Tag Archives: intangible

Do the hustle: revisiting Jazzaldia, San Sebastian’s jazz festival site

Tony Whyton, George McKay, Emma McKay, 12 Points Festival, San Sebastian

Tony Whyton, George McKay, Emma McKay, 12 Points Festival, San Sebastian

[cross-posted from CHIME project website] In summer 2016 a small number of us attended and spoke at the 12 Points Festival of European improvised music, which was held in San Sebastian. It was consciously scheduled alongside the annual city jazz festival, as part of a bumper package of summer music befitting the San Sebastian’s status as 2016 European Capital of Culture (along with Wroclaw).

We were with friends and the music was great—we’d already listened to three avant-garde acts from a box (yes) in the Victoria Eugenia Theatre as part of 12 Points Festival, and now we were in a hurry to join in and enjoy the generous free stages of the 51st Jazzaldia, San Sebastian’s impressively longstanding jazz festival.

Massive empty place, unbeachlike

Massive empty place, unbeachlike

We followed the people and the music across the river and down to the beach. It was one of those magic nights. The crowds swirled around the various stages, the live music from one stage bled creatively into that from another, there were packed beer tents where you had to shout for a drink, the rain mostly held off and there were glimpses of stars through the clouds, the sound of the waves crashing against the beach could just be made out in a lull between numbers. It was dark and packed like a rock festival, yet the lights of the city and the shade of the sea were all around in brilliant contrast.

We had a few drinks, it’s true. And the music! Someone said Marc Ribot is playing here tonight and I was like, Marc Ribot, I love Marc Ribot! And it’s free, really? In fact it was Ribot and his star Young Philadelphians band, doing the disco project, as cool as uncool can get (for those who preferred punk to soul back in the day). I mean, the bass guitarist, thumping out powerful and heavy lines, was Ornette Coleman’s bassist, Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Kursaal, an intersection of two boxes, no way through

Kursaal, an intersection of two boxes, no way through

The night was so good that there are no photos. We all shouted possibly a little too loud for an encore, and the band came back on. Ribot sat down and alone played the guitar figure from Van McKay’s (I wish. OK, McCoy) 1975 hit ‘The hustle’. Well, we were thrilled and loved it, cheering and doing the hustle for all our worth. It was a perfect choice, for a perfect encore—funny, clever, knowing, respectful of a disco-soul-jazz tradition some of us had not given much thought to.

Fantastic memories of a special night of music, friendship, and festival. Whenever we meet now someone will burst into ‘The hustle’ and we smile, laugh, do a little dance. We were touched by the music, at the jazz festival. It was intangible, in a temporarily transformed public space for culture, a pleasure for everyone there.

A dead end, at the Kursaal

A dead end

Finding myself in San Sebastian again after the summer, I went to look at the public cultural space by the  beach where we had had our transcendent collective dance, the recent landmark Kursaal complex (opened 1999) on Zurriola beach. But where were our memories and pleasure, where was the place of our memories and pleasure? Surely not here!  We had been Kursaal Flyers in July, but by October this seemed to me a silent barren place, magnified by its own scale and emptiness.

The Kursaal complex from the outside seems a place that is designed to demand transformation, hard and hard up against the golden sand, by an influx of people, by music resounding off its walls. To me, looking for the festal trace, it dramatises the potential of transformation, alongside the difficulty of articulating the intangible. It needs a festival, to live. It really needs to do the hustle.

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Why Jazz (and not, say, Rock or Folk) Music for Thinking about Festival and Cultural Heritage?

chime-logo jpegA position paper presented to the Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Music Festivals (CHIME) project team meeting, Amsterdam Conservatory, February 4 2016. All team members were asked to produce short papers about their approach to a key question for the project, a sort of early mapping exercise for this three-year EU-funded research project, which will be made available on the project website. This is mine.


Here are the opening sentences of the EU Heritage+ joint call grant application that the project team wrote in 2014, and which formed the basis of CHIME’s successful submission.

‘What an amazing experience, the clash of seeing Miles Davis in the Roman amphitheatre during the Nice Jazz Festival. The ancient stones and arches are re-sounded, the music somehow more resonant, old and modern at the same time. I’ll never forget that.’ This first-hand experience of a European festival-goer provided the initial inspiration for CHIME.

I want to interrogate the cultural space we have chosen a little further, which I hope will throw further light on my question, why look at jazz (and not, say, rock or folk) festivals?


There was a nice line tweeted on the CHIME Twitter feed recently, a quotation from Chris Goddard’s book Jazz Away From Home that sought to describe the experience of jazz in southern Europe, as a music ‘cut[ting] through the warm, humid Mediterranean night like a chainsaw through cheese’ (1979, ?). Is jazz more cheese wire than chainsaw, do you think, though? If we want chainsaw music we need really to go to something more industrial—or agricultural—starting with the excessive, aggressive culture of rock music. Rock does after all sometimes feature a chainsaw: see southern US rock band Jackyl, who still finish each live set with their signature song ‘The lumberjack’ (the video is great and indeed a little Pythonesque, have a look: Jackyl 1992) in which the lead singer does a chainsaw solo (though not through cheese). (Here is a pressing question for the New Jazz Studies: has a jazz band featured a chainsaw solo, ever?)

So, for questions of the clash or disjunction between heritage, festival site and popular music, the jarring re-sounding when both our ears double-take in stereo, rock music would be very good to think about. Though its history as a popular music has been shorter than folk or jazz (50-60 years as opposed to 100-120, very approximately)—does that mean its heritage is reduced?—rock music can supply a very powerful shock of the new, not least through its characteristic of being superloud, via a practice of extreme volume and a competitive rather than functional culture of amplification. (Even to the extent of rock deafening its bands and fans: McKay 2013, chapter 4.) And its use of chainsaws.

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