Jan Willem Luyken, Director of the North Sea Jazz Festival, has a lot to celebrate this year. It is not only the 40th anniversary of the popular festival, it's also the tenth anniversary of their move from the Hague
, and the year that Luyken became director. Described as "the world's largest indoor music festival," it attracts an international public of 75,000 during the music-packed weekend in mid-July at the Ahoy Rotterdam Arena complex.
No stranger to the festival, Luyken started going with his father in 1982 (when he was 14), and returned faithfully every year. He took on the position in 2005, a turbulent time when the press and the public were skeptical about the shift in location 13 miles down the road to the modern city that is known as "Manhattan on the Maas." There were a lot of challenges," he recalls. "It was the time of the recession and many companies had pulled their sponsorships. At the end of the day we did everything we could" (to make the move optimal and efficient). He's not just talking about transporting a few microphones and loud speakers. "It called for a lot of hard work on our part and it was a hell of a job. In addition to its original purpose as a sport area, the Ahoy is used for trade fairs and with all that glass and steel, is not perfectly suited for holding concerts. We had to install acoustic walls made of sheep's wool and make numerous changes to the décor. After that, it looked fantastic, however every year we have to build up the whole thing, and then break it down again at the end (note: which takes about three days)."
"It's a real success story, he says proudly. "We managed to keep the atmosphere of the North Sea Jazz Festival alive. And that was no small feat." Today it is considered one of the most successful and enduring festivals in the world, known globally as the event where the past, present and future of jazz are celebrated within three days. "It's all under one roof, with one ticket (except for certain Plus concerts that require the purchase of an extra ticket, for events featuring Herbie Hancock
and Chick Corea
, Jamie Cullum
, Melody Gardot
). There is a variety of 200-seat venues where you can have an intimate experience (indoors or outdoors) or see top artists like Stevie Wonder
in a mega-hall that can accommodate 12.500."
For a few years, Jazz festivals from Newport to Monterey and Montreux were heavily criticized for getting too pop and mainstream oriented. Luyken responds: "We're still following the original concept of the founder, the late Paul Acket, who believed in having the right balance between art and entertainment. Acket was a charismatic business man and jazz lover who got the idea of opening multiple stages featuring simultaneous performances from a festival in the south of France, where people could walk back and forth from stage to stage. He thought to himself,'We need something like that in The Netherlands.' Only it would have to be indoors because of the uncertain weather. He found a suitable location in the Hague Conference Center, not far from the seaside resort of Scheveningen. There were nine stages in separate auditoriums and the festival caught on quickly. After just a few years the center was bursting at the seams and in 1988, a large concert hall was added on which increased visitors from 9,000 to 25,000 a day. In 2001, the center was sold to a private developer who made numerous changes to the buildings, making it impossible to hold the festival there anymore." The rest, as they say, is history.
Luyken pragmatically concludes: "If you want to stay alive as a festival, you have to be on top of the new trends in music, to attract young crowds who connect with Hip Hop and electronic music and are not tied to any musical boundaries, certainly less than before the 60s and 70s. It's one of the advantages of these times to offer the diversity, and the crowds and the musicians are very eclectic these days. It's about introducing new artists to an older public, and older cats to the new generation." And sadly, he acknowledges that the older cats are diminishing.
This year 150 concerts are lined up featuring a diverse range of artists. Not only the usual suspects, but the young lions of the future, unique solo artists and inspired collaborators. They include Tony Bennett
& Lady Gaga, Mary J Blige
, Marcus Miller
, Stanley Clarke
, Vijay Iyer
, Jack DeJohnette
, Cassandra Wilson
, Bill Frisell
, Ron Carter
, Wayne Shorter
, John Legend
, Roy Hargrove
, Branford Marsalis
, Joshua Redman
, Beth Hart
, Candi Staton
, Dee Dee Bridgewater
, David Sanborn
, Lionel Richie, D'Angelo
, and Chaka Khan
. Orchestras (New Orleans, Metropole and more), big bands (Flamenco!), collectives, and jam sessions, as well as a tribute to Paco de Lucia. Han Bennink
, the legendary Dutch drummer is Artist in Residence, and other top Dutch musicians include Reinier Baas
, "the brothers Ben and Gideon van Gelder (playing in their own formats), and respected veterans John Engels
, Hans Dulfer
, and Ack Van Rooyen
. There will be clinics, panels, a blindfold test with Terence Blanchard
, and jazz art exhibitions.
Are there any surprises in the lineup? "It's always difficult to say in advance. Sometimes, you expect a lot more of a certain musician, and then another artist drives the audience crazy. Last year, Snarky Puppy
was the highlight. They are an exceptional group of young musicians who have played with artists like Jill Scott
and Erykah Badu
. They play everything from soul to jazz to film music and they're coming back again this year, only to a bigger hall!" Pharell Williams was also a real coup to have in the lineup. "He is the man of the moment, and as a producer, he is responsible for many number-one hits, especially 'Happy."
Luyken says that he is happy having a parent company like Mojo Concerts, the leading concert promoter in the Netherlands (and now part of Live Nation), which offers more possibilities in attracting the top artists and delivering the quality required of a reputed festival. With 150 concerts over a Friday-Sunday weekend that attracts 25,000 visitors a day, the booking process starts a year ahead. "Musicians seem to like coming to this festival. You have to really fight to get the big names (like Stevie Wonder and Pharrel Williams), but artists who are starting out in their careers are also dying to come here and we get the pick of the lot. So far, we have always managed to bring in lots of big names. We offer them suitable dates so that they can easily tour around Europe and make it from one festival to the next. In this way, they can continue on to Montreux, Ghent, the South of France, Vienna and Umbria. Ultimately, of course, it's the musicians who get to choose. Nevertheless, we have a good reputation, lots of experience, and everything is always well organized. Plus, we've been around for 40 years. Musicians don't like surprises. The dressing rooms, the acoustics, the stages, the transport, everything has to be top quality. We also get a lot of media coverageradio, television, Internet---and they're always happy about that. And, of course, we always have a great audience."
The success story means that they have reached their limit at 25,000 visitors a day, and Luyken confirms, "we can't grow any further." That has led to an expansion plan to hold editions in other countries, with a wish list that includes Cape Town, London, Qatar, China, Nairobi and St. Petersburg. In September they will celebrate the fifth North Sea Jazz Festival in Curaçao, which has been slowly, steadily finding its own public. Luyken says '"we've learned a lot because every country has its own challenges. Curaçao does not have the infrastructure, hardware or equipment that we're used to having in the Netherlands. Every year we have to transport tons of equipment in containers for the lighting and décor, along with many of our Mojo people."
"In November, we will launch an open-air festival with three stages in Hong Kong, at the new central Harbor Front, which I'm really looking forward to." The Hong Kong edition was originally intended for a 2014 launch, but had to be canceled two months before the opening due to unsatisfactory ticket sales and a problem getting confirmation with headliners on short notice. Luyken confirms that this year "is the perfect time to start. Hong Kong's the place to be, it's the New York City of Asia. You can sense the need for festivals there and it seems like the perfect time to start. We have licensed our name and will operate with a local partner. We will manage and produce the festival, as well as book all of the artists. In Hong Kong, it's a different story entirely because there's more than enough lighting, sound and production companies there. Yet it has its own challenges. What strikes me is how the musical preferences are so different. Artists who have dropped in popularity here can go on for years in Asia, and in Latin America, the stadiums are filled with artists whom we've never heard of. Every continent has its own preferences, so there's always something new to discover, and that's what jazz is all about."
As he approaches the opening, I ask Luyken how he's holding up. "We've been working very hard the last year, just like every year. And we've already sold out, which has never happened so early in the history of the Festival. We've sold out the last few years up front and that's very comforting. I feel very proud. The roller coaster has taken off."