(Not) the Wherever Jazz Festival: Rhythm Changes presentation, September 2017

[conclusion of my presentation on the CHIME panel at the 5th Rhythm Changes international jazz conference, Amsterdam, 3 September 2017. Other speakers from the project: Walter van de Leur, Tony Whyton, Loes Rusch; panel chaired by Francesco Martinelli]

… The relationship between the festival and the city is really intimate. It can never be separate. It’s the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, not the Wherever Jazz Festival. Martin Revheim, Kongsberg, Norway director

Yet, writing about ‘urban spectacles’ and celebrations which include the jazz festival, the ‘paradox’ of the touristic festival is that, according to Kevin Fox Gotham, ‘whereas the appeal of local celebrations is the opportunity to see something different, celebrations that are designed to attract tourists seem more and more alike’.

Nicola MacLeod’s argument about the ‘placeless festival’, as she terms it, does warrant attention, particularly in a jazz music context. For MacLeod, the authentic space or significant situatedness of a festival location is actually often today displaced or dislocated, as a result of globalisation. In this critical reading, international festivals feel the same, are homogenised—‘placeless’. MacLeod even compares the touristic global festival to the airport lounge, its necessary other, in the sense that ‘festival formats may now be replicated in a series of international venues around the world’. Such a reading is a useful counter to more celebratory claims of festival, local space and community offered by many festival publicists, say.

Arguably such a critical view of the festival has further resonance in the context of jazz music, because jazz itself is sometimes accused of a homogenising worldliness, whereby either it all sounds kind of the same, or the same headline acts are seen across the continent’s international festivals in a single festival season. Catherine Tackley and Pete Martin are more polite than MacLeod, perhaps, but all three seem to point to the danger of (airport) lounge music:

concerns have been expressed about the consequences of presenting jazz on the festival platform…. It has been argued that this leads inexorably to a routinisation of performances and to musicians becoming risk-averse.

However, I do want to end on a rising note. The importance of the curatorial role of the festival director is articulated by British organiser Nod Knowles, drawing on his programming experience at Bath Festival, as a means precisely of creatively disrupting the lounge, of vitally re-sounding the festival. For Knowles,

a festival should be an opportunity to do things that don’t otherwise happen. It’s no good just presenting, like so many festivals do, your touring band ‘rent a festival—we’ve seen them, they’re on tour so they’re in the festival’. So the idea [is] to present what doesn’t happen.… [It’]s the discovery of things that you never knew about…. I really think that a festival is no good if it’s just a bunch of gigs that you could have heard anywhere.

So, after 60 or 70 years what more is there to this thing we call the jazz festival? Beyond its role in tourism, urban regeneration, economic impact, social inclusion agendas, repetition year on year? Surely there is more, or why do we still go, why do we remain interested, hopeful?

We can do worse than reflect on the wise words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., from his opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, addressing European festival-goers and drawing on civil rights to present an understanding both of jazz music and, more importantly for us I think, of the special gathering of the jazz festival itself. ‘Jazz,’ King told the Berlin festival crowd in 1964,

speaks of life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties,… [and m]odern jazz has continued this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence…. And now, Jazz is exported to the world…. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy.… In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

We talked in the Call For Papers for this Re/Sounding Jazz conference about wanting to ‘celebrate’ jazz, we hoped for papers that could be ‘celebratory’. ‘What are the achievements—the resounding successes—of jazz?’ we asked. Could we say, in festival (or—carpe diem—on a sunny Sunday morning by the side of the Amstel), alongside escape or transcendence, cyclicity and cycling, the history of being the first and second lining, that we might just find or hope to find a little meaning … a little love… clap hands … be happy.

Two Jazz Festivals, One Great City

12_points_festival_logoThe 10th edition of 12 Points kicked off in San Sebastian last night. This year, the nomadic festival (that alternates between Dublin and different European locations) is being delivered in partnership with San Sebastian’s own Heineken Jazzaldia Festival, meaning that two jazz festivals are being presented simultaneously. Whilst this might seem strange at first, you soon realise that there is a genuine complementarity between the programmes of the two festivals; Jazzaldia features a number of leading American and European artists, from Diana Krall to Jan Garbarek, whereas 12 Points celebrates emerging talent and the diversity of improvised music from 12 different European locations.

There was clearly an appetite for the new among San Sebastian audiences last night, as people were queuing around the block waiting for the doors to open prior to the event.

victoria-eugenia_crop2The Victoria Eugenia Theatre provided a stunning backdrop to the event, as music from Denmark (The Embla), Spain (Marco Mezquida) and Germany (The Eva Klesse Quartett) enhanced, blended with, and confronted the space at times. Sound has a transformative potential both inside and outside the concert hall, and 12 Points encourages us to engage with a sense of place, to think about the similarities and differences between people and cultures through music, and to consider the importance of improvisation in art and everyday life.

20160719_203656In San Sebastian there are several jazz bars and clubs as well as restaurants that feature live jazz. In addition to the large Jazzaldia stage on the beach, you can also encounter street musicians playing jazz and view a number of colourful posters that advertise both festival events and local jazz gigs.

20160721_125458Being here, you are continually reminded of the importance of improvised music and its ability to transform our environment; jazz clearly supports cultural tourism and provides the perfect soundtrack to the city with its beautiful beaches, historic buildings, fabulous cuisine and nightlife.




But the music also has a lot to say about San Sebastian’s place in the world and the city’s aspirations as the 2016 European Capital of Culture.

There is something special about San Sebastian’s place in the Bay of Biscay, not only with its distinctively Basque character but also with its proximity to France.


20160719_203624Just being here makes you think about different identities, the politics and the connectedness of people in Europe past and present, and the way in which culture clearly flows in multiple directions; like 12 Points, it cannot be reduced to simple boundaries and border controls.