With less than three weeks to go until the opening notes of Derry’s jazz festival, it’s understandable that local performers are starting to get a few butterflies at the thought of flying the flag for the host city.
And although it’s her third year featuring on the bill, and she’s nurtured a lifelong passion for performing, local singer Ursula McHugh is feeling the pressure a bit more than usual.
“This is the first time I’ve actually invited friends to see me at the festival, and some of them have never seen me performing with the band,” she explains.
“I have people coming from Kildare, London, Dublin, and Belfast, so there’s definitely a bit of extra pressure this time round.”
And this year Ursula will also be giving music lovers an insight into the music that has influenced her over the decades, at a special festival event in the Verbal Arts Centre hosted by Marie-Louise Muir, ‘Personal Journeys Through Jazz’.
The singer grew up listening to the sultry tones of jazz icons Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, as well as the Streisand ballads that she has become known for.
But it was only when she moved back to Derry four years ago and got involved with the jazz festival that she rediscovered the music of her childhood.
“I was really a folk singer, and although I always loved Jazz music, I had never really sung the songs of that genre.
“It was only when I moved back to the city and local musician Declan Carlin handed me a list of some of the more popular jazz songs that I really began to explore the music.
“I used to be in a folk act called the Zodiacs with my sisters and a friend, and we spent all our time where I grew up in Carndonagh learning songs and performing ,” she recalls.
“We were like the original Spice Girls, with our own dance routines and everything, and we passed the time appearing in all the local talent shows. I remember once playing in a place called Joe’s in Quigley’s Point, and we thought it was so far away from home, it was like being on tour!”
But after years of giving impromptu performances any time she heard a piano, Ursula began to focus more seriously on her music.
“I’m delighted to be playing in Bennigans at the festival this year, because it was there that I started to get back into music,” she explains.
“We had some great music sessions there - myself and a few friends would just gather round the piano and sing the songs we loved. So it was a bit of a rehearsal room for me.”
And with a bit of encouragement from the Bennigans crowd, she got up the courage to perform at her first jazz festival, which Ursula maintains is the ideal platform for performers such as herself.
“It’s so accessible, so it’s an ideal way for smaller bands to showcase their music to new audiences,” she stresses. “The diversity of the music is unbelievable, one minute you could be watching me perform songs by Barbara Streisand, and the next you could be catching a swing band, or a blues singer. And it’s great that the festival has such appeal for younger people too, as it brings this music to a whole new generation.
“I watched a young girl from St Cecilia’s at the festival launch singing one of the old classic jazz numbers, and I was so impressed at how well she sang it. Because although these songs sound simple, they’re actually very difficult to sing and you need an incredible vocal range to do them justice.
“I was amazed at the talent of these young girls of 15 and 16 who are already mastering this kind of music.”
Having cut her singing teeth on the Guildhall stage like so many other Derry children, Ursula believes that the city is the ideal place to host such a massive celebration of music.
“I’m so looking forward to this year’s event because the atmosphere is so positive, and there’s such a rich musical heritage here in the city,” she enthuses. “The streets literally come alive with music when the festival begins. I mean, I’m a therapist, and so I can definitively say that with the feel good factor generated by the festival, this will certainly be a therapeutic weekend.
“Let’s just hope we get a bit of sunshine to add the finishing touch to the whole event!”
The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday weekend, May3-7, and Ursula McHugh will be appearing at a number of local venues, including Bennigans, The Everglades, Encore Brasserie and the Verbal Arts Centre.
For more information and a full festival programme, go to www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com, or www.facebook.com/DerryJazzFestival.