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Jazz: Rebirth of the cool

The growth of jazz festivals and events around the world has been increasing in the past few years. IQ meets the entrepreneurs leading the revival

By Eamonn Forde on 05 Feb 2019

Jazz festivals

Jamie Cullum at North Sea Jazz Festival

image © Simon Bierwald

This year marks a full century since the arrival of jazz in the UK, one of the first countries outside of the US where the genre really took root after American musicians started touring to appreciative British audiences. In that time, the style has evolved and faced backlashes from purists, and has become a byword for both effortless cool and difficult or indulgent music. Jazz is all of these things and more, but the fact it has endured and evolved, finding fresh ways to reconfigure itself and reach new audiences, is something to be celebrated.

Part of its endurance is due to the support of jazz festivals and how they have contributed to the rolling narrative of what jazz is and what it can be next.

For these events, jazz is a common thread running through the music on offer rather than existing as a full stop. This allows the events to bring in musicians forged exclusively in the furnaces of jazz as well as others who come from very different traditions but have jazz DNA in there somewhere.

Founded in 1967 by the late Claude Nobs, Montreux Jazz Festival is a giant in this world as well as a talisman for those events that came in its wake. “Montreux has always been about multiple genres of music,” says Mathieu Jaton, CEO of the festival. “It is not only about jazz.” He has been involved in the festival for the past 22 years, eventually taking over after the passing of Nobs in 2013. He is keen to retain that committed and adventurous spirit brought to the event by Nobs and ensure its eclecticism continues.

“The focus on jazz music is getting higher and higher,” he says of the new acts coming to the fore today. “Jazz has never been in such good shape.”

Another key development was the establishment of the International Jazz Festivals Organization (IJFO), which can trace its origins back to 1982. Now headed up by Fritz Thom, who also runs the Jazz Fest Vienna event, it is intentionally tight in its focus and membership.

“The focus on jazz music is getting higher and higher. Jazz has never been in such good shape”

“IJFO is not like other organisations around the world that might want to gather large membership numbers and try to have as many members as possible to collect membership fees from them,” explains Thom. “Our aim is to have one festival per market that interests us. We are an umbrella organisation for 16 festivals currently.”

Thom suggests that it was Claude Nobs who really set the benchmark for all the other European events who are members of IJFO.“Montreux was the first one to really open wide to other genres in its programming,” he argues. “But there is always a media discussion around if this counts as jazz and if it should be allowed to be programmed in a jazz festival.”

The Montreux founder was also a huge inspiration for Jean-René Palacio who has been running the Antibes Jazz Festival for the past decade and which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2020.

“What I’m trying to say with this programme is that jazz is an open music,” says Palacio. “It is open to everybody. Like Claude Nobs started doing years ago, jazz festivals must be open to other types of quality music. This is a way to bring new people into the jazz festival. You want to bring in a younger audience and a new audience.”

The Montreux effect was also felt outside of Europe, with the Montreal Jazz Festival in the 1970s taking the lead from its near-namesake. As co-founder André Ménard says, “We were influenced by festivals like Montreux that would go into different styles. We never went as far as Montreux by booking Johnny Hallyday and Motörhead. But I would love to have booked Motörhead!”

While jazz is the unifying thread, none of the jazz festival organisers IQ spoke to for this feature considered themselves to be dealing purely in jazz, all regarding a hybrid approach and programming eclecticism as key to their continued presence in the market. The trick, they argue, is moving in lockstep with the musicological evolution of the form.

“Jazz is an alive music. It is no longer American music. It belongs to the world”

“Jazz is an alive music,” is how Ménard puts it. “It has taken lots of influences and it has given lots of influences. It is coming back in new waves from around the world. It is no longer American music. It belongs to the world.”

Jaton adds, “A good definition of a jazz musician is someone who is ready to share music with others and to open minds to different styles of music.” This, he says, is reflected in the bookings that happen at Montreux, where acts like Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter and Rag’n’Bone Man can comfortably be added to the festival running order.

Jan Willem Luyken of North Sea Jazz Festival concurs. “Because we book a lot of young talent every year, there were lots of artists who performed in an early stage of their career,” he says of his role in helping to break new acts through the festivals and, in doing so, give the events a new energy. “The ones on the top of my mind are Gregory Porter, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Jamie Cullum, Jason Mraz, Amy Winehouse, Snarky Puppy, Cory Henry, Kurt Elling, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau and Melody Gardot.”

Palacio suggests that diverse running orders can become symbolic statements of intent. He cites the example of having Sting play last year on the same running order as Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda and pianist Hiromi as a ripe example of this in action.

At times, these festivals have had to battle against the purists – what Ménard jokingly refers to as having “the jazz police on our backs” – but they also can delight in proving the naysayers wrong with inspired bookings.

“When Prince arrived in Montreal [for the 2011 festival] he saw a newspaper that said he did not fit in with the festival,” recalls Ménard. “He then opened his show by doing one hour of freestyle music – just him and Larry Graham! […] Then he launched into two hours of his own hits.”


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