We’re at Cheltenham Jazz Festival piloting a digital interface that is intended to capture elements of the experience of a group of visitors, festival workers, and artists. More details on that will appear shortly. Planned activities include similar projects at a number of other, European festivals in 2017 and beyond.
On Friday, George McKay hosted a day-long symposium on ‘Researching (Jazz) Festivals’ that included talks from leading scholars in festivals research and jazz festival directors from Cheltenham, London and Manchester festivals. Italian scholar and archivist Francesco Martinelli and CHIME’s Tony Whyton delivered keynote presentations on European jazz research and the day concluded with the launch of Emma Webster and George McKay’s ‘The Impact of Festivals’, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded literature review that charts and critically examines existing writings on the impact of British festivals.
In addition to the symposium, Nick Gebhardt has been working with a team of media researchers from Birmingham City University to develop a digital heritage tool called J-Hive. J-Hive is being piloted in Cheltenham for the first time and runs from 28-30th April. The project aims to document the experiences of different audiences at the Festival.
In putting the project together, a mobile application has been designed to allow different audiences (concert goers, musicians, promoters etc.) to send text and images to a web page where they regularly respond to, and reflect on, the music, the festival atmosphere, and the people they meet.
Through the interface, participants can follow their own posts as well as those of others participating in the project. Ultimately, J-Hive will create a collection of different festival encounters and memories that will offer insights into the festival experience, how festivals are navigated and understood, and the relationship of music to the places and spaces of the town.
[Blog by Dr Emma Webster, University of East Anglia, postdoctoral researcher on AHRC-funded The Impact of Festivals project, where this was first posted]
I have just returned from the Rhythm Changes ‘Jazz Utopia’ conference in Birmingham (14-17 April 2016). The majority of the one hundred plus speakers really engaged with the theme of the conference and grappled with jazz’s potential for exploring and achieving utopia from a wide variety of perspectives: historical, musicological, sociological and interdisciplinary.
My paper gave a brief overview of a literature review currently in review with Jazz Research Journal about the impact of jazz festivals; based on the final part of my paper, this blog post will consider briefly the ways in which jazz festivals have been or could be considered to be utopian.
To begin, how jazz festivals have been considered in utopian terms in the literature. In his introduction to a collection of essays on pop festivals, for example, George McKay writes that festival, at its most utopian, can be ‘a pragmatic and fantastic space in which to dream and to try another world into being’ (2015: 5). As another example, in a paper on the Montreal Jazz Festival, Michael Darroch describes a ‘utopian inner city music village’ into which the festival organisers have imported various forms of music to the city, as well as tropes from New Orleans such as trad jazz and second line parades (2003: 133).
Helen Regis and Shana Walton, in work on the New Orleans Jazz Festival, argue that the festival ‘was and is a utopian project’ whilst recognising that, in its practical realities, its utopian aspirations are somewhat problematic. They argue that whilst the jazz festival seeks to transform existing social structures, particularly around race and gender, instead it reinforces them. In addition, whilst making large amounts of money for the organisers, the festival does not necessarily enhance either the economic or social prospects of those who provide the music and entertainment (2008: 428). Instead, as the authors say,
Rather than helping New Orleans avoid poverty and inequality, the city’s role as playground to the world continuously reproduces unequal social structure. Even as it offers opportunities for a national audience to experience our culture, the festive state of the city has muted the voices of those who try to focus attention on urban issues (2008: 432).
As Regis and Walton suggest, the New Orleans Jazz Festival maintains its power because of the fact that its many festival-goers return year after year in search of moments of transcendence; indeed, in a separate paper, Walton reveals how for some participants, the festival has had such an impact that they have even upped sticks and moved across the country to be closer to it (2012).
The anticipation of the festival throughout the year means that festivals exist as both a real and an imagined – idealised – event. The ways in which audiences perceive such ‘ideal’ jazz events is highlighted in the work of Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts on jazz festivals and jazz clubs, in which they conclude that audiences have in mind an ‘ideal’ jazz gig which they aim to replicate when deciding where and when they would decide to go; such ideals relate to instrumentation, the atmosphere and venue, the performers and the other audience members (2012: 537). Work by Gail Brand et al into the performer–audience relationship at a jazz club highlights the importance of the venue to how much audiences enjoy the gig, who in general tend to prefer smaller, more intimate venues, although interestingly their research also highlights that this is not necessarily what is wanted by the musicians who don’t necessarily want such intimacy with the audience (2012: 643).
Finally, Anne Dvinge uses Christopher Small’s concept of ‘musicking’ to show how the Detroit Jazz Festival transforms Detroit once a year via the interactions of the musicians and the people, which reflect the ideas of ‘ought-to-be-relationships in the world’ for its participants (2015: 195) and becomes a time in which ‘joy takes root annually’ in the city (ibid.: 185). Borrowing from Small’s ‘musicking’, then, it could be said that ‘festivalling’ becomes a particular type of activity or process in a particular type of space in which festival-goers’ ideal forms of society are imagined and explored.
When considering whether jazz festivals are or can be utopian, then, the larger question is whether we mean the festival itself or the wider society in which the festival exists. Jazz festivals, by their very nature, are transient, albeit often cyclical, therefore any utopia they offer is rather fleeting. Jazz festivals, can perhaps be utopian for jazz fans in the sense of providing an actual and imagined ideal place dedicated to the enjoyment of jazz; as acts of ‘musicking’ they form part of the pilgrimages and rituals of jazz.
A perfect festival is certainly easier to achieve than a perfect society, perhaps, although whether the social structure, rules and politics of a jazz festival or gig can ever be ‘perfect’ is debatable, especially the larger the event becomes and, perhaps, the more diverse the audience and the more broad the understanding of an ‘ideal’ gig. As the New Orleans Jazz Festival example I gave earlier shows, even a festival with utopian ideals can end up inadvertently recreating the inequalities of the society in which it exists, particularly around issues of race and gender. In this way, perhaps without a perfect society to start with, there can be no perfect festival.
To conclude, then, a jazz festival is most likely not a site of utopia for wider social transformation, or even for a perfect jazz experience, but it has a number of significant impacts which mean that, for a short time, for some, ‘festivalling’ may be a glimpse of a jazz utopia.
Brand, Gail, John Sloboda, Ben Saul, and Martin Hathaway. 2012. ‘The reciprocal relationship between jazz musicians and audiences in live performances’. Psychology of Music 40/5: 634-651
Burland, Karen and Stephanie E. Pitts. 2010. ‘Understanding jazz audiences: listening and learning at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival’. Journal of New Music Research 39/2: 125-134
Darroch, Michael. 2003. ‘New Orleans in Montréal: the cradle of jazz in the city of festivals’. Géocarrefour 78/2: 129-137.
Dvinge, Anne. 2015. ‘Musicking in motor city: Reconfiguring urban space at the Detroit Jazz Festival’. In The Pop Festival, ed George McKay. London: Bloomsbury: 183-197.
McKay, George. 2015. ‘Introduction’. In The Pop Festival, ed George McKay. London: Bloomsbury: 1-12.
Regis, Helen A. and Shana Walton. 2008. ‘Producing the folk at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’. Journal of American Folklore 121/ 482: 400-440.
Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Walton, Shana. 2012. ‘“I only go to church once a year”: transformation and transcendence in jazz fest narratives’. Southern Journal of Linguistics 36/1: 104-126.
I’m currently in Bremen for Jazzahead!, the Trade Fair and Showcase Festival, which, over the last 11 years, has grown to become the largest international gathering of jazz organisations, promoters and artists. When I last attended the event in 2011, the trade fair was punctuated by a handful of daytime performances and an evening concert programme that showcased jazz of a particular country.
This year, the partner countries remain (the opening night was Swiss jazz night) and take centre stage, however, the showcases have been expanded and the event has been ‘festivalised’ (to coin George McKay’s term) to the extent where jazz occupies venues across the city for four intensive days, with other events programmed in the weeks leading up to the event. Whilst festival events staged within the convention centre and surrounding hotels could be described as placeless in nature – as an audience member you could be in any world city – the adjoining Kulturzentrum Schlachthof offers the most interest in relation to CHIME’s objectives.
The former slaughterhouse was built in 1892 and prevented from demolition in the late 1970s. Since its transformation in the 1990s, it has become the largest cultural centre in Bremen, an impressive post-industrial venue with bars, a cafe, and an amazing performance space that is ideal for jazz and improvised music. In addition to its industrial heritage, the building is also associated with Europe’s troubled history.
In 1943, the slaughterhouse grounds were used by the Nazis in their deportation of Roma communities from Bremen to Auschwitz, where most were murdered.
A plaque was erected outside the Schlachthof in 1995 to commemorate these atrocities.
As a cultural centre, the Schlachthof engages with Bremen’s cultural heritage head on and, in this context, jazz provides the perfect vehicle both to engage with the heritage of the building literally and symbolically, to re-use the site and to energise the space. In many ways, the music works as a form of cultural palimpsest where traces of history remain but the sounds created in the venue confront the building; encouraging audiences to think about the problematic past, to reflect on the resilience of humanity and the processes of healing and renewal, and to experience the power of music in bringing people together.
Heritage is a contested subject that is bound up with concepts of memory, belonging, cultural value and the politics ofpower, history and ownership. However, as Laurajane Smith stresses, heritage is not only about celebrating and appreciating the value of material things that have been passed on from one generation to the next but it is also a communicative act that encourages people to make meaning for the present day. Heritage enables us to celebrate and understand not only who we are but also what we want to be (Smith: 2006, 1-2).
If we accept that heritage is not necessarily a thing but a process it leads us to consider the possibility that all heritage – and that includes the notion of a heritage site – is intangible by definition. Smith continues,
While places, sites, objects and localities may exist as identifiable sites of heritage… these places are not inherently valuable, nor do they carry a freight of innate meaning. Stonehenge, for instance, is basically a collection of rocks in a field. What makes these things valuable and meaningful – what makes them ‘heritage’, or what makes the collection of rocks in a field ‘Stonehenge’ – are the present-day cultural processes and activities that are undertaken at and around them, and of which they become a part. It is these processes that identify them as physically symbolic of particular cultural and social events, and thus give them value and meaning.
(Smith: 2006, 3)
Using this idea as a starting point, CHIME’s interpretation of heritage sites leads us to places that have become symbolic of particular social and cultural events, where values and meanings have been ascribed and where identities are constructed, re-constructed, suppressed or negotiated.
Within this context, heritage sites can obviously include officially listed buildings and places of historical importance, conservation areas, and protected sites of natural beauty. I’m sure we have all visited buildings that are in possession of national trusts or heritage organisations as well as accredited UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But our definition of heritage sites is not be limited to state-funded or officially managed heritage institutions. We also look more broadly to places where acts of remembrance or commemoration offer meaning to specific groups, to locations where people negotiate a sense of belonging and/or (re)consider their place in the world. Or, indeed, to places which encourage us to reflect on our relationship to the environment or which provide us with a transformative vision of the future.
Festivals, Heritage, Utopia
It is within these latter points that the relationship between jazz festivals, heritage sites and utopian thinking comes into focus. Utopia has been widely discussed as both an appealing and dangerous concept wrought with problems and idealised assumptions (De Geus, 1999). Moreover, within studies of festival cultures, there seems a natural synergy between festivals and utopian concepts, given the transformative potential of places, spaces and social practices within evanescent events or carnivalising atmospheres. Indeed, within McKay’s recent edited collection The Pop Festival (Bloomsbury, 2015), concepts of utopia form a central theme within the book, and within his introduction, he outlines ways in which contributors explore concepts of utopia in contrasting ways; for example, as something celebrated, critiqued, glimpsed, denied, dreamt or nightmared. And yet, despite these contrasts, McKay stresses that,
[Festival], at its most utopian, is a pragmatic and fantastic space in which to dream and to try another world into being.
(McKay: 2015, 5)
Rather than utopian thinking being founded on idealised principles, the concept can provide a critical framework from which to challenge established conventions, political practices and naturalisedassumptions about the world. Within a jazz context, utopia can be useful when it provides a means of challenging presuppositions, encouraging a continual sense of reflexivity about the music’s ontology and its cultural relevance, and keeping the present in dialogue with the past.
By adopting this approach, the study of heritage sites becomes a form of discursive practice and we should be mindful here of the power and all-pervasiveness of what Stuart Hall described as ‘The Heritage.’ (Hall, 1999) For Hall, the heritage becomes,
‘the material embodiment of the spirit of a nation’, it is a collective representation of tradition or of valuable places and objects that, ‘[t]o be validated, must take their place alongside what has been authorised as ‘valuable’ on already established grounds in relation to the unfolding of a ‘national story’ whose terms we already know.’
(Hall: 1999, 3-4)
These reified presentations of heritage can structure ideas not only about the past but can also play down, ignore or exclude issues of race, gender, class, and disability that would inevitably provide a challenge to official and uncomplicated interpretations of nations and associated cultural narratives. Despite a number of changes to understandings, formations and uses of heritage in recent years, ideas of nationhood can often remain naturalised and colonial histories treated as remote and unproblematic; there is no scope for complexity, contestation or a multitude of voices in the world of ‘The Heritage’.
Envisioning the future, reconciling the past
Building on this, the role of jazz and improvised music can be a crucial element in disrupting established ways of thinking about heritage and determining the significance of sites in question. When jazz enters particular spaces, it can provide a means of engaging with established discourses, reconfiguring histories, encouraging a renewed perspective on a particular location, or re-engaging with the past.
Through our research, we will aim to investigate a diversity of voices through festival sites. We want to convey the meaning places afford to different people, understand the stories that enliven specific objects, or explore how narratives that generate cultural mythologies feed into other narratives that offer meaning to contrasting groups. As a transnational study, CHIME will explore how global events link to local cultures and shape the lives of people in different ways. Through festivals we can consider how sameness and difference can play out in different geographical settings; the ‘heritage site’ in this context can offer a challenge to narrowly defined understandings of the world, of people and places.
When CHIME examines a heritage site, therefore, it does so with these processes in mind and, in developing a typology of festivals and heritage sites, it will be important to consider different ways in which the heritage question plays out for different communities in a range of European places.
De Geus, M., Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society (Utrecht, International Books, 1999)
Hall, S. ‘Whose Heritage? Unsettling ‘The Heritage’, Reimagining the Post-Nation’ Third Text 13:49, pp.3-13
McKay, G. (ed.), The Pop Festival: Hiostory, Music, Media, Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
Smith, L., Uses of Heritage (New York: Routledge, 2006)