INTERVIEW: Debbie Sargent of Jazz Travels (Havana Jazz Festival/ Jazz Plaza in December)



Jazz Travels is a specialist travel operator taking groups to jazz festivals abroad, and will be taking a party to the Havana Jazz Festival in December. Founder Debbie Sargent explained the background to Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: What is Jazz Travels?

Debbie Sargent: Jazz Travels is the UK’s only Tour Operator dedicated to taking jazz lovers to these amazing jazz festivals around the world. We are fully insured, meet UK Package Travel Regulations, and have years of experience operating escorted cultural tours.

LJN: What started it off? 

 I previously worked for a company organising holidays for opera lovers, to the great opera houses and opera festivals around the world. Before THAT I had been working producing shows for Serious/London Jazz Festival, so I saw a gap in the market, and an opportunity to combine two of my passions, and set up Jazz Travels.

LJN: But doesn't London have it all....?

DS: You have a point. We’re so spoiled here – the best jazz musicians from all around the world come and play in concert hall near you, so why should you travel for jazz? There are some obvious pilgrimages to destinations such as Cuba and New Orleans, but there are so many jazz festivals in the world, large and small, that offer unique cultural experiences that complement their world-class jazz.

Pori Jazz Festival in Finland
Photo credit: Kallerna /Creative Commons
LJN: Some examples?

DS: There’s an Ice Music Festival in Norway, where all the instruments are made out of ice (harvested from a local lake) and a midnight concert is performed under the full moon. I love the Südtirol festival which has performances in train carriages, and on mountainsides accompanied by rock-climbers and adventurous types in wingsuits (audience participation in extreme sports not required!)

There’s Jazz a Vienne, where concerts are held in a 2,000-year-old Roman Theatre, and the local wine producers work together to create a red wine specially for the festival. Jazz can take you to places you’d never otherwise consider visiting and get you closer to different cultures and people. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all travel is about?

LJN: Tell us about the Havana Jazz Festival. The programme gets announced quite late, right?

DS: Havana Jazz Festival (aka Jazz Plaza) is Chucho Valdes’ festival celebrating the best of Cuban jazz, with the addition of a few invited foreign guests. It takes place over 5 days every December, when hurricane season is over. The dates are the one thing we know in advance – the programme is published just a week or two before the festival, and what it such an experience is that you never quite know what’s going to happen next. You can’t guarantee you’ll see Roberto Fonseca or Chucho himself performing, but they do often turn up somewhere!

As we work with one of the government-sanctioned travel specialists in Havana, they always have their ears to the ground to find out the latest additions or schedule changes. The performances take place in some amazing spaces in the city that you may not otherwise visit; including the Gaudi-esque Teatro Mella, the opulent neo-classical Sala Cervantes, and just maybe, if the restoration is finished, the Gran Teatro de la Habana. To get the best out of the festival, relax, go with the flow and enjoy the magical moments that come from improvising on this grand scale.

The Malecon in Havana
Photo credit:Antonio Milena/ Creative Commons


LJN: And Jazz Travels is organising a trip to it?

DS: Absolutely! Cuba is a must-see for jazz lovers, and this is a great time to visit. If you’ve been before, you’ll be amazed how quickly the country is changing. If you’ve never been, go now, as the reopening of relations with the US is likely to make a big difference over the coming few years.

Travelling with a specialist tour operator like Jazz Travels means we can get you deeper inside Cuban culture, we help you negotiate the nuances of how the country works, and we’re there to offer assistance as necessary.

LJN: What is the age range?

DS: For both social and economic reasons, travellers on escorted group cultural tours are often of the age when children have left home, and work is perhaps taking up less of their time. That being said, we do get clients of all ages on our trips, and the group bonds over their shared passion for jazz! We keep our groups small; you’re unlikely to be one of more than twenty – so you can really get to know your fellow travellers, we can get to know you, and you can enjoy better value experiences than if a group of forty or fifty is all trying to crowd around a single guide or exhibit.

LJN: How long is your trip and what is included?

DS: We’re doing a 7-night tour based in Havana, including a choice of 4* or 5* B&B accommodation, a Jazz Festival pass that allows access to all performances, including the opening and closing ceremonies, some meals, and a programme of cultural sightseeing. We ask that clients book their own flights, but we’ve timed everything to meet the direct Virgin flights from London Gatwick, and we can help you choose your best flight option.

LJN: And you will offer people more than just the gigs- what else?

DS: We’ve actually included quite a lot of guided sightseeing in this tour compared to others, because Cuba’s historical sites and museums aren’t very well labelled or signposted in English, so having an English-speaking guide helps you get a lot more out of each visit. We’ve included the essential sightseeing; a walking tour of old Havana (Havana Vieja), a driven city tour of the wider area and a day trip out of the city to Viñales Valley to see tobacco plantations and the spectacular limestone outcrops.

LJN: And a music school too?

DS: We also have a really special touch, a visit is planned to the Conservatorio Guillermo Tomás, a Music School in Guanabacoa , where bright young Cubans aged 8-19 are tutored from scratch in their chosen instrument, to become the next generation professional Cuban musicians. On the way back, we stop in at Abdala recording studio to see what those teenagers are aiming towards! Of all the things we’ve seen and done in Havana, these two visits are the ones that most connected us to the roots of Cuban jazz.

Tobacco plantation, Pinar del Río, Cuba
Photo credit: Kotoviski/ Creative Commons


LJN: What do most tourists to Cuba see and what do they miss?

DS: There’s a lot of glamour and glitter associated with Havana; and the Cubans’ exuberant joy in their dancing and music-making, Club Tropicana, La Floridita etc are definitely important parts of Cuba’s history and culture. But I was keen to mix in some different perspectives on Cuban life – their story of the revolution, the realities of daily life in a very different culture to our own, and now a really interesting time of change, as the country relaxes private enterprise laws and reopens relations with the US. All these influences feed back into the jazz that the current generation of Cuban musicians are making.

LJN: Do you have a philosophy at Jazz Travels of what you hope people will get from the trip?

DS: I felt there was an opportunity to put the jazz into its cultural context. I’ve had so many lightbulb moments, visiting the ‘home’ of one jazz genre or other. The first time I went to New Orleans, danced to the music, ate the food, and met the people, I suddenly realised: “Ah! I understand now!” But at the end of the day – Cuban music also just makes for a great party. If you just want to sit back and enjoy it with a mojito and a panama hat, or shake your thing on the dance floor, then that’s fine too.

LJN: What other countries might you organise trips to?

DS: We have lots on the pipeline, both long- and short-haul, to suit all kinds of jazz lovers. In January we’ll be running our second tour to the Ice Music Festival in Norway. You’ve just missed the wonderful Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, that celebrates the life and legacy of Louis Armstrong, and Heineken Jazzaldia in the stunning setting of San Sebastian. And we’re working with Umbria Jazz Festival, Penang Island Jazz Festival, Bute Jazz Festival in Scotland, Sõru Jazz Festival in Estonia and Jazz a Vienne to put together exciting packages for next summer. We can also organise jazz weekends for individuals in Paris and Brussels, which are great jazz destinations any time of year. Taste in jazz can be very personal, and every jazz festival has its own vibe, so if you give us a call and tell us what kind of music and destinations you enjoy, we can help you find the best festival for you.

LJN: Other people might like this job – where have you been recently?

DS: I do get to go to some wonderful places! I’ve recently returned from a trip to meet Sõru Jazz Festival in Estonia, a real gem of a festival held in one of those idyllic settings you imagine only existed in your childhood. Sõru celebrates midsummer in a harbour-side boathouse, with the help of Estonia’s best jazz musicians, and a few foreign guests. Estonian jazz is great – innovative but really melodic and playful. The breaks between performances were all about enjoying nature, and visiting the microbreweries and quaint wool factories of the formerly agricultural island of Hiiumaa. Then in a complete contrast, I segued to Jazz á Vienne, where 7,000-strong crowds populate the open-air Roman theatre every night for two weeks for the likes of Melody Gardot and Gilberto Gil, and there’s jazz on the fringe stages from lunchtime to three a.m!

However I would hate to give the impression that all I do is have fun. All tour operators must comply with strict UK Package Travel Regulations for the protection of our customers, which in short means a lot of paperwork and investment. But I love my job – it’s such a privilege to be able to share such amazing music and places with the people who come on these trips.

LINK Jazz Travels website

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