It is not unusual to come across beautiful music in Oxford churches. But while we are used to choral, classical and even folk concerts in our historic places of worship, one thing you might not expect is jazz.

For the past six years, however, lovers of trad, swing, bebop and cool jazz have packed the pews at St Giles Church, at the junction of Banbury and Woodstock Roads, for a programme of shows which would shame many big city venues.

Taking place every autumn, Jazz at St Giles has brought talented artists from around Europe to the almost 900 year-old church.

Since the first trumpet note was sounded, thousands have been raised for charities, including War Child, Save the Children and the church’s own improvement funds.

The 2018 season begins this Saturday, with guitar virtuosos Pete Oxley and Nick Meier, followed next week by the Chris Ingham Quartet performing the music of Dudley Moore.

Next up, on October 13, is the Trifarious Trio (clarinetist Tim Redpath violinist Rachel Calaminus and pianist Nadine Andre), whose set will include part of Barbara Thomson’s Russian Roulette which was written for the ensemble.

St Giles regular Ben Holder returns on October 27 with a tribute to the Hot Club de France, followed on November 10 by the Art Themen Quintet.

Oxford’s stylish Arabic-jazz ‘Turkobilly’ band Brickwork Lizards are back on November 17, Italian sax maestro Tommaso Starace on November 24 and the David Gordon Trio on December 1.

The driving force behind the series is former professional singer Jean Darke from North Oxford, who organised the first concert in memory of her late jazz-loving architect 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.

“It’s hard to believe that something that began as a one-off tribute to Geoff, is now in its seventh highly successful series,” she says. “It has become a mecca for top class jazz by international jazz musicians. In fact I now get bombarded with demo tapes and videos from musicians the world over wanting to play for us, and our ever growing audience of faithful followers travel from as far as Yorkshire and Cornwall to hear the acts they like to follow.

“It’s very gratifying!

“Visitors from abroad who know about us seek us out when they visit Oxford too.”

Last year’s season raised £8,500 for War Child, Save the Children and St Giles’s own charity for the homeless. This year it is adding another charity, Combat Stress, which provides support for servicemen and women who suffer post traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems incurred either through combat or natural disasters.

Jean also hopes to boost St Giles’s Project 900 – the church’s 900th anniversary campaign to raise £900,000 to fund initiatives such as the purchase of a new organ, roof repairs, construction of a function room and to fund the St Giles’ Academy of Music, which trains young choristers in singing, piano and organ lessons, music theory and performance technique.

“St Giles will be 900 years old in 2020,” says Jean. “So we’re also hoping to raise additional funds for Project 900 to celebrate its birthday and improve the building’s facilities.

“We also want to raise funds for our wonderful St Giles Music Academy which trains so many young musicians in various musical fields, helping them to contribute to the wonderful Oxford musical scene.”

“Gratifyingly, we have built up a wonderful panel of sponsors involving local Oxford businesses and restaurants, many of whom have been with us since we began – such as The Old Parsonage Hotel next door, which supplies our interval wines and frequently sends hotel guests across the adjoining pathway to join us.

“We are also grateful to the superb sound and lighting team from Oxford Brookes University Media Department, who have also been with us from the start - each concert gives their students invaluable hands-on work experience, as part of Brookes’ community outreach scheme. This sound enhancement and the lovely lighting highlights the ancient architecture of the church and adds to the convivial and relaxing atmosphere our audiences always comment on. Of course I mustn’t forget the huge contribution in sponsorship we receive from many private individuals and we are so grateful to them too.

And she is delighted at the calibre of this season’s line-up, which includes return visits by some familiar favourites.

“We tend to invite many back to play for us again and again, due to public demand, but we also try to explore new avenues in jazz.

“This year, for instance, we’ve invited the sensational Trifarious Trio, consisting of an unusual instrumental combination for jazz – clarinet, violin/viola, and piano. They play everything from the classical repertoire to jazz fusion which is exciting.

“We’re honoured to also have the supreme saxophonist Art Themen (also a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon), with his New Directions’ Quintet.

“We’re excited too to have stars Jason Rebello piano and Laurence Cottle Bass, join the brilliant young Italian alto sax player Tommaso Starace. And after having to sadly turn away huge queues last year from the sold out concert by the Brickwork Lizards, we welcome them back with their exotic mix of Turkish, Arabian, 30s jazz, vaudeville and hip-hop. Last time we had folk dancing in the aisles, including the vicar. We should see more of the same this time.

“It’s a wonderful varied programme, so come, enjoy yourself and help us to raise even more money for charity.”

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