music, that we manned for a while an outpost of the New Orleans tradition.’