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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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We hope our audience will grow to learn that the term jazz is actually bigger than just swing music, fusion or funk. The music has evolved so much —Paul Augustin
Most jazz festival directors would agree that survival is the name of the game in the first years. Unless a festival has the financial backing of a major sponsor it can be a knife edge existence attempting to rustle up private sponsorship and the kind of good will that is required in abundance to meet the obstacles that undoubtedly arise. For small and medium-sized jazz festivals it's an uphill slog, but for such a festival to get off the ground in Malaysia—where jazz is mostly of the background, lounge music variety—and to survive for ten years is no small feat. The Penang Island Jazz Festival has done just that, and then some.

The PIJF may not be the first jazz festival in Malaysia but it holds the distinction of being the longest-running one. Where others have fallen by the wayside the PIJF has dug deep roots and flourished. This year PIJF celebrates its 10th anniversary and festival Director Paul Augustin is in expansive mood as he takes stock of the challenges and achievements of the past decade. It certainly hasn't all been plain sailing and the number 10 has something of a magic ring to Augustin: "Am I surprised? Yeah, of course. I'm surprised we even got to number five," he says laughing. "We lost nearly everything with the first one."

The idea for a jazz festival in Penang dates back to the mid-1990s, when Augustin and his long-standing business partner, Chin Choo Yeun were working in Kula Lumpur running a stadium: "It was a privatized stadium; Chin was the Executive Director and I started off as the Events Manager and eventually became the Group Events Manager," says Augustin. "We were often asked to look at bands for the stadium. That was when we started researching the jazz festival. "

In 1996 Agustin and Choo Yeun left the stadium and set up their own events management and consultancy company, Capricorn Connection. "We went to a lot of people and told them we wanted to do a jazz festival but nobody thought it was going to work," Augustin recalls of their initial attempts to get the ball rolling. They did, however, gain valuable hands-on experience when in 2003 the Kuching Jazz Festival—which had experienced a difficult first two years—asked Capricorn Connection to help turn the festival's fortunes around.

"We did that," says Augustin, "and then in 2003 we were asked to look at and manage two other festivals and we did that too. But when you manage festivals on behalf of people they then decide that they can then do it themselves or else ask somebody else to do it and that's what happened. We were replaced."

The festival managing had provided what Augustin describes as "a bit of know-how" and plenty of useful contacts in the industry. The stage was set in 2004 for the very first PIJF.

The first edition of the PIJF was a humble 2-day, 1 stage affair with a few workshops and a small jazz gallery exhibition. The bands were mostly local/Malaysian, like the Aseana Percussion Unit or ex-pat bands such as drummer/percussionist Steve Thornton, who had played with trumpeter Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. There were a couple of regional bands from South Korea and award-winning Australian a cappella group The Idea of North. "The festival was a calculated risk" Augustin admits, "and after the first edition we lost so much money we nearly closed the company down."

Many might have cut their losses and run but Augustin's business partner Choo Yeun wasn't ready to throw in the towel after the financially calamitous first edition of 2004: "Chin said "We're going to do this next year," recalls Augustin. "I looked at her and said "Are you sure you want to do it?" We did it with a little bit of support and for maybe half the cost of the first edition. The second year was the key year."

The diversity of jazz-related genres (and beyond) in the 2004 edition set a blueprint which the PIJF has made its trademark, though with greater risk-taking in the programming over the years. The second edition pretty much followed the pattern of the first, musically speaking, though saxophonist Greg Lyons Nonet and pianist David Gomes' Trio featuring singer Junji Delfino raised the bar a tad. Significantly, the 2005 edition expanded to three days and featured discussion forums for the first time.

The financial difficulties of the first year certainly hadn't dampened Augustin and Choo Yeun's enthusiasm nor altered their shared vision to make the PIJF a success. Augustin cannot praise Choo Yeun's role highly enough: "Chin has put up with many of my ideas, ramblings, grumblings and a whole lot of nonsense," he admits. "Very, very often she's kept the ship on the right course, steering me and the team when we have tended to go off-course. She is very much the cornerstone of the festival foundation."


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