PROFILE: Sybille Kornitschky of jazzahead! (#IWD2017)

Sybille Kornitschky.
 Photo credit:Peter Adamik/ Messe Bremen

SYBILLE KORNITSCHKY is, in all but title, Chief Executive of jazzahead! the world’s largest jazz convention/ trade show/showcase/festival, held annually in her home city of Bremen in Northern Germany. It is her responsibility to look after the finances of jazzahead!, and for bringing in and maintaining the organization’s significant number of sponsors and partners. In this interview with Sebastian Scotney she talks about the remarkable evolution and international growth and impact of jazzahead! since the first one in 2006:

When Sybille Kornitschky looks back and remembers the very first jazzahead! in 2006 she can’t resist giving a mischievous smile, and using a colourful German expression: “When we began it had the characteristics of an ‘Elefantenhochzeit’.” The phrase literally means an elephants’ wedding, and implies a gathering of rather grand people and organisations whose general air of importance can also make them rather slow and ungainly.

What she meant with this phrase is that right from the start, jazzahead! – a trade fair – was combined with the “German Jazz Meeting” (it later became the German Jazz Expo), a national showcase for German jazz. “From that combination,” she reflects, “an event has developed which has brought the German scene forward immensely. The musicians are better known, the scene is far better networked, that all happens naturally now, jazzahead! is a permanent fixture – and, most importantly, the old days are not coming back.”

Since 2006 both the feel of jazzahead! and its scale have indeed changed beyond recognition. The numbers show very clearly the extent to which it has both grown and internationalized: “In 2006 when we began there were 95 exhibitors, versus around 1000 now,” Kornitschky remembers. “They were all from Germany and Austria – with just one guy from Italy. That is how international we were then.” In 2016 there were 2,742 participants in the trade fair, and participants came from 56 countries.

A few of the 2,742 delegates at jazzahead! 2016.
Photo credit: Jan Brathke / Messe Bremen

Given that massive rise in scale it seems rather quaint that Sybille Kornitschky’s job title at jazzahead! has remained the same. She is still “Projektleiterin” (project leader). And yet – massive understatement – the organisation she has run since its inception has gone way beyond being a mere project. Working alongside Artistic Directors Peter Schulze and Uli Beckerhoff, and running a five-strong (all-female) management team, Sybille is – in all but title – the Chief Executive of the largest international jazz convention/trade show/showcase/festival in the world.

And what about Sybille Kornitschky’s career before jazzahead!? The first theme she mentioned when we met in Bremen was travelling. Her travelling adds up to about 15 years, starting when she was a teenager. “The big wide world had always appealed to me,” she reminisces. “I wanted to see a lot of the world. First was Bordeaux, where a one-year school exchange became six. Then there was Paris. And Liverpool, Freiburg and Cologne where I became an editor in a publishing house, so jazzahead! is for me a second career.” She spent five years with the publisher: “I worked on some fabulous book projects.”

She then came back to her home town of Bremen and joined the trade fair company Messe Bremen. She explains: “I knew that I had a major wish to get something going in Bremen and also something with an international dimension. Bremen has as its symbol the key. “It’s the key to the world,” she says with pride. “It signifies an openness to the world.”

And as a woman starting off in jazz? “In the jazz world I was a complete unknown. I had the sense that jazz in Germany was stale perhaps, closed-in, ivory-towerish. There was a feeling that you had to have been around for 40 years. Everyone knew everyone.”

That sense of being an outsider, however, seemed to unleash a determination that things shouldn’t necessarily stay as they were. “I knew I was going to get involved in a strongly male domain. Yes I was naïve, and completely unknown, but my travels in Europe had shown me things in Germany didn’t have to be the way they were. I was asking myself: ‘Why is it different in other countries? Why does jazz have a better – and younger – following in other countries?’ I had seen lots of young people at jazz gigs in Istanbul, in Tallinn, and other places too.”

The extent to which jazzhead! has been successful in attracting a younger and more diverse audience is documented in a new evaluation study which jazzahead! has commissioned from the researchers at Markt Forschung Kultur. The findings are still being evaluated internally and haven’t yet been published, but of a sample of over 1,000 visitors to the festival in 2016, 47% were women. “The stigma about jazz is now definitely misplaced,” says Kornitschky.

jazzahead! is known in the industry as a gathering and a trade fair, but it has also grown as an attraction for the public in Bremen. There are 40 stages in different venues where bands appear – “They all are full!” beams Kornitschky – and the total number of concert attenders during the weekend of the trade fair is around 16,000. This is an important feature of jazzhead! “Right from the start we knew we had to have and keep the goodwill of the city,” says Kornitshky. And the idea of the people of Bremen gaining their insight into the vibrancy of the international jazz scene is an important feature.

Another feature of jazzahead! is its mission to make German jazz more visible internationally, better networked. “We saw ourselves from the start as having a duty towards the German jazz scene, to be its central point of contact. It was Peter Schulze’s concept to combine it. It was wonderful quite how well it worked, right from the beginning.”

And how does she see the health of the scene in Germany now? “I would never say that there is a completely healthy scene, but there is always more to do. But from the political background, the times have never been better. The way jazz is supported, the external conditions, many of the cards are currently stacked in our favour. There are things for music including jazz that are possible now that certainly weren’t achievable in the past. And jazzahead! – as well as some strong lobbying groups – has certainly had its role in that.”

Sybille Kornitschky on a jazzahead! panel
Photo credit: Ingo Wagner / Messe Bremem

One important initiative at jazzahead! is the concept of a Partner Country, which jazzahead! first introduced in 2011. “It gives us the opportunity to give the event a focus, which has become more important in the context of the international growth,” says Kornitschky. “The partner country must also have a desire to present its culture to the public in the Bremen region. There is a pre-programme in the two weeks before jazzahead!. “It takes place in museums, art galleries, cinemas and bookshops. There is gastronomy too. The partner country presents its culture to the region of Bremen, and that segues into the trade fair.”

With her travelling background, the whole internationalisation of jazzahead! and the introduction of the Partner Country concept… I suggested: all that must come from the heart. “Yes indeed,” admitted Kornitschky. “My heart does speak more than one language.”

And how does she sum up the evolution of the organization and the event she has led from the start: “Yes we can do more, but when I think of how 12 years ago we started to conceptualize what jazzahead! could be, I am very pleased that it has gone the way it has.”

2017 jazzahead! will take place at the Arena in Bremen from April 27th to 30th 2017. The partner country is Finland.  WEBSITE

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Congratulations Sybille and the team…my first JazzAhead was in 2010, the year of the 'Ashcloud' and I was one of two to come over from my country due to numerous flight cancellations. I was nonetheless made to feel welcomed and have never missed a year since.

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