Fostering Jazz in Dublin

Bassist Ronan Guilfoyle is a champion of jazz education in Ireland and the point man at Dublin City University, a Berklee Global Partner.
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Ronan Guilfoyle, the director of the Centre for Jazz Performance Studies at Ireland’s Dublin City University (DCU), is numbered among the Emerald Isle’s top jazz musicians. His distinctive left-handed fretless acoustic bass guitar style has placed him in demand for live work and recording, and he has released some dozen albums under his own name. A prolific composer, Guilfoyle has penned numerous works in the jazz and classical genres with notable commissions from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Ireland’s top orchestra. But he’s perhaps best known as a champion for jazz education who founded the first program in Ireland accredited to grant a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance. His résumé is all the more impressive considering that he is a self-taught musician.

“I am an autodidact,” Guilfoyle said during an interview in an ensemble room in the music wing of DCU’s St. Patrick campus. “As someone who was largely self-taught, I had to struggle hard to get what knowledge I’ve gotten.” He credits his father with helping to develop his ear and musical aesthetics by playing classical and jazz music around their home.

“He had very specific tastes in classical music from 1880 forward, and in jazz from 1945 onward,” Guilfoyle says. “He had speakers in all the downstairs rooms of the house and when he played records or the radio, you couldn’t escape it. My siblings and I were raised hearing Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy as well as Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, and Miles Davis. I have three brothers and four sisters, and my father invented games that gave us a bit of a music education. He would bring us into the room and tell us, ‘You are the oboe, you’re the French horn,’ and so forth. He would put on a symphonic LP and when we heard our instrument, we had to stand up. By the time I was eight or nine, I could identify any instrument in the orchestra.”

 The senior Guilfoyle was also an evangelist for great literature and films as well as music. In Ireland during the late 1960s, that was rare. “Ireland was a small, conservative place back then with a lot of agriculture and a lot of poor,” Ronan Guilfoyle says. “You wouldn’t often hear Mingus and Stravinsky in the same house.”

He took up the electric bass at 18 and formed a jazz-rock band with his brother Connor playing drums and a friend on guitar. He progressed quickly and was playing bass professionally in Dublin’s jazz scene within two years. “I didn’t know the technicalities of the music,” he says, “but I had taken a lot in by osmosis growing up.”

A light went on when, at 28, Guilfoyle attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada. “I sat in a room with bassist Dave Holland as he taught four or five bass students together,” he recalls. “I was a little older than the other students who had come from jazz schools in the States. In talking with them, I realized they were studying with the people I had heard on record—like Miroslav Vitous. There was nothing like that in Ireland, and this was the germ for me starting a program for students back home.”

In 1979, the Newpark Music Centre in South County Dublin opened its doors to teach classical piano, flute, voice, and more. The school’s administrators were receptive when Guilfoyle proposed that he, his brother Connor, and a guitarist teach improvisation classes. “We started holding them on Saturday mornings, charging the students £2 for the day,” Guilfoyle says. “At the end of the day, the three of us would split the money.” From those humble beginnings in 1987, Guilfoyle developed a jazz studies program and began attracting local and international students. A break came in 1991 when the newly-formed International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ), held its second annual meeting at Newpark. Tom Riley (now senior vice president for external relations), attended on behalf of Berklee. He saw Guilfoyle’s group do a master class on some of the unusual rhythmic ideas the trio had been working on and suggested that the group give a master class at Berklee. After returning to Boston, Riley and others connected the dots to bring Guilfoyle’s trio to the college.

The group visited Boston in 1993 and presented a master class and performed at Berklee and Tufts University. In the process they befriended many Berklee faculty members, including guitarist Rick Peckham, who later recorded and performed with Guilfoyle and was the featured soloist with the RTÉ orchestra in Guilfoyle’s concerto for electric guitar. In 1995, Larry Monroe (Berklee’s former vice president for academic affairs) visited Dublin and offered plans for a group of faculty members to present a Berklee on the Road program at Newpark the following year. That was the first formal connection between the two schools. In 2004, the Berklee International Network (renamed Berklee Global Partners in 2017) had an opening for another school and Monroe met with Guilfoyle and proposed that Newpark join the network.

There was work to be done before a formal articulation could be signed by the two schools. Greg Badolato, Berklee’s assistant vice president for international programs, audited Newpark’s core curriculum classes in ear training, arranging, and music theory to ensure that they were compatible with Berklee’s. “Because Berklee is such a major figure in the development of jazz education in an institutional setting, it wasn’t too hard to align our curriculum with the Berklee’s,” Guilfoyle says. “Schools in Germany, Sweden, and Japan are teaching things like ear training in a similar way because Berklee was the original.”

In addition to his unusual approach to the bass, Guilfoyle had become notable in jazz circles for his groundbreaking take on rhythm. He developed a method for teaching odd meters and metric modulation in a way that wasn’t being done elsewhere at that time. He published a book on the subject titled Creative Rhythm Concepts for Jazz Improvisation. “I’d gotten a reputation for this rhythmic thing,” he says. “It was something that had not been done in that way before. I was able to energize and affect students with these ideas in a positive way.” It also brought invitations for him to travel to share his method at 70 music schools around the world. “As a result, I’ve gotten to see other systems of education and gotten a sense for the different approaches others are taking in teaching improvisation,” he says.

In 2006, Guilfoyle undertook the process for Newpark to become accredited to award a bachelor of arts degree in jazz performance. “Before that, you couldn’t get a jazz degree in Ireland,” he says. “All third-level education was focused on classical music. At that time, Ireland was booming economically and the government realized they needed to stimulate third-level education outside the university system. This was to give validation to degrees from colleges in [academic] areas that were not taught in the universities. We saw an opportunity and met with the Higher Education and Training Awards Council and told them we wanted to offer a degree in jazz performance. We were approved to do that in 2006.”

Two years later, Newpark signed a Berklee track agreement, which enabled students to transfer credits from Newpark and apply them toward a degree at Berklee. “When I think about it, in our last year [as part of Newpark] we had 100 students from 27 different countries,” Guilfoyle says. “We had come a long way from charging £2 for Saturday classes in 1987.”

As of 2017, what had begun as a one-off jazz program became an official part of Dublin City University, the third-largest university in Ireland. And the Berklee track agreement is part of the program. Students at DCU now can earn a bachelor of arts degree in jazz and contemporary music performance, or transfer credits from their first two years of study and earn their degree at Berklee.

“Under Ronan Guilfoyle’s leadership, Newpark established the very first bachelor of music degree in jazz performance in Ireland,” says Damien Bracken, Berklee’s dean of admissions, “and now this merger with DCU is a natural fit. The Centre for Jazz Performance Studies at DCU is very much aligned with Berklee’s global reputation and leadership in contemporary music education. We are excited about the collaborations we will explore in the future.”

DCU is the youngest of the three universities in Dublin. In contrast to Trinity College, which was founded in 1592, and University College, Dublin, founded in 1854; DCU was founded in the 1980s. “It’s an entrepreneurial and innovative university,” Guilfoyle says. “The fact that our contemporary music program was invited to be part of DCU underscores the fact that they are forward looking.”

Being part of DCU also means that students from Ireland and countries in the European Union pay only fees (totaling €3,043), but no tuition. The Jazz Centre’s curriculum prepares graduates for careers as arrangers, composers, producers, music educators, and performing and recording artists. Currently, the centre has 100 students and plans to double that number over next five years. In a step toward that goal, DCU recently hosted a summer program called Groove School, part of the Berklee on the Road programs, which attracted many Irish high school students. [See the “Finding the Groove at DCU” below.]

“I think that program will have a major impact on recruitment,” Guilfoyle says. “We will also continue to draw international students. Our program is very attractive for someone who wants to study jazz at an English-speaking university. Those students could choose to study in America or England instead, but both are very expensive.”

Guilfoyle has deeply-held feelings about the value of a jazz or contemporary music education. Getting philosophical, he says: “I believe that what’s going on in any jazz school is more important than it’s ever been. I know there are arguments about there being few jobs in the field. But generally, what is going on in the rest of the world is the antithesis of what improvised music is about. Jazz is about community, communication, and creativity. It’s also about being an individual while working as a member of a team. These are fantastic values for young people to deal with. My hope is that our students will go out into the world and put a little drop in the bucket of creative positivity—just a little drop. As soon as the kids walk through the door here, they are already different and deserve praise—before they play a note—just because they chose this. Wanting to do this makes them different from 90 percent of the people they went to school with. Musicians can positively influence the lives of many people they will never meet. We do an important job in schools that teach music as a serious endeavor. We have a role to play in presenting an alternative view of what life is about.”