Sebastian’s London Column, just published in the new September/October 2019 edition of the German magazine Jazzthetik, concerns the unpredictable and changing circumstances that affect jazz festivals in England, and the way organizers respond to them.
Change, instability, precariousness are the backdrop in Britain right now. And it is true in our jazz world too. I am always impressed at how the people who promote it and make it happen, mostly volunteers, constantly adapt to changing circumstances. There will typically be a committee, including people prepared to write applications for grants, a list of postal and email addresses, a lot of love for the music, grit and determination. And off they go.
A good example would be the Swanage Jazz Festival, held in the picturesque town on the Dorset coast. The founder and long-term organiser Fred Lindop hadn’t planned his succession, and predicted in a press release that the festival in 2017 would be the “28th and last.” It wasn’t: entrepreneurial guitarist Nigel Price jumped in as director for 2018, raised £20,000 through a crowdfunding exercise, and made it happen. But it exhausted him and he stepped away. So was that the end? No. Experienced promoter Paul Kelly got involved, made some radical changes, like saving money by moving the festival indoors and into a theatre for the first time, and a successful 30th festival has just happened.
Another festival which has had to adapt again and again is Herts Jazz. The driving force is drummer Clark Tracey, son of the great Stan Tracey, around whom a group of volunteers has assembled. This year their festival will be moving town – again. It started in Welwyn in 2011. In 2018 it had to move in Letchworth, and this year it will be in Bishops Stortford, a town very near Stansted Airport. There is an appealing programme: Seamus Blake will have his new French band. There will be some memories of Ronnie Scott’s to mark its 60th year. Clark Tracey’s own group will recall some famous albums from 1959. Piano geniuses Dave Newton and Gareth Williams will accompany silent films. 27-29 September.
And then there is Guildford, to the south west of London, which is at a different stage: the town is about to get a new jazz festival in March 2020 with Bill Bruford as its patron. The driving force here is bass-playing jazz promoter Marianne Windham. Windham was in fact born in Hamburg, but has lived in the UK since the age of four. She turned her back on a career in IT consulting, and since 2011 has put on about 300 successful gigs, including events raising money for local charities. As she readily admits, this new three-day festival is a step-up. “I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for,” she says. We wish her luck.