Rye International Jazz and Blues Festival takes place over 4 days and 5 nights, 27th-31st August 2015 in the pretty town in East Sussex, two miles from the Channel coast, and known as "the medieval gem of the Cinque Ports," and one of the best preserved medieval towns in England. Festival Director Ian Bowden spoke to Alison Bentley.
London Jazz News: You’ve been promoting music for 15 years, working with people like Amy Winehouse and Dionne Warwick. What made you think of starting a jazz festival?
Ian Bowden: I’ve been going to Rye for 25 years, and love it. My passion is history and music- the two combined. Back in 2011, I met the owner of the Mermaid Inn in Rye, which is a beautiful old place, with almost 1000 years of history- Queen Elizabeth I stayed there. I got chatting to Bob, the owner, who’s now sadly died. We both agreed, wouldn’t it be great to put on a jazz festival in Rye?
LJN: You must have found your past experience helpful.
IB: It has helped me. It’s all about determination, passion and the will to succeed. Above all those things is the love of music.
LJN: You have a background in music yourself - you went to the Royal Academy of Music?
IB: I did- I wasn’t very good, and I come with a Government Health Warning! [laughs] I put my own shows together with my own orchestras. I love music, but it’s important to promote great talent, and the people who are doing it professionally. I’ve touched on the outskirts of being professional, but when you meet and work with people like Ian Shaw and Claire Martin- all the acts that we’ve put on through the years- it’s a privilege to work with them.
LJN: The Festival uses lots of different venues - did you choose venues that already had music or were there other places where you wanted to put music on?
IB: There are two or three venues in Rye that have regular music events happening, but we’ve created an environment where new music can take place in new venues. We conjured up the whole concept of a fringe element for the Festival. We’ve a wonderful main jazz venue- we’ve created a New York Jazz Club in the Community Hall; put in a grand piano, lighting, sound.
LJN: Who’s on there?
IB: We’ve got Theo Jackson who’s brilliant - he opens the Festival on Thursday 27th August. On the Friday night is Hardlines, which is a group of fantastic session musicians who’ve worked with the Bee Gees, Swing Out Sister, and many different people like Gallagher and Lyle- the pedigree of that band is fantastic. That’s our funky Friday on the 28th. We’ve also got Gwyneth Herbert performing there at the Late Lounge. We really build up over the weekend. We do a late night session similar to Ronnie Scott’s- it goes on till 2 o’clock in the morning. We’re having masterclasses in the morning, then afternoon performances, then the evening and Late Lounge performances, all at the Jazz Lounge.
LJN: The masterclasses are part of your ‘Chapter & Lyric’ project to encourage new talent?
IB: Absolutely. ‘Chapter and Lyric’ is taking place at a beautiful National Trust property in Rye, so it’s very intimate- it’s almost like a secret walled garden.
LJN: You have a huge variety of styles of music, including a number of well-known singers, like Clare Teal, Ian Shaw, Liane Carroll, JamesTormé.
IB: We’ve got some wonderful singers! Clare Teal’s wonderful; Ian Shaw- brilliant. It’s all top stuff- the best of British talent.
LJN: You’ve got the blues and funk element as well - Paul Jones and the Blues Band; Herbie Flowers…
IB: One of the things we wanted was to keep within the genres that jazz originated from. It all came out of the blues to begin with. Ultimately they’re all interlinked: jazz, blues, R&B, soul, Afro-Cuban jazz. We’ve got a wonderful Cuban band performing at the Jazz Lounge on Sunday the 30th August, Son Yambu. They’re really fun, and great musicians. So there’s a natural link, a genetic link. We’re not trying to put rock into this; just about six or seven genres that fit together really nicely.
LJN: You have an event to remember Hurricane Katrina 10 years on?
IB: That is so special. We would love to have brought over some musicians from New Orleans but the costs are so expensive. Until we get bigger next year, then that’s our dream, our vision- to put the Festival on the map in terms of world recognition. It does take time. We don’t want to be a Glastonbury; we’re trying to be something very special and intimate. The New Orleans jazz is from Dom Pipkin and the Ikos. It’s a wonderful project at the George Hotel in Rye. It’s a Georgian ballroom, a really lovely venue. We’ve got Four Roses as one of our sponsors, who make bourbon. They’re supplying bourbon to us and we’re going to do a complimentary cocktail for everyone.
LJN: So it’s Whisky and Rye… There’s Latin music as well, with Emily Saunders, and lots of modern jazz: Shez Raja, Gogo Penguin, Neil Angilley…?
IB: Gogo Penguin - if you could put them into a category, they’re more experimental: fusion, electronic jazz. That’s at St Mary’s church in Rye, which has almost a thousand years of history. It’s a really lovely setting to put on something quite modern. We’ve got Jo Harman as well, who’s headlining- she’s a great blues singer. And Avery Sunshine, who’s sensational. You’re always thinking of how you can do things better, and you always learn as you go through the process, but I think we’ve got a lovely mix of different acts this year, and something that will appeal to lots of different people.
LJN: And you’ve a lot of free events that people can wander in and out of.
IB: It helps bring vibrancy to the streets. We’ve got lots of things happening at the Butter Market, which is directly underneath Rye Town Hall, where they used to slice up the butter in Georgian times. Where we have the live music is actually where the butter market was. It’s got real character, and people spill out into the streets- it’s a great vibe.
LJN: You wanted the Festival to be modelled on the Montreux Jazz Festival.
IB: I identify with what Claude Nobs did - he started the Montreux Festival over 40 years ago and sadly died in 2013. He started it off with a few jazz bands, a bit like we did in 2012, and it gives you inspiration: what can be achieved from the germ of an idea, and the vision and passion to carry it through. The biggest kick I get is when people come out of a concert and say, ‘Wow!’
LJN: You’ve already had a preview of the Festival with Gregory Porter in June?
IB: It was a sell-out; it was brilliant. We wanted to get Gregory to perform at the Festival this year in August, but he’s going to be supporting Diana Krall in LA over that period. We want him back next year! I’ve been working for three years to get Gregory, and he’s lovely.
LJN: What are the logistics of coming to the festival- do most people camp?
IB: People can camp or stay at B&Bs. We’ve links on our website where you can look at different accommodation.
LJN: You keep a certain number of tickets available on the day?
IB: We will do, but we are trying to encourage people to buy tickets in advance. I think the key thing to get across is that the Rye International Jazz and Blues Festival has a soul. You can put a festival anywhere, but people are coming here not just for the music but for the town too, and you get the best of everything.
LINK/ FULL PROGRAMME: Rye Festival website