Category Archives: The Pop Festival

(Not) the Wherever Jazz Festival: Rhythm Changes presentation, September 2017

[conclusion of my presentation on the CHIME panel at the 5th Rhythm Changes international jazz conference, Amsterdam, 3 September 2017. Other speakers from the project: Walter van de Leur, Tony Whyton, Loes Rusch; panel chaired by Francesco Martinelli]


… The relationship between the festival and the city is really intimate. It can never be separate. It’s the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, not the Wherever Jazz Festival. Martin Revheim, Kongsberg, Norway director

Yet, writing about ‘urban spectacles’ and celebrations which include the jazz festival, the ‘paradox’ of the touristic festival is that, according to Kevin Fox Gotham, ‘whereas the appeal of local celebrations is the opportunity to see something different, celebrations that are designed to attract tourists seem more and more alike’.

Nicola MacLeod’s argument about the ‘placeless festival’, as she terms it, does warrant attention, particularly in a jazz music context. For MacLeod, the authentic space or significant situatedness of a festival location is actually often today displaced or dislocated, as a result of globalisation. In this critical reading, international festivals feel the same, are homogenised—‘placeless’. MacLeod even compares the touristic global festival to the airport lounge, its necessary other, in the sense that ‘festival formats may now be replicated in a series of international venues around the world’. Such a reading is a useful counter to more celebratory claims of festival, local space and community offered by many festival publicists, say.

Arguably such a critical view of the festival has further resonance in the context of jazz music, because jazz itself is sometimes accused of a homogenising worldliness, whereby either it all sounds kind of the same, or the same headline acts are seen across the continent’s international festivals in a single festival season. Catherine Tackley and Pete Martin are more polite than MacLeod, perhaps, but all three seem to point to the danger of (airport) lounge music:

concerns have been expressed about the consequences of presenting jazz on the festival platform…. It has been argued that this leads inexorably to a routinisation of performances and to musicians becoming risk-averse.

However, I do want to end on a rising note. The importance of the curatorial role of the festival director is articulated by British organiser Nod Knowles, drawing on his programming experience at Bath Festival, as a means precisely of creatively disrupting the lounge, of vitally re-sounding the festival. For Knowles,

a festival should be an opportunity to do things that don’t otherwise happen. It’s no good just presenting, like so many festivals do, your touring band ‘rent a festival—we’ve seen them, they’re on tour so they’re in the festival’. So the idea [is] to present what doesn’t happen.… [It’]s the discovery of things that you never knew about…. I really think that a festival is no good if it’s just a bunch of gigs that you could have heard anywhere.

So, after 60 or 70 years what more is there to this thing we call the jazz festival? Beyond its role in tourism, urban regeneration, economic impact, social inclusion agendas, repetition year on year? Surely there is more, or why do we still go, why do we remain interested, hopeful?

We can do worse than reflect on the wise words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., from his opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, addressing European festival-goers and drawing on civil rights to present an understanding both of jazz music and, more importantly for us I think, of the special gathering of the jazz festival itself. ‘Jazz,’ King wrote to Berlin festival-goers in 1964,

speaks of life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties,… [and m]odern jazz has continued this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence…. And now, Jazz is exported to the world…. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy.… In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

We talked in the Call For Papers for this Re/Sounding Jazz conference about wanting to ‘celebrate’ jazz, we hoped for papers that could be ‘celebratory’. ‘What are the achievements—the resounding successes—of jazz?’ we asked. Could we say, in festival (or—carpe diem—on a sunny Sunday morning by the side of the Amstel), alongside escape or transcendence, cyclicity and cycling, the history of being the first and second lining, that we might just find or hope to find a little meaning … a little love… clap hands … be happy.

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Revitalising the (jazz) music festival, at 12 Points, San Sebastian

12 points festival panel

12 Points Festival panel, ‘Jazz Futures’, San Sebastian, July 22

In panel conversations between musicians, researchers, journalists, organisers and promoters we found and heard about a range of approaches to trying to revitalise the (jazz) festival experience and the jazz scene during the 12 Points Festival discussion days on ‘Jazz Futures 2016’ here in San Sebastian. This was felt important for a number of reasons, including that in some countries the big all-star jazz festival is fading, its audience diminishing, while elsewhere, perhaps ironically, perhaps in a connected way, there is a surfeit of festivalisation of culture, in that festival in its ubiquity has become everyday, even banal, and no longer the intense, heightened and exceptional. Here are some of those diversifying approaches.

  • Jazz festival or event as immersive experience—music, yes, but also costume, design, actors and dancers, food, theatre and masque, historical reconstruction of scenes from jazz past with a promenading audience
  • Jazz apps, and audience interactivity via mobile digital technology
  • Electronic deconstruction of the live music event in the very next concert that follows, so the audience hears fresh the new music it just heard, where sometimes the remix is better than the original (though, yes, “sometimes it’s shittier”)
  • An emphasis on creative curation rather than simply programming or organisation and presentation of a series of concerts
  • Cross-cultural and cross-arts dialogue. Whether improvised arts (music, dance, animation) working with each other in the moment, or a festival of improvised music that must include literature and vice versa
  • 12 Points logoA continuing struggle with the Jazz word: a European jazz festival director says I don’t want to use the term “jazz festival”, it’s off-putting for a new audience, others saying we lose something worth cherishing and celebrating if we reject it (i.e. a century of live and recorded music)
  • The on-going core relevance of jazz and music education: new musicians, new networks and events, new energy, and new audiences
  • The regular inclusion of academic research in the festival programme, an openness to it in the scene more generally.
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