On Tuesday December 12, RTÉ hosted a surprise party for Noel Kelehan. At the end of 2000 he will be retiring and this man, whose music and personality has touched so many over the years, was not going to be allowed leave without a fitting tribute. Noel is never one to put himself in the limelight so everyone was wondering how he would take this surprise! Many people were present to pay tribute to this man whose varied career spans the last 45 years.

Born on St Stephen’s Day in 1935, Noel began playing in the late 50's. His first love was Jazz but he has many other strings to his bow. In those early days he worked in the Intercontinental Hotel (now the new Jury's Hotel) with guitarist Louis Stewart and bass player Jimmy McKay. He also played in the Shelbourne Hotel with bass player Martin Walsh and drummer (now RTÉ producer) Ian McGarry. These long running engagements were a great boon to the Jazz audiences of the time. In 1962 Noel went to New York and played there for six months, mainly with Johnny Butler's Band. On his return to Ireland he continued to forge a reputation as a leading innovator in Jazz music working with musicians such as Johnny Devlin, Johnny Tate, John Wadham, Earl Gill, Peter Ainscough, Chas Meredith, Jim Farrelly, Pat Dunleavy, Richie Buckley and Ronan Guilfoyle. In the 1970s he founded his own Big Band, as did his fellow piano player and friend Jim Doherty. In 1973 he became Producer/Conductor of RTÉ Radio's Light Music and just three years later he was appointed Arranger. Noel was the Musical Director for 27 National Song Contests and he also conducted the Irish entries in 22 Eurovisions.

Back to the party: many of the musicians that I have already named were present to pay tribute to Noel and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra provided the accompaniment for numerous performers including Anne Bushnell, Ronan Collins, Liam O' Flynn, Ronnie Drew, Dickie Rock, Red Hurley, Des Moore, Sean Hession, Linda Martin, Charlie McGettigan, Paul Harrington – and even yours truly. There were many high points, including a video link with Colm Wilkinson in Canada during which he sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to piano music arranged by Noel. Another great moment was when the Orchestra, conducted by Colman Pearce, played Noel’s arrangement of ‘Send in the Clowns’. This completely brought the house down.

There is a respect for, and appreciation of, Noel’s talent amongst the many musicians that he has worked with over the years. One of these is composer and conductor/arranger, Ronnie Hazelhurst of the BBC who is best known for his theme tunes to television shows such as To the Manor Born, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and The Last of the Summer Wine. A long time friend and colleague of Noel’s, Ronnie was there to join in the congratulations. Three of Noel’s colleagues: Proinnsias O' Duinn, Colman Pearce and Gareth Hudson were on hand to conduct the various artists. Mike Murphy hosted the evening and Gay Byrne paid his own tribute, as did Kevin Roche. Also present was Pat Kenny, a long-time associate of Noel’s dating back to the time of Kenny Live. Finally, the Director General of RTÉ, Bob Collins, and Director of Music Niall Doyle paid their tributes. It truly was a wonderful evening. Jazz fans need not worry though as Noel Kelehan is not retiring from playing. In fact, he has a new album coming out in the New Year and I promise to keep you well informed.

Honor Heffernan

Tune in to Jazz Alley on Saturdays (presented by Donald Helme) and Sundays (presented by Honor Heffernan) at 7pm on Lyric FM.