As we look forward to the fifth season of Jazz at St Giles, the inspirational Jean Darke tells Tim Hughes what it’s all about and what not to miss

It is not unusual to find beautiful music in an Oxford church. On any given night one can stumble upon glorious choirs and great orchestras raising the roofs of our most beautiful places of worship.

But one city centre church has gone beyond the usual classical fare by donning its metaphorical sunglasses and welcoming devotees of the cool sound of jazz.

Five years ago a group of music-lovers at St Giles Church, at the junction of Banbury and Woodstock Roads, hit upon the idea of raising money for charity by offering something that no one else was – a weekly jazz club.

Taking place every autumn, the Jazz at St Giles season has become one of the best-loved events in the jazz calendar; a chance to hear world-class artists in a city notably lacking in a preponderance of venues.

Since the first trumpet note was sounded, thousands have been raised for charities, which this year include War Child, Save the Children and Project 900 – the church’s 900th anniversary campaign to raise £900,000 to fund new projects, such as the purchase of a new organ, roof repairs and the construction of a new function room.

An array of international and local artists are lined-up to play everything from Latin and Gypsy jazz and virtuoso guitar and brass, to Turkish and Balkan beats and the tunes of great American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.

The driving force behind the series is former professional singer Jean Darke, from north Oxford. Evoking the spirit of the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, she says: “We have taken Giant Steps since the launch of Jazz at St Giles five years ago and we would love people to join us for out latest series of great concerts and to help raise an even bigger sum for our charities.

“Our 2017 season promises to be another successful, relaxing and friendly series of concerts from renowned international jazz musicians.”

The church’s love of jazz began with a concert organised by Jean in memory of her late architect jazz-loving husband Geoffrey. What began as a one-off event proved to be so popular that, with the backing of vicar Canon Dr Andrew Bunch, the series developed into a series of high-profile shows, with acts booked by Jean relying on her contacts and expertise as a professional musician.

Jean says: “The series has a widespread enthusiastic fan-base, with some people travelling from as far as Yorkshire and Cornwall to hear their favourite internationally renowned jazz musicians.”

The season begins on Saturday with a Tribute to Hoagy by the Chris Ingham Quartet, who sold out recently at Ronnie Scott’s.

“The night is a nostalgia trip for fans of those wonderful Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman black and white movies for whom Hoagy Carmichael wrote so many familiar tunes,” says Jean. “And those who saw the Best Picture Oscar winner La La Land, may remember that the young lead character, a jazz musician, worshipped Hoagy Carmichael, and displayed in his apartment his most treasured possession: Hoagy’s piano stool!”

Concerts follow, more or less, at fortnightly intervals.

On October 14 the David Gordon Trio return – the titular jazz pianist and composer joined by Jonty Fisher on bass and drums and rumba expert Paul Cavaciuti for an evening of tropical rhythms called David Gordon Trio Speaks Latin.

October 28 sees talented jazz violinist Ben Holder, formerly of Gypsy Fire, joining forces with clarinettist Julian Stringle and their quartet in a Benny Goodman tribute called Ben meets Benny.

Another perennial favourite is young Italian alto-sax player Tommasso Starace, who hot foots it from Milan with his quartet on November 4.

A huge fan of the venue, Tommaso recently recorded his realisation for alto-sax of Bach’s cello suites at the church. The resulting album is to be released imminently.

No strangers to Oxford music-lovers, Pete Oxley, of celebrated local jazz night The Spin and Swiss artist Nicholas Meier have delighted audiences in the city with their mind-expanding display of guitar virtuosity. On November 18 they return with a quartet to show off their apparently telepathic exchange of musical ideas on an extraordinary range of guitars.

Expect everything from Latin cool to Ottoman rhythms and traditional homegrown fare washed down with a slug of Hot Club swing.

They play alongside bassist Raph Mizraki and drummer Paul Cavaciuti (again).

The season ends with yet more evocative Eastern themes on December 9 with local heroes Brickwork Lizards.

The self-styled ‘Turkobilly’ act, featuring Tarik Beshir, Louisa Lyne, Andrew Mack, Tom O’Hawk, Malachy O’Neill, Sophie Frankford, Steve Preston and Spencer Williams, fuse Turkish, Arabian, Balkan and Gypsy music played on everything from cello and violin to wonderful Arabian ouds.

Jean says: “They are phenomenal. On their last visit people were dancing in the aisles... even the vicar!”

She goes on: “Many of these artists return again and again in response to requests from enthusiastic audiences, and say how much they love to play in the warm and friendly atmosphere of St Giles, with its beautiful 12th century architecture and benign acoustics.

“The atmosphere is relaxed and jolly and the ambience is enhanced by the delicious wines supplied to St Giles by our neighbour and long-time sponsor, The Old Parsonage Hotel.”

This year’s artists join an illustrious role-call of past artists including the late Stan Tracey’s favourite sax man, Art Themen and singer Jacqui Dankworth, daughter of the late Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Lane; and The Budapest Cafe Orchestra.

“It would be impossible not to mention the phenomenal help we get from terrific sponsorship, not only from local businesses, but also from a long list of enthusiastic and generous individual sponsors to whom we’re so grateful.

“We are incredibly grateful too, to the ongoing terrific help we have from Oxford Brookes University Arts Faculty, in the form of sound and lighting support from the sound and media department.

“It’s invaluable and helps us attract an enthusiastic following, who say they rely on us to help them get through the winter!”

  • WHERE AND WHEN: Jazz at St Giles is at St Giles Church, Oxford. Go to
  • Tickets: £15/£12 concessions/£5 students and children. On the door on the night, or online through Eventbrite.
  • All concerts start at 7.30 pm, doors open 7pm. Ticketed parking in St. Giles and nearby streets. The Old Parsonage Hotel welcomes audience members for pre-concert and post-concert dinner and drinks.