Jean Darke of Jazz at St Giles, tells Tim Hughes why her church is the home of ‘cool’

Oxford is arguably as famous for its musical landscape as that of its glorious architecture and educational institutions.

Rock, pop, classical and folk musicians have put the area on the map with scenes which rival many far bigger cities.

Yet the city is also acquiring a reputation for a genre which has, for all too long, existed below the radar: jazz.

Clubs like the Spin, at the Wheatsheaf; Jazz Kitchen, in Wolvercote; and regular nights at the likes of Summertown Jazz Cafe, keep the scene alive. But every autumn the city becomes jazz central, with a world-class array of artists lining up to play in a city centre church.

Now back for its fourth season, Jazz at St Giles, has grown into a festival of national repute, with British and international artists joined by local talent – all raising money for two great charities: War Child and Save the Children.

As the name suggests, it takes place at St Giles Church, which sits at the junction of Banbury and Woodstock Roads beside the city’s war memorial.

This historic building is blessed with a great location, good acoustics and a keen team of volunteers. Among them is promoter Jean Darke, who launched the series with a one-off tribute concert to her late husband, the architect Geoff Darke, who died suddenly in 2011 after singing in a Fauré Requiem at the church.

Such was its popularity, the vicar, the Rev Andrew Bunch, invited Jean to organise further concerts. Jean, a talented concert singer and pianist in her own right, drew on her experience to assemble a bill of top class jazz musicians, and raising sponsorship from local businesses.

“We have come a long way since then,” she says. But are fortunate enough to have great support both among the audience members and artists, many of whom return each year.

The series of Saturday night concerts has already played host to Karen Street and Tina May, and continues this Saturday with a set by the David Gordon Trio, followed by Tommaso Starace (November 12); Pete Oxley and Nicholas Meier (November 19); Rob Terry Trio playing Gershwin (November 26); Brickwork Lizards (December 3) and the Ben Holder Quartet (December 10).

“We have more of a star line-up than many far bigger jazz festivals. Our musicians have world-wide reputations, so it’s great to be able to bring them to Oxford We’ve now got a fantastic following and a huge fan base, which is gratifying.”

She added: “We are now into the thick of it with a great run of artists, which reaches a crescendo as we approach Christmas.”

The series continues this Saturday with the David Gordon Trio. The trio usually features David, on piano, alongside drummer Cavacuiti and bassist Jonty Fisher, though this show will see Jonty replaced by Alec Dankworth – son of jazz legends John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.

“They are a wonderful act,” says Jean. “Cool, intellectual, witty and with great harmonies – and we are lucky to have Alec joining us.

“Then we have our favourite sax player Tommaso Starace (November 12) who comes with the sensational pianist Michele di Toro from Blue Note, Milan.

“Tommaso is cool, lyrical and tuneful and has a magnetic partnership with Michele. They are musical soul mates and technical virtuosi, composing, arranging, soloing and improvising to evoke images in the minds of the listener.

“After that, we have Spin Jazz Club founder member Pete Oxley and fellow guitarist Nicholas Meier (November 19), who will be bringing along about 25 guitars to play everything from traditional Spanish and Latin American guitar to jazz standards, Bach and, of course, Pete’s own compositions.

“They are lovely guys and build a great rapport with the audience. Everybody who loves guitar will adore them – even if they don’t like jazz.

“Then we have the Rob Terry Trio (November 26), who play a tribute to Gershwin, with Rhapsody in Blue, and Porgy and Bess numbers, followed by Brickwork Lizards (December 3), who play 30s jazz tunes, Arab folk, Vaudeville, rap and hip-hop and are extremely colourful.

“The series ends with Ben Holder (December 10), who is Stéphane Grappelli incarnate and plays astonishing jazz violin. He is like a young Paganini but with a great blues voice.”

She added: “I am very excited, and, of course, there has never been a greater need to support our two designated charities War Child and Save the Children. If we can, we’re hoping to surpass the £5,500 we managed to raise last year.

“Our local sponsors have turned up trumps again this year, many, such as The Old Parsonage, have been with us since the series began. We also receive amazing sound and lighting support from David Carugo and Oxford Brookes University’s School of Arts, whose sound and lighting team transform the ancient stones of our beautiful church.

“St Giles has been here since 1120, and is a warm, terrifically welcoming place with a great friendly atmosphere and wonderful – and very cool – music.”

Jazz at St Giles takes place at St Giles Church, Oxford. The next show is this Saturday. For more details and tickets go to