Arts

Renowned Antrim drummer Darren Beckett hosts masterclass at Derry Jazz Festival

As Derry Jazz Festival is set to draw in the crowds for next weekend's May Day bank holiday, internationally acclaimed Co Antrim drummer – and Ulster University student – Darren Beckett tells Gail Bell why he is always happy to leave Carnegie Hall behind for small, intimate gatherings back home

Drummer Darren Beckett is studying for a master's degree in Music – Creative Musicianship at UU's Magee campus in Derry
Gail Bell

GROWN-up drummer boy Darren Beckett is bringing his distinctive jazz beat to Derry next weekend for the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival – headlined by Van Morrison.

The renowned drummer from Antrim will be holding a jazz masterclass at the city's Playhouse next Saturday and, although he has played Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Albert Hall in London, he is excited to be back on home soil and sharing tips on the skill he has honed since childhood.

Now 42, he initially picked up the interest from his father who had drummed professionally for a while – and whose knee he remembers sitting on as a mesmerised four year-old, intently listening to the beat.

Shunning "normal" after-school activities, he began to play drums with various local musicians – and with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's jazz orchestra – before leaving Northern Ireland at 16 to study in Germany and later winning a three-year Jazz and Contemporary Music scholarship at The New School in Manhattan, New York.

Although currently in the middle of a UK tour with Bryan Ferry and Juanita Stein, the drummer, who has famously worked with Brandon Flowers of The Killers (and is also a drums and ensemble tutor with the Academy of Contemporary Music) is looking forward to 'time out' in Derry.

"It's a busy life, but it's a nice job," he says modestly. "The only downside, really, is missing my wife and kids while I'm on tour. I'm currently doing a master's degree in Music – Creative Musicianship – with the University of Ulster, so I'll probably end up teaching more and touring less.

"I never threw tables out of hotel windows or anything, but when I was playing in bands in my 20s, it was a bit of a blur at times. I am a family man now."

Luckily for his many fans, he is not going to dust-bag his touring drumsticks just yet and, after Derry, will be performing at the No Alibis book store in Belfast.

It is his one and only Northern Ireland stop-off in a new eight-day tour of Ireland which kicks off on June 14, and, despite having played the big stages worldwide, "the little bookshop" remains one of his favourite places for an intimate drum roll.

"It is definitely an unreal feeling, playing to people in those venues, but I really don't care what size the gig," he says. "For me what matters is the mood, the atmosphere and the music being good – and that can be in the Carnegie Hall in New York or just as easily in a little book store in Belfast."

Living in New York did have its drawbacks, though, and after his children – Delphine (4) and Theo (2) – were born in the city that "really does never sleep", the drummer and his journalist wife Sara decided it wasn't the best place to bring up their young family.

"I think New York is great, but it is expensive and fast-paced and it maybe works better for a single guy," Beckett reasons. "We wanted to bring our children up in the UK and be nearer family, so we made the move to Brighton in England."

Although Mr Beckett snr set the tone and rhythm for the musician's career, due credit is also given to an encouraging teacher at Antrim Primary School – the aptly-named Mrs Horn – while "pretty advanced music programmes" at Antrim Grammar also played an influential role.

"Without those school influences, I may never have pursued a career in music at all," Beckett says. "It became an all-consuming passion for me, although my school friends didn't really 'get' jazz at age 11 or 12, so I think I was definitely the class weirdo. I was obsessed by drums and I think I still am."

That obsession paid off when, as a teenager, he was invited by well-known American music tutor, Keith Copeland, to study percussion at Cologne University.

"Keith was my mentor and, two years later, he helped me make the move to New York," Beckett recalls. "Home to so many jazz clubs, New York was also the birthplace of drumming legends Buddy Rich and Steve Gadd and had always been on my wish list of places to visit.

"My mum used to tell me that I would get to that city with a lot of practice, so when my parents fly out to see me play at Carnegie Hall with French-American jazz singer, Madeline Peyroux, a few years back, I think that was my biggest moment.

"At one stage, they thought I might be making a crazy career choice, but the 'practice, practice, practice' thing worked out in the end. Drumming, for me, is a world of pure joy and I am grateful that I get to do what I do and it's still called a job."

:: The City of Derry Jazz Festival runs from May 3-7; the Darren Beckett Drum Clinic takes place on Saturday, May 5, at the Playhouse, Derry, from 2-4pm. Darren will also be performing at the No Alibis book store in Belfast's Botanic Avenue on Friday June 15.

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