LondonJazz has received a thoughtful but also provocative guest contribution from Peter Slavid, an inveterate/ubiquitous festival helper/visitor/ doer.
Peter has a long list of what's missing in the UK jazz festival scene.
The piece is published in full below, and I hope, will set a debate going. Comments either by email or below welcome.
What is wrong with UK jazz festivals, and could a few good ones expand the audience?
Although my first love is modern jazz, I also listen to a lot of other styles of music and I attend a lot of music festivals. I’ve just come back from helping out at a hugely successful folk festival in Yorkshire, a hall with 1000 people all weekend, a marquee with 300, and several other small venues. And then I watched some of Glastonbury on TV. And it has all caused me to wonder…..
Why is the UK is so badly served by Jazz festivals? There are a few – but honestly not many that really deserve the name “festival”. Most of them are just a series of concerts, which is NOT the same thing at all.
There are for example over 40 festivals each year that describe themselves as folk or roots festivals . Each of them gets an attendance of between 1000 and 5000 people (a few even more than that). There are also dozens of rock, world music and other commercial festivals with 5000 plus attendances.
They all have a few things in common. First and foremost they all charge a single fee for the day or weekend. They are parties. They put on a wide mix of musical styles, and they encourage people to watch new acts and different styles and to broaden their range. Almost all the UK Jazz festivals charge per concert – so people only buy tickets for acts they know. London and Cheltenham are good examples – brilliant concert programmes – but not really festivals in my view.
Real festivals have multiple simultaneous venues on the same site – often marquees, but sometimes in leisure centres, halls, country houses. Generally somewhere in the countryside. Jazz festivals tend to avoid simultaneous events because they want to sell tickets to every concert and they tend to take place in towns, in existing venues.
Folk festivals attract all ages including families, kids and lots of teenagers. They put on dozens of workshops, dances, meet-the-artist events, they get artists to perform more than once in different settings, and they encourage participation, amateur sessions etc. and they are growing in popularity, at least two every weekend through spring and summer all selling out all the tickets available. There are so many that others are springing up at different times of year. Meanwhile jazz festivals are struggling.
Even more interesting, if you go across the channel, many of the jazz festivals in Europe are single ticket event like the folk festivals in UK, and they seem to be thriving too.
So why don’t we have festivals like that in the UK? We used to have Appleby which failed, and Brecon which failed. Ealing is still like that, and those of you with really long memories will still remember Bracknell – the best of them all. And I am sure that there must be some smaller festivals or trad jazz festivals that follow the same model – but not many.
So, what’s the problem? Why the big difference? Is jazz inherently less popular? Is it too difficult? Are the artists too fussy? Too introspective? Is jazz really not fun?
I’ll offer one difference that may explain a part of it. All the jazz festivals I know of are run by professionals – local authorities, theatres, programmers, administrators etc. Almost all the folk festivals I go to are organised by, run by and staffed by unpaid amateurs. They don’t want to make money or get paid, they just want to put on a good event. But I’m sure that’s not the only issue
So – the key question!
Is the shortage of real festivals caused by the lack of a big audience – or is the shortage of jazz fans caused by the lack of good festivals, and would a few good festivals expand the audience - something I'm sure we all want to see!