PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Cheltenham Jazz Festival Director Ian George (2015 Festival, April 29th - May 4th )

The Big Top in 2014
Photo source: Cheltenham Jazz Festival

"It's been quite a steep growth curve." says Ian George as he reflects on a rise in tickets sold from 9,000 in 2009 to 25,000. He has been Director of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival since 2010, but has been with the Festivals organization which runs the four Cheltenham Festivals (Classical Music, Jazz, Science and Literature) and the year-round education programm, for more than a decade. He set up a marketing function when the organization left the aegis of Cheltenham Council in 2005, and spent five years as head of marketing. In that role he had worked with previous Jazz Festival Director Tony Dudley-Evans, who is still involved with the Festival as Programming Consultant. Sebastian interviewed Ian George in advance of the 2015 Festival.

LondonJazz News: Are you local to Cheltenham?

Ian George: I grew up in Gloucestershire, and found my way back here via Southampton and New Zealand. But I've always been a festivals person. My father was working for Schweppes on a sort of gap year in New Jersey and went to Woodstock. Having been brought up with those stories, my brother and I both jumped into the festivals world as soon as we could.

LJN: In the period since you became Director in 2010, a lot has changed...

IG: One of the challenges was that when the Festival was just going on in the Town Hall and the Everyman, you could be in town and not have any sense of a festival vibe, or even that the festival was happening.

One of my thoughts was to bring it outside more so when I took over in 2010, I took the tricky decision to stop using the Everyman. We built a 600-seater in the gardens of the Town Hall. It made a statement – visually, musically - and we were able to attach a free-stage, so we were able to attract people that we weren't managing to convert to buy a ticket, and they were able to get a taste of what we were about.

And with that comes all the foodstalls and the bars and with the throng of people that brings more interest from sponsors. Since we don't get local government funding at all, we have a series of things we need to do in parallel: building the audience, finding support and balancing the books. From a business point of view that was the first step of the journey

LJN: And in 2012 you moved on from Imperial Gardens...

IG: We had two years at Imperial Gardens by the Town Hall but outgrew that kind of model, and so in 2012 we moved to a bigger park, Montpellier. We are very lucky in Cheltenham to have two beautiful Regency parks This festival, 2015, will be our fourth festival in Montpellier which is a completely stand-alone site. We build a 1300-seat big top, and then we have a 600-seater as well. When one stage is up the other one is down.

The whole site is free to enter and people can buy tickets for the seated venues, and we have a talkspace where you can have journalists or musicians talking...along with food stalls and bars.

It's quite a change in how the festival is presented - we've gone from 9,000 tickets sold in 2009 to 25,000. It's been quite a steep growth curve.

We want to make sure the quality is still there – we work closely with people like Tony Dudley-Evans.

Jamie Cullum and Tom Richards, Cheltenham 2014
Photo credit: Edu Hawkins


LJN: But it's not all outdoors, is it? 

We still use some “concrete” venues too. There's a new stunning 300 seater venue the Parabola in the grounds of Cheltenham Ladies College that we are lucky to use.

We have also gone back to the Town Hall which for certain kinds of events works really well It gives us the opportunity to have a standing venue and a late licence. One of the challenges of being in the gardens is needing to have it all wrapped up by 11pm. As you'll know, not many jazz festivals finish at eleven in the evening.

So we'll do Gilles Peterson with Gogo Penguin in there from 10 30pm to around 1 30. We had a similar show, a great show last year with 1,000 people with Gilles and Snarky Puppy. So it's been quite a journey.

Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham


LJN: One of the things people have really moaned about has been sound leakage....

IG: We are very aware of that. We are constantly reviewing it. Following feedback from last year we have altered how the site is set out and what we've changed is the free-stage . It is important to have a freestage so people who aren't buying tickets can come in and enjoy the festival, but what we certainly dont want is for that to act negatively on the more delicate types of jazz, and on the ticket-buying public.

So we have moved the freestage , we've moved the location of the speakers in the Big Top, and we've also made sure in terms of programming that there are certain times when we're not programming any bands on the freestage. We've continued to invest in sound installation in the arena, which is something which has given us a couple of issues in the past.

We understand: when you're in a festival in an open setting, sound bleed is sort of accepted. However the transition to purpose-built venues - even though they are outdoors - means people are buying a ticket for that show. So it's very different from when you've paid over £100 to hear sixty bands. We are very aware of this. Hopefully this year we will have cracked that one.

The Montpellier Gardens Freestage in 2014
Photo Source: Cheltenham Jazz Festival


LJN: Personal favourites, the gig or gigs you really want to be at yourself?

IG: There are a couple:

- One I'm very excited about is to be getting Medeski Martin and Wood over. They don't play in the UK very often, getting them was paramount in my mind. Jamie Cullum - he's our ongoing Guest Director - told me it was one of the bands he'd love to play with and see at Cheltenham so I made it my mission. It's selling really well. That's on Sunday in the Big Top

- The other one is Sun Ra Arkestra on the Saturday .They're one of those bands who transcend different audiences. These guys get played on everything from Clare Teal to Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum

- We've got Tony Allen I really enjoyed his Film of Life album last year

- We've got Lee Konitz and Dave Douglas doing a quintet which is a kind of UK premiere

LJN: And there is something calledJazz in the Box?

IG: It's not actually a box, it's a shipping container. I'm looking at a strand for the next three years called Musical Encounters, it's all about how audiences interact with music. (You'll recall the Phronesis music in the dark, we're doing that as well on the Saturday in Parabola ) This idea is to take the extreme of an intense audience experience with just one audience member and one musician. Kit Downes has been writing some specially commissioned music, one five minute piece that he can play hundreds of different ways . So what we're looking at is people going in and sitting in the dark and having an intense musical experince . That's all for free people can go in and experience that.

LJN: By the way Luke Davidson's review of your Loose Tubes premiere in 2014, the first review of that concert to be published, has been one of our best-read pieces of the year

IG: That's good to hear - We've been nominated for a JazzFM Award for that

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs from April 29th - May 4th 

LINKS:  Cheltenham Jazz Festival website

Peter Slavid's interview with Tony Dudley-Evans and preview (audio)

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