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Nick Babin, founder of Moscow’s Chess & Jazz, explains why the boutique event is eschewing the virtual festival trend in favour of a two-month delay to the 'real' thing
By IQ on 25 May 2020
With all eyes currently on Exit Festival and its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the festival season, it’s worth remembering that while the Serbian event is by far the largest European festival to confirm it will go ahead this summer, it’s not (quite) the only one.
In an addition to the raft of music festivals adapted into a digital format, a handful of events are still going ahead physically, including showcase events such as Tallinn Music Week (Estonia) and Reeperbahn Festival (Germany) and Russian music festival Chess & Jazz, originally scheduled for 24–25 July but now expected to be pushed back to September.
IQ caught up with Nick Babin, founder of Chess & Jazz, to discuss the festival’s ethos, preparations for 2020, and why the festival won’t be going online…
Give us a brief history of Chess & Jazz.
Chess & Jazz is international boutique festival which has been held in Moscow since 2018. The festival takes place in the iconic venue of the Hermitage Garden, in the historical centre of Moscow, where Soviet Jazz was born in the early 20th century.
Chess & Jazz has already featured performances from double Grammy award-winner Gregory Porter, the Manchester trio GoGo Penguin, American singer CeeLo Green, London-based band Kamaal Williams and the American soul star Christian Berishai, better known as JMSN, over the past few years.
The festival concept has also drawn attention from international markets, and we organised Chess & Jazz in Singapore and Kazakhstan in 2019.
Why combine chess and live music?
Russia has a significant chess legacy, and it’s probably for that reason that, from the outset, our festival made a large impact on the Russian cultural map.
I also run a booking agency, booking acts for several Russian festivals and private events. But I always wanted to create my own product and realise the ideas that come from my own experience – so, one day, being inspired by chess aesthetic and being a huge fan of jazz music, I did it.
What is your music booking philosophy?
We are a jazz festival. We try to present to our guests stars such as Gregory Porter, but we are not afraid to mix genres, because jazz is a baseline for all music. Our social and cultural mission is to present to our audience new names in the global jazz scene, while also spotlighting Russian jazz artists.
“I don’t believe in online festivals. … Festivals’ main strength is in the live atmosphere and human contact”
Who is the average Chess & Jazz fan?
Our audience is an intelligent, creative class of people from 25 to 40 who love comfort and unusual, interesting events. The first day of the festival is a grand opening with ‘jazz-tie’ dress code and more academic jazz. The second day is more about lifestyle, picnics, more mixed genres, and the best gastronomy Moscow has to offer.
The chess part of the festival is very significant; it has its own line-up with world-famous grandmasters. The opportunity to play chess matches with stars such as the youngest grandmaster in history, world champion in blitz and rapid chess, Sergey Karjakin, attracts a lot of people.
Chess & Jazz is not a mass product. Events like ours are good because they allow you to maintain your personality. At Coachella, for example, you are just one of 50,000 or 100,000 people. You are lost in a crowd. When the event is for a very specific audience, you are significant – you are a personality, not part of the mass.
What is the situation in Russia at the moment? Do you think you’ll be allowed to go ahead?
From April all public events are prohibited by authorities because of Covid-19, so it will be impossible to stage our festival in July. Nevertheless, we haven’t considered changing the format and going online. I don’t believe in online festivals. Offline events will remain offline, as their main strength is in the live atmosphere and human contact.
In the days ahead, we are going to announce new rescheduled dates in September. Our festival is not classified as a mass event, because the capacity is less than 5,000 people, but still we hope that we will be able to conduct our event without any danger to the audience’s health in September – this is our main priority.
Also, we would like to thank our artists and their agents for the support and cooperation in such turbulent period of time.
“We are confident that Chess & Jazz will commemorate the coming together of music fans once more”
Beyond coronavirus, are there any unique challenges involved in organising a festival in your part of the world?
Unfortunately, we have no support from the Russian authorities and no dialogue with the government. To be honest, it has always been like that.
Another challenge is partners. Partners for a niche event should be selected more carefully than for large festivals. In the case of our festival, chess and jazz should be organically presented in every detail. If the brand says it just wants to put up its stand, we’d say that this does not work. We take an individual approach to each partner so that the integration fits harmoniously with the rest of the event.
What are you most looking forward to at Chess & Jazz 2020?
I am just really looking forward to the festival! This year’s Chess & Jazz will be the most anticipated festival yet, as the other Russian festivals are canceled. Our headliners are British soul star Lianne La Havas and Australian musician Jordan Rakei, with the full line-up to be announced at a later date.
We are confident that Chess & Jazz will commemorate the coming together of music fans once more and mark a victory over this crisis.
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