What is wrong with UK jazz festivals? by Peter Slavid

LondonJazz has received a thoughtful but also provocative guest contribution from Peter Slavid, an inveterate/ubiquitous festival helper/visitor/ doer.

Peter has a long list of what’s missing in the UK jazz festival scene.

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


The piece is published in full below, and I hope, will set a debate going. Comments either by email or below welcome.

What is wrong with UK jazz festivals, and could a few good ones expand the audience?

Although my first love is modern jazz, I also listen to a lot of other styles of music and I attend a lot of music festivals. I’ve just come back from helping out at a hugely successful folk festival in Yorkshire, a hall with 1000 people all weekend, a marquee with 300, and several other small venues. And then I watched some of Glastonbury on TV. And it has all caused me to wonder…..

Why is the UK is so badly served by Jazz festivals? There are a few – but honestly not many that really deserve the name “festival”. Most of them are just a series of concerts, which is NOT the same thing at all.

There are for example over 40 festivals each year that describe themselves as folk or roots festivals . Each of them gets an attendance of between 1000 and 5000 people (a few even more than that). There are also dozens of rock, world music and other commercial festivals with 5000 plus attendances.

They all have a few things in common. First and foremost they all charge a single fee for the day or weekend. They are parties. They put on a wide mix of musical styles, and they encourage people to watch new acts and different styles and to broaden their range. Almost all the UK Jazz festivals charge per concert – so people only buy tickets for acts they know. London and Cheltenham are good examples – brilliant concert programmes – but not really festivals in my view.

Real festivals have multiple simultaneous venues on the same site – often marquees, but sometimes in leisure centres, halls, country houses. Generally somewhere in the countryside. Jazz festivals tend to avoid simultaneous events because they want to sell tickets to every concert and they tend to take place in towns, in existing venues.

Folk festivals attract all ages including families, kids and lots of teenagers. They put on dozens of workshops, dances, meet-the-artist events, they get artists to perform more than once in different settings, and they encourage participation, amateur sessions etc. and they are growing in popularity, at least two every weekend through spring and summer all selling out all the tickets available. There are so many that others are springing up at different times of year. Meanwhile jazz festivals are struggling.

Even more interesting, if you go across the channel, many of the jazz festivals in Europe are single ticket event like the folk festivals in UK, and they seem to be thriving too.

So why don’t we have festivals like that in the UK? We used to have Appleby which failed, and Brecon which failed. Ealing is still like that, and those of you with really long memories will still remember Bracknell – the best of them all. And I am sure that there must be some smaller festivals or trad jazz festivals that follow the same model – but not many.

So, what’s the problem? Why the big difference? Is jazz inherently less popular? Is it too difficult? Are the artists too fussy? Too introspective? Is jazz really not fun?

I’ll offer one difference that may explain a part of it. All the jazz festivals I know of are run by professionals – local authorities, theatres, programmers, administrators etc. Almost all the folk festivals I go to are organised by, run by and staffed by unpaid amateurs. They don’t want to make money or get paid, they just want to put on a good event. But I’m sure that’s not the only issue

So – the key question!

Is the shortage of real festivals caused by the lack of a big audience – or is the shortage of jazz fans caused by the lack of good festivals, and would a few good festivals expand the audience – something I’m sure we all want to see!

Categories: Uncategorized

10 replies »

  1. I am very much in sympathy with what Peter says here and I too regard Bracknall as a model for a jazz festival. I remember thinking I would never see another Wimbledon tennis final as that was Bracknell weekend and I thought it would go on forever. But I think it is significant that Bracknell went under, I believe for financial reasons as have a number, in fact the majority, of the other one ticket festivals Peter quotes. I think somehow jazz festival goers seem to prefer the situation where there are a large number of gigs on offer and they choose the ones they want to go to. And I am not sure that they want to camp in fields! In Cheltenham we clearly have all the concerts as individually ticketed events, but do create a festival atmosphere in a number of ways. Cheltenham itself is an attractive town to visit and most jazz people do not often get to go there, the venues are all close together and with the fringe on round town with the focus in the Marquee in the central Imperial Square there is no doubt that there is buzz round town and in the venues. We also create
    special events with commissions, special collaborations, jazz club nights with stand up audiences and a carefully selected programme that highlights what is really happening in jazz today. I strongly believe that all this does make for a festival feel. It is a different kind of feel from a Glastonbury or Big Chill atmosphere, but valid nonetheless.

    I do, however, have a lot of respect for what Peter says. Audiences at jazz festivals can be on the old side, though Cheltenham Jazz Festival has the youngest age profile of the four Cheltenham Festivals (Music, Literature and Science as well as Jazz)and I would love to see a jazz festival focussing on the younger bands on the scene aimed at a young audience and following the style of organisation we see at folk and world music festivals, i.e. one ticket, music in one large area in a number of venues including tents. I tend to think that such a festival should not be exclusively a jazz festival but one where jazz is presented alongside folk, African music, club music etc. This year Birmingham Jazz is participating in the Supersonic Festival in Birmingham and is helping present Dialed In, a project with drummer Bobby Previte and VJ artist Benton C Bainbridge. Supersonic is a one site, one ticket event, but in an urban setting. And over the 11th/12th July weekend I am off to the Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire and am hoping that one day they will have a jazz tent/stage.

    Tony Dudley-Evans

  2. All Peter Slavid's criteria for a proper festival, as opposed to a concert series, are met by the Keswick and Bude jazz festivals. But they would be beneath his notice, because they present other styles of jazz than 'modern' (whatever that means nowadays).

  3. I would concur with a lot of what Peter says. I go to many festivals overseas. There are several features which vary from the UK model, though which are the clinching ones I can't say.
    Here are a few:
    1) A good balance of professional and volunteer support. Many festivals have the resources for one or two full-time staff, who can check out the bands for 6 months and administer for the next.
    2) Radio support
    In Germany, with so many more hours of jazz and a regional-based radio system, it is possible for festivals to interact better with the radio stations. So, for example, WDR supports 6 festivals in the Ruhr area alone.
    3) The camaraderie
    Too many festivals here are run by the concert. At so many of those abroad you can buy a festival pass as if for a rock festival, giving the chance to sample the famous with less famous (but probably no less good).

    As I get more ideas, I'll probably add them to my blog!

  4. Whilst I agree that a festival is more than a series of concerts, both the Edinburgh and Islay jazz festivals in Scotland have a real festival feel despite being sited in venues around their localites.

    Islay is particularly special – a truly wonderful event.

  5. Just to clarify my comments a bit.
    First – it is of course possible to have a great event without following the model I have described – I enjoy and admire Cheltenham Jazz, as well as Bath and London, and I'm sure Edinburgh and Islay are great too. But for me a festival means more than just a collection of ticketed events.
    My concern is that there are artists I would never have paid to see who are now my favourites, because I saw them as part of a festival where I had already paid for a festival pass.
    Ticketed concerts favour the established stars and award winners, and make it difficult for newcomers.
    Secondly I agree with Tony that the best chance for a new festival would be to combine jazz with other forms of music, just as world music festivals often embrace some jazz (in recent years I've seen Courtney Pine and Gilad Atzmon at the Musicport world music festival, Polar Bear at Wychwood etc)
    Hopefully the new organisers of Brecon can be persuaded to continue the “stroller ticket” approach and not go for the big concert programme attractions.
    Anyway – its an interesting discussion – meanwhile I'm off to a few festival festivals and with Brecon cancelled I'll be at Middleheim in Antwerp in August!

  6. If the current programme for Brecon is not a Festival it does at least keep some of the music alive in the area – perhaps the go anywhere ticket could be introduced here next year. I feel that the audience for a lot of jazz is definitely ageing and if we want more young – which we surely do – we need to open up our festivals so the sampling can continue.

  7. I certainly wouldn'tcriticise this year's rescue by Hay festival. Under the circumstances they seem to have put together a half decent holding position – but I agree with you about the age thing – lets see what they go for next year!!

  8. It seems that the free jazz festivals are more in touch with what a jazz festival should be. The recent 'Canary Wharf Jazz Festival' and the upcoming 'Imperial Wharf Jazz Festival' are examples of what a real festival should be like.

Leave a Reply