Want proof that festivals are more than music in a muddy field? Look no further than the rise of the jazz festival.
Jay Z. Kendrick Lamar. Kanye West. Beyoncé.
You’d be forgiven for not immediately thinking ‘jazz’ when faced with the above names. But each has played a huge role in the rise of jazz festivals around the UK, Europe and the USA.
From Jay and Bey’s collaboration on The Great Gatsby soundtrack in 2013 to Lamar’s use of scat with more traditional rap themes on 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, jazz has never been more entwined in modern mainstream music.
What was once seen as an elite and difficult genre of music, is now so popular that jazz festivals – whether they’re in their fourth year (Love Supreme Festival) or fourth decade (North Sea Jazz Festival) – have watched as ticket sales soared. And all during a recession and period when events and festivals have struggled to make ends meet.
“We’ve doubled in size since we started four years ago,” says Love Supreme’s Ciro Romano. “The genre is definitely becoming wider and melding with other genres; jazz has the flexibility to do that.”
Ian George, festival director of Cheltenham Jazz Festival, agrees: “Jazz has a tendency to come in and out of mainstream fashion. I think a lot of that has to do with the next generation of musicians and its connections to hip hop. If you look at artists like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, the connection between these types of artists is going to be one of the leading paths for the future of jazz.”
Lamar – who headlined Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival in 2013 – comes up a lot in Access’ conversations with Romano, George and North Sea’s Jan Willem Luyken, and understandably so. To Pimp A Butterfly, which debuted at number one on
Billboard’s 200 chart, has very literal jazz influences and riffs – and it was arguably one of the most popular hip hop records of 2015.
When a big star like that shines his light on any particular genre, it’s bound to see a surge in popularity.
“Lamar’s album is full of references to jazz music and black music, and that’s very good for a jazz festival,” says Luyken. “Jazz is a style that interferes easily with other styles. All these crossovers mean that there are new things we can present. And we have to do that because we want to keep the festival fresh and young.
“The danger is that jazz is seen as an elite art form, maybe for older people, but we try to show that’s not true.”
Onwards and upwards
North Sea Jazz Festival started in 1976 as a six-stage event at The Hague in the Netherlands with just 5,000 visitors. In 2006, the festival moved to the larger venue of Ahoy Rotterdam, where it has now grown into a three-day spectacle with 13 stages and 25,000 visitors per day.
“We create a small jazz planet,” explains Luyken. “People are there for the music but they want a total experience. They want it to be more than just a good artist on a good stage. We have an art show, we have a lot of musical clinics; it’s important to be able to create a whole world.
“The thing we tried to do with the 13 stages was to create a balance between art and entertainment. Some people want to sit down and listen to a beautiful jazz concert, other people want to see artists like Stevie Wonder perform.
“The basic idea that our founder Paul Acket had was that jazz needed a wider audience. His philosophy was that if you put all these audiences and all this music in one building, then people who come for someone like BB King might also get acquainted with jazz music.”
In comparison, Romano’s Love Supreme Festival is a relative baby; it debuted three years ago and has been called the Latitude of the jazz festival world. More so than Cheltenham and North Sea, Love Supreme has branded itself more in line with trendy, hipster-influenced festivals like Secret Garden Party, Wilderness and Coachella.
Asked why 2013 seemed like a good time to launch a brand new jazz festival, Romano is thoughtful.
“I think we just saw a gap in the market – and hoped that there was a market in the gap,” he says. “We have doubled in size since we started, but I think the common element is that people want to be looked after, feel safe and enjoy great music and great company.
“There is a strong tribal element involved if you like a particular genre of music. The most successful niche festivals actually often operate out with their stated niche but stay within its spirit, which gives them more room to manoeuvre. That is certainly true of Love Supreme.”
A global phenomenon
Romano, Luyken and George all agree that their festivals are benefiting off an unprecedented level of engagement with the genre.
George, who has witnessed the swell in popularity first-hand, having started at the 20-year old Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2009, says: “Certainly at the moment, jazz is getting more attention. For us at Cheltenham, we’ve seen ticket sales go up from 9,000 in 2009 to 25,500 this year. 6 Music is playing more jazz than ever. Having ambassadors of the music such as Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum on the airwaves plays a massive part.”
Jazz’s popularity is far from limited to the UK. The audience at North Sea is impressively international, with jazz fans from around the globe travelling to Rotterdam to experience the festival.
“Here in Europe people are taking jazz to another level,” says Luyken. “There’s more experimentation with jazz in Europe than there is in the USA. Belgium, France, the UK and Holland are really into jazz. Scandinavian countries were the first to do crossovers between jazz, electronic and dance music, and I think it’s going to become even more eclectic.”
North Sea, Luyken says, has completely sold out each day for the past four years – coincidentally the same amount of time during which Love Supreme has launched and seen its popularity skyrocket.
Nevertheless, all three men are cautious in their optimism. After all, can this level of popularity be sustained?
“Like everything else, I’m sure there is a level as to how many large jazz festivals the UK could sustain,” says George. “However, being a niche genre means that you don’t always have the mass audience to pull at.”
For now, though, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Love Supreme Festival and North Sea Jazz Festival are doing their utmost to make sure that their festivals not only cater to the jazz fanatic, but also engage a newer, more diverse festivalgoer.
“At Love Supreme, the one thing in common the audience has is that they are genuine music lovers who love jazz or anything with jazz DNA,” says Romano.
“There are strong and different audience groups,” says Luyken. “We have young professionals between 30 and 40, who are well-educated and make a good income, who want to see the big stars; then we have the older group, which is the real jazz and artistic audience.”
It’s clearly difficult for Romano and Luyken to describe their eclectic audience – and you can’t really blame them. Love Supreme’s line-up includes Grace Jones, Lianne La Havas, Melody Gardot, St Germain and Kelis headlining alongside traditional jazz and funk bands like Riot Jazz Brass Band and Gilles Peterson.
Meanwhile, North Sea has Pharrell Williams, Miguel and The Roots playing in the same breath as Gregory Porter and Branford Marsalis’ Quartet.
But it’s Cheltenham’s George, who enlisted Jamie Cullum to curate an eclectic line-up for this year’s 20th anniversary festival – with sets from Cullum, Laura Mvula, Jools Holland and Frank Sinatra Jr – who has the best take on this once-niche genre’s diverse audience.
“Jazz festivals can offer a wider range of jazz and jazz-influenced music,” he says. “You’ll find jazz from all over the world, plus funk, soul, hip hop, blues and pop so audiences can explore jazz’s many influences.
“From young families enjoying the outdoor free element of the festival to young clubbers for our late-night shows, to of course the more stereotypical jazz fan – we have everyone.”
This feature originally appeared in the July/August issue of Access All Areas, out now.