Death, Rebirth & New Revolution
Even 20+ years ago, "anything goes" seemed to be the motto of the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, described by Jazz Times in 1990 as the best jazz festival in the world. I made it to the NSJF in 1989 and it was easy to see why so many people held it in such high regard; 16 stages with over 200 acts over a period of three days and over 100,000 people in attendance. The numbers were one thing, but the sheer quality and diversity of the music was another.
The great thing about the festival was that it presented jazz in all its many forms, from traditional New Orleans to swing, bop, free-jazz, fusion, avant-garde and electronic jazz to blues, gospel, funk, soul, hip-hop, R&B, World Beat and Latin jazz. There was no discrimination; where else could you see Sun Ra and saxophonist Kenny G on the same day?
Back then I was a poor student, and after buying tickets and making my way from London to Amsterdam and then The Hague I didn't have enough money for a hotel. So, I brought a sleeping bag and slept against a high fence giving onto a forest, and hidden by thick bushes and trees I camped down, just across the road from the festival site.
On the third morning of the festival I was awoken by saliva-drooling sniffer dogs, plain-clothes CIA agents in sunglasses, and Dutch Special Forces. They allowed me to dress and accompany them to their vehicles where they took a great interest in my passport with its issued-in-Belfast stamp. It turned out that my chosen spot to camp out was beside the fence of Dutch National Congress Building, where the then American President George Bush senior was visiting that same day.
Just five years after the IRA had attempted to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcherand given the fact that there have been 20 attempts to assassinate American Presidents over the yearsthe CIA weren't taking any chances with someone from Northern Ireland.
They asked me a string of questions, some more intelligent than others, but as a 22 year-old armed only with a second-hand copy of Miles Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971), purchased at the festival, I thought I cut a poor figure of an assassin. I was asked to move on and choose my lodgings more carefully in future. I cannot be sure, but perhaps the perceived danger my presence posed for the President of the United States of America had something to do with the festival's subsequent relocation to Rotterdam.
I've kept a close eye each year on the NSJF's program ever since, and have seen there, the changes that are reflected widely in the programming of jazz festivals throughout the world. Though the North Sea Jazz Festival has always offered the most diverse program imaginable, in recent years the festival has opened its doors to more pop-flavored acts: Elvis Costello in '99, Gotan Project in '03, Jamiroquai in '06, Snoop Dogg in '07, Katie Melula in '10, Prince, Paul Simon, Seal, Tom Jones in '11, and John Hiatt and Lenny Kravitz in '12.
This same trend can be seen in historic jazz festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (where the jazz has almost been swamped by rock and pop acts), the Montreal Jazz Festival , and countless others to a greater or lesser degree. Why are more and more jazz festivals opting to include pop and rock acts? Goddamit!the purists sayhaven't they got their own festivals to go to?
The global economic recession, which really seems to be dragging on, has seen the arts in general take a big hit from government as well as private funding bodies. Many venues in Europe and America have closed and jazz festivals find themselves facing a reality which is sink or swim. By relaxing the programming and staging pop and rock acts, festivals bring in a larger, younger audience, and one that is going to be exposed to jazz music, possibly like myself at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1986, for the very first time. There are bound to be converts.
We shouldn't forget, however, that although we jazz fans tend to think that jazz is the center of the musical world, it's really niche music, and was only ever popular as dance music in a previous incarnation before World War Two. Most people have little or perhaps fleeting contact with jazz as background music in coffee shops, and many people raised on pop music have little patience to investigate it.
One man who went to some trouble to investigate the jazz credentials of European jazz festivals was Wynton Marsalis. Tony Whyton, manager of the Center for Jazz Studies UK, wrote in his eye-opening book, Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University press, 2010), how Marsalis discovered, on a fact-finding mission to European jazz festivals, that only two out of ten bands were actually jazz bands, with festival programmers declining to call their events "music festivals," according to Marsalis, while seeking the aesthetic elevation that jazz brings.
Marsalis' trip took place in the late 1980s, so what he would make of the Montreux Jazz Festival these days, with its 90% non-jazz bands is anybody's guess. How much dilution of jazz festivals is acceptable to jazz fans is the subject of increasing debate. At Live!Singapore, an arts industry conference in 2010 where I was a panelist discussing the future of jazz, fellow panelist, Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiroa 35-year veteran of jazz festivals throughout the worldsaid: "I think a festival which has less actual jazz than other genres should call itself a music festival. There should be at least 60% jazz."
Many would agree with Monteiro, but if the other 40% like Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen or Snoop Dogg manage to bring the fans into jazz festivals in healthy numbers, thereby ensuring the survival of the festival, then such dilution, or diversification, seems like a wise move. Some people will stumble across the music by happy accident, perhaps chancing upon pianist Ahmad Jamal on the way between Tom Jones and Prince concerts.
In any case, a festival should be much more than just the music. Author Tony Whytonalso a panelist at Live!Singaporehad this to say: "At their best, festivals can act as catalysts for change. They can transform everyday spaces into magical worlds or encourage people to see their environment in a new way. Festivals have the ability to galvanize communities and contribute to a sense of civic pride."
Whyton also spoke of a jazz festival or indeed any music festival's ability to offer audiences a view of diverse cultures in a positive light, something which cannot be underestimated in the global context in times of rising waves of nationalism across the world and outright xenophobia.
"Jazz and world music programs," Whyton declared, "often have the potential to go beyond performance and provide the audience with a new and inspiring cultural experience."