Geoff Wright

Commendation

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, honoured guests and graduands, it gives me great pleasure to be presenting today, Geoff Wright (founder of Derby Jazz), for the award of Honorary Master of the University.

Geoff founded Derby Jazz in 1982 and has brought some of the finest national and international talent in jazz to our City. Geoff has worked ceaselessly to provide a consistently superb programme of contemporary jazz music and has ensured the opportunity for musicians to play to an appreciative audience in the region.

Growing up in Birmingham, the radio was always playing at home but living right in the centre of the City the reception for the more innovative Radio Luxembourg was very poor. All Geoff heard was the BBC; early rock ‘n’ roll passed him by. Some of the music he heard he really disliked, but some he always enjoyed, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. An uncle explained to him the music he liked was jazz and Geoff wanted more.

He joined the Midland Institute and started borrowing jazz records from their library. Within weeks he had discovered Charlie Parker.

During his youth he was able to see several great jazz artists in concert at Birmingham Town Hall or at The Odeon: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, John Dankworth and The Modern Jazz Quartet to name just a few.

Geoff moved onto higher education to study Fine Art at Gloucestershire College of Art, then Education at Wolverhampton Technical Teachers’ College and later the University of Leicester. In 1972 he moved to Derby to take up a teaching post at Derby College of Further Education. There he pursued a career in a variety of teaching, curriculum development and managerial posts until retiring from the college in 2004.

But it was while teaching at the college that Geoff had access to a good piano, a large space and a few contacts in the jazz world. He began organising events and found that the Arts Council was willing to support him with small grants. These workshops and concerts soon developed into a larger and more diverse series of performances and exhibitions.

In 1982 Derby Jazz had outgrown the college and it moved into the City centre to promote performances and workshops at a variety of venues across the City, a role it has successfully fulfilled for over 30 years making an invaluable contribution to the City’s cultural life.

The organisation has staged more than 700 performances by the UK’s leading jazz musicians and has supported and nurtured the careers of many home-grown jazz musicians, several of whom now enjoy national and international careers, with regular performance opportunities and commissions.

Alongside this performance programme, Geoff developed an educational programme through Derby Jazz, opening up the world of jazz music to hundreds of local young people. Free concert tickets are given and a programme of summer schools and workshops runs throughout the year.

In 2004, Geoff led the formation of a development agency for jazz in the East Midlands. The ‘EMJAZZ’ is made up of five core member groups similar to Derby Jazz and is an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. Last year its members staged around 100 events in the region.

Funding has always been an issue. Like most serious art, jazz is not commercially viable except at an international superstar level. Derby Jazz is dependent on Arts Council, Local Authority and in recent years Lottery funding as well as box office income, which is always difficult to predict. This is especially so for jazz, which is very diverse and always developing.

Key to the success of these not for profit organisations has been Geoff’s absolute commitment to the music, his love of the art form and his support for the performers. Geoff has rarely taken a fee for any of this work and continues to work for both Derby Jazz and EMJAZZ on a voluntary basis.

Chancellor, in recognition of his significant achievement in establishing a lasting jazz scene in the City and his tireless commitment to creating opportunities for budding musicians, we are delighted to award Geoff Wright the honorary degree of Master of the University.

[July 2017]