The Festival Season
Having spent some of May and most of June, as well as a large part of August, in France, I’ve suddenly realized two things. First, I had not written a jazz piece for some time. Second that I had managed to miss much of the jazz festival season. It seems as if every city and medium size town, seaside resort, and sometimes even villages, must have a jazz festival. This tendency is particularly marked in France, where even small villages somehow manage to put on some good music over a weekend. Of course, festivals such as those at Marciac and Vienne are well known to the jazz enthusiast, but how many have heard of those at Malguennec in Brittany or Coutances up in Normandy. The latter helps kick off the festival season in May and usually has a good programme, whilst the former somehow manages to bring in a leading US group.
British jazz festivals are numerous. The best is undoubtedly the London Jazz Festival which takes place in November, but there are also other long running events held in places such as Cheltenham, Swanage, Southport and Scarborough, with Scotland’s Glasgow and Edinburgh also holding festivals. Big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool also host events – but the East Midlands sadly lacks such an event all of its own.
My own introduction to these events was in the town of Wigan, made famous or infamous by Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, where for over thirty years a jazz festival has been held at some point in July. Now given over to largely big band events, it is the place where I was fortunate enough to hear people such as Horace Silver with the Brecker brothers; Clark Terry on more than one occasion, pianist Jessica Williams, sax players Lew Tabackin and Scott Hamilton, trumpeters like Lew Soloff and Freddie Hubbard, amongst many others, all at concerts given at Wigan Pier, but since moved to Wigan Athletic’s home. The Pier was in effect a large shed alongside the Liverpool to Leeds Canal and nowhere near the sea – as my wife discovered on her visit to the place!
Near our place in Brittany is the town of Vannes on the Golfe du Morbihan. Vannes has also held a jazz festival for about thirty years, normally at the end of July or beginning of August. Again, my wife and I have been lucky enough to attend many of these sessions, hearing people like the Carla Bley Big Band; the Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; pianist McCoy Tyner with Michael Brecker; the e.s.t. trio (now no more); Herbie Hancock and singer Diana Krall, whilst somehow managing to miss out on people like Charles Lloyd and Archie Shepp. Depending on sponsorship, as most festivals do, Vannes’ programme has been less formidable in recent years – this year’s event was generally weak, with alto sax player Kenny Garrett the leading attraction over the week. In part this is due to a decline in sponsorship, public or private, a factor which has also affected the Wigan festival. So I count myself fortunate to have heard so many excellent musicians over the years, US, European and British.
Three things are important about these festivals. First, most depend on the enthusiasm of local jazz promoters to put on the event, with retirement or the passing of such an enthusiast causing the festival to die. Swanage was one example, rescued this year through the efforts of guitar player Nigel Price, whilst the old Brecon festival – long a favourite of mainstream jazz fans – had had a checkered existence in recent years. Second, festivals through the season give work to a lot of musicians -reed player Alan Barnes features at many in the UK for example, -and the festival circuit provides an opportunity for US or European players to find work around Europe and the UK. Third, from a fan’s point of view, festivals allow one to hear a wide range of musicians in a short period of time, including several of what might be called rising stars as well as established favourites. So why not try and go to one such event – in October, drummer Clark Tracey will be holding forth with lots of musicians at the Herts Jazz festival, which he has been organizing for a number of years now. And for those of you with deeper pockets, then the London Jazz festival awaits in November! You might be lucky and hear one of the next ‘big names’ in jazz, as my wife and I did when we heard pianist/singer Diana Krall in Vannes all those years ago!