Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2004
“ The full Festival crush used to last three weeks, and has now been opened out a little over four. ”
The Edinburgh Jazz Festival has been going since 1979, and has so interesting a history it's hard not to write quite a lot about it. The Director for all those years, Mike Hart, decided to try out something modelled on the "Jazz Party" his then band had been invited to in North America. That seemed a not infeasible model for an initial operation in his hometown in August. Edinburgh would be a tourist trap without the extent of artistic activity which goes on during that month, and the amount that does go on is scarcely believable. By 1978 the International Festival had been going some thirty years. The Fringe which grew up around it from the 1950s ad hoc smaller-scale productions of all sorts, filling all manner of spaces in the city were already alarmingly numerous. Incredibly, there are now thousands of these performances annually, as you can check on the internet. Outwith the Jazz Festival a few are of jazz. The suggestion that the city's normally half-million population doubles during the period is credible if you've been there at the time.
The full Festival crush used to last three weeks, and has now been opened out a little over four. The earlier Jazz Festivals ran during the former three week period, but nowadays pretty well precede the four weeks, overlapping by a day or so into the start. The altered timetabling was a recognition of changing migratory patterns among jazz musicians in Europe. You had to be the right place at the right time.
Taking a stroll this year between one lunchtime gig and the afternoon one which followed it in the Hub, the main Festival venue, jazz and otherwise, I was alarmed to be crossing the route of the threatened opening procession of the Fringe. Fortunately I got back in time to miss being stopped by the parade.
Flocks of fliers for events were being handed out everywhere as I walked up the mediaeval High Street (part of a thoroughfare called "The Royal Mile" in tourist-speak). I was not stopped by a policeman at the door of the Hub (a black Victorian church building) that day. I had however been stopped by a policeman on my way into the Friday evening gig there. The narrow road uphill of the venue leads to the Castle, whose main courtyard ringed with stands is the venue of an annual "Military Tattoo" starring gymnasts and other military personnel from many countries who do colourful and lively things. The security scare this year was due to exponents of yoga and other pacific oriental disciplines taking issue with the Tattoo organisers, who had booked the army band of the People's Republic of China. Questions were raised about claims that the performance was purely artistic and political considerations were irrelevant. It was a change to receive fliers and see banners concerned with politically undiplomatic human rights.
To start with that Friday night, Bireli Lagrene had chickenpox. The English trio booked to accompany him had had to telephone Chamonix and pluck Angelo Debarre from his sunbathing. That master of the long lyrical line on post-Django guitar had been touring with them until ten days before. The replacement arrangement worked well, but there was something to the rhythm guitarist's apology that the concert might have been [even] better. The improbably named bassist Pete Kubrick Townsend did nice things with fingers and bow, and during the second half a few flames did leap from Christian Garrick's fiddle. I mention him as a cognosecenti reference: over the years, one delight of Festivals has been the chance to hear top London performers live rather than only and too rarely on radio. The late Kenny Baker and Bruce Turner were good examples.
This year I also heard again the really wonderful Roy Williams, who had a nine till midnight gig in a pub which claimed to have its own festival (bless the Orkney brewery). His take on John Lewis's "Skating in Central Park" was a real highlight, despite a clientele in part less than ideally enthusiastic. For future reference, other musicians play gigs not part of the festival. Buster Williams led a band two years back in a cellar, near premises other street barkers promise to show you on ghost tours. No to be confused with the current Festival venue Henry's', the basement jazz club visitors to the city should check out.