“Everything you want from a British seaside but with amazing music thrown in for one weekend” is how Kai Hoffman describes the Herne Bay Jazz and Swing Festival, taking place at the Pier Stage on 20 and 21 August. All events are free admission… And yet, some legends and luminaries of British jazz are there: Elaine Delmar, Tony Kofi, Dave Green, Paul Booth.. and a rare out-of-town appearance by the Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion. Interview by Martin Chilton:
A stage on a shimmering seaside pier might not be the place you would expect to hear top-calibre jazz musicians but August’s Herne Bay Jazz and Swing Festival, imaginatively programmed by one-woman dynamo Kai Hoffman, provides just such a wonderful setting for crowds who love “grooving and snapping their fingers” to a range of top performers.
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“All the events are free, which is also a way to encourage people to travel and hang out in this amazing little town,” Hoffman tells London Jazz. “Herne Bay has a beautiful beach, with lovely Victorian gardens and the festival allows people to check out the town and enjoy high-class music. There is something about live music of a certain quality that you just can’t replicate watching on television: you need to be there and see people reacting to each other. Our festival is really reactive.”
More than six thousand people attended in 2021 and this year’s sparkling line-up, playing on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st August, includes world-famous singer Elaine Delmar, saxophonist Tony Kofi, Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion, Sara McGuinness and Kai Hoffman herself.
Boston-born Hoffman, who settled in the UK more than 20 years ago after completing a postgraduate degree in French horn at London’s Royal College of Music, said that the original aim of the first festival, in 2017, was to entice people to check out music “from across the jazz spectrum”, focussing on acts that celebrated the differentness of jazz.
She says that sitting in her office curating the show “is like putting together one giant puzzle” – and all the individual pieces are little gems. The diversity is exemplified by the consecutive acts on the Stage on Sunday afternoon, when Delmar follows Kofi. “Tony Kofi is a saxophonist who is right at the top of his game at the moment,” says Hoffman, “and he won Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards in July. I love what he does. He plays some Cannonball Adderley stuff along with his own compositions. Everything he does is just brilliant and melodic. He plays really interesting jazz, music you can sink your teeth into. Elaine, who follows him, is all about the delivery, the presence, and letting that amazing voice
do its thing.”
Hoffman, who began singing for fun originally and then honed her expressive voice into one of the most popular on the British jazz scene – with regular residencies at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London – knows all about great female vocalists, having performed the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and taken inspiration from greats such as Keely Smith, “the amazing” Anita O’Day, Rosemary Clooney, Blossom Dearie and the Chet Baker Sings album.
Hoffman knows exactly what makes a virtuoso singer, and it’s the reason she is so delighted to be bringing 82-year Delmar, a singer who has performed with violinist Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Herb Ellis in her time, to Herne Bay. “I have been wanting to get Elaine down here for years,” says Hoffman. “Her career has gone for almost seven decades and she has one of the most stunning voices around.
She’s also bringing a brilliant band, with Robin Aspland on piano, Dave Green on bass, Bobby Worth on drums and Andy Panayi on sax and flute. It was incredible that she was available, but she wanted to do this show and I think it will be a wonderful juxtaposition, her following Tony.”
Getting the chance to see venerated veterans is terrific, but the festival is a truly innovative open event, full of fun for youngsters. “There is something for everyone,” remarks Hoffman. “On the Saturday, we start with a family concert and workshops where teenagers can check out different instruments and have their ears opened to this wonderful music. There is a lunchtime instrumental gig in Wimereux Square from saxophonist Paul Booth, a man who has played with the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, followed by a vibrant concert from the acclaimed Kent Youth Jazz Orchestra. Musicians based in Kent feature throughout Saturday, including the Dave Robinson trio with trombonist Geoff Mason, who offers some modern variations on Kai Winding’s classic 1960s bone sounds, and musical accompaniment to ‘Sketch Jam’, where local artists
can draw and paint jazz musicians.” That art event, hosted by festival supporter Beach Creative Arts Centre, will feature the talented guitarist Richard Rozze and singer Jo Doolan.
Other highlights of the festival are vibes maestro Roan Kearsey-Lawson, Sara McGuinness and her award-winning Cuban band, Andalucian trumpeter and skilled improviser Daniel Cano with his quartet, a bossa nova show from guitarist Giorgio Serci and Italian singer named Adriana Vasques. There will also be a rollicking concert from Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion. “They are rarely seen outside of Ronnie’s,” says Hoffman, “and the line-up is absolutely stonking. There is singer and guitarist Marcus Bonfanti, Tony Remy on guitar, Stevie Watts on keys, Nick Cohen on bass, Frank Tontoh on drums, trombonist Winston Rollins, Derek Nash on saxes and George Hogg on trumpet. I worked with George Hogg some years ago and he is just one of the strongest trumpet players around right now. They are an electrifying band live and they get so into the groove. They really know the blues and are great technical players. The crowd will see some advanced blues.”
Hoffman says it is a rare treat as curator to bring together such an eclectic line-up, one to which she brings her own inimitable touch. “In terms of the line up, I have tried really hard to either know the bands personally or to do loads of research so there is going to be a big variety and they are all going to bring their own personality to the stage,” she explains.
What makes the festival even more remarkable is that Hoffman has managed to corral enough support to make the events free. She says “a lot of support from within the town makes it all possible”. There are private individual donors – local companies such as Jubilee Books – along with support from the Pier owners, who give over the venue for free. In addition, a grant from Arts Council England makes it possible to finance all the organisation and wonderful musicians. “Most festivals are not free and people assume it’s not going to be as good because we don’t charge. That’s why I try to get a certain number of acts that are very much top-notch, you would normally have to pay £30 to £50 a ticket to have to see. I do that because I want people to know this music and enjoy it,” says Hoffman.
Herne Bay Pier Stage is a gorgeous setting for the showpiece concerts, with an atmosphere American Hoffman has grown to love, everything from the “quaint” beach huts, bumper cars, carousel, trampolines to the stalls selling everything from artisan crafts to seaside kitsch. There is also a pub selling locally-produced Goody Ales, a fish and chips shop and tasty pizza, in what she calls an “an oldy-worldy wonderland.”
“It’s everything you want from a British seaside but with amazing music thrown in for one weekend,” says Hoffman. “As the sun sets right behind the stage and the sea shimmers, it’s a wonderful place to listen to music. Plus, you find the intimacy you can only get when you can see the performer a few feet away. It changes the whole experience. I wanted this festival to be like one of those ones you get in New Orleans where it’s by the water and you can just go and hang out and see all this stuff. I was determined to make it part of everyday life, instead of something elite. Lots of locals come but it also attracts people from all over Britain and from around the world.”
Get ready for buckets of fun.
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