Jazz (perhaps) Festivals!

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How many jazz artists need to be included on a festival or concert line up for it to be called a jazz festival or jazz concert? Seven years ago, a South African radio station held a “jazz concert” to celebrate their birthday. The line up featured “Thandiswa Mazwai, Sylvester Mazinyane, Mahotella Queens, Caiphus Semenya, Thlokwe Sehume, Oliver Mtukutzi, Jabu Khanyile, Selaelo Selota and many more.” There is only one, possibly three if you’re really broad minded, jazz artists listed in that line up, but the concert was listed as a “jazz concert.” These are all great artists who put on a great show, and I take nothing from them, except perhaps for the label ‘jazz.’

Is the word “jazz” such a draw card for audiences that it opens itself up to such abuse? I am not going to get into the whole jazz versus jazz fusion versus smooth jazz debate here, perhaps we can get into that discussion on another day. Today, I am talking about world music, pop, reggae and rock music amongst other genres that are included in the line up on jazz festivals. Some of our biggest and best jazz festivals in South Africa headline with pop & world music acts. These festivals can be commended for their inclusion of local acts, but with so many local jazz artists around, surely they do not need to include rock, pop and hip hop acts to fill any gaps in the programme.

Common arguments in favour of non-jazz acts are these: audience numbers, cost and the old question “What is jazz”? Arts Alive’s Jazz on the Lake has started including rock acts in its line up, last year it featured the pop rock act Watershed. If we take a look at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, in recent years it has featured many non-jazz acts including (and I am naming only a few of those artists who are clearly not jazz, for fear of launching a whole other debate) TKZee, BLK JKS, Zahara, Zakes Bantwini and HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula).This year’s festival in particular hosted a large number of hip-hop artists. Did the inclusion of these hip-hop artists draw in a large enough audience share to warrant sacrificing a portion of the line up that could have featured additional jazz artists? I understand that a festival wants a fair amount of diversity on the line up, but there is a hugely diverse range of jazz acts locally, more so if we consider international talent. Is the target market for a jazz festival too small that the audience wouldn’t fill the festival venue? If jazz is so niche, why not scale down the size of the festival? Perhaps rebrand as a music festival and start a smaller jazz festival on the side. Joy of Jazz includes a number of non-jazz acts on the lineup too, but they have more venues and do ensure a diverse but all jazz line-up in their largest venue, the Dinaledi Stage. This is something that the size and venue restrictions makes difficult for the CTIJF.

Back to the hip-hop included on this year’s CTIJF now. Perhaps hip-hop should have its own smaller festival too. Is hip-hop not well supported enough to warrant an event of its own? Hip-hop has a large youthful support base in this country, and even if some of these acts booked for the jazz festival are too “artsy” for an audience largely familiar with more commercial hip-hop acts, I believe that they would still be better suited to a hip-hop or a broader “music festival”. Would a hip-hop festival include a jazz act on their lineup? I suspect not. Many music genres have been heavily influenced by jazz, and so there are elements of jazz in these genres and this is used to justify their inclusion in jazz festivals. The converse is not true, not to the same extent. Hip-hop, keeping with my target of choice, has not had much of an influence on jazz (although it has influenced a fair amount of the rapidly growing sub-genre called nu-jazz). Perhaps the portion of the festival taken up by hip-hop acts could rather be filled with hip-hop influenced nu-jazz acts, who in turn could be given a place on stage at a hip-hop festival.

A jazz festival can be diverse and interesting enough, using a diversity of jazz styles, to be appealing to many without the inclusion of other genres, so perhaps it boils down to another major argument: cost. Putting on a festival is a costly affair. Venues, advertising, planning, licensing and naturally artist fees all add up. Why is cost used to justify the inclusion of other genres on a jazz festival line up? Are jazz artists more expensive than artists from other genres? It can be said that many jazz and classical musicians have studied their particular art form for years and can justify being more expensive than say pop musicians who have perhaps honed their craft in garages, bedrooms and community halls. Are they really that much more expensive? I really want to avoid getting into a local versus international artists debate in this particular column, and will save it for another day. Having said that, musicians of other genres booked from outside of the country after taking travel & accommodation costs into account must make them just as expensive as a quality local act (jazz or otherwise). I might buy the argument that artists of other genres don’t cost as much, if these bookings were all local acts, but they are not and the added expense of an international act could be used to book a top local jazz artist instead. Would that artist have the same appeal as an international pop act? Probably not, but this a jazz festival, not a music festival.

I’ve been very critical of the line up of the CTIJF, mostly because the hip-hop content made for a very good example. We have two other large jazz festivals in South Africa, the very recently concluded Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival which has some top local and international jazz acts headlining the various stages but also includes a large portion of world and African music, and the Standard Bank National Jazz Festival in Grahamstown each July. The National Jazz Festival comes closest to being a purely jazz festival and ticket prices are cheap, but this is well sponsored and subsidised. The Joy of Jazz Festival is certainly very expensive but the headline artists are all top international names, and the local and international artist mix is even. The top names are likely expensive acts to book, and the large portion of local jazz acts, and world music acts may counteract some of the costs involved, but surely if the theory that booking non-jazz acts reduces the costs of a festival like this, then ticket prices would not need to be so very high. As jazz fans and music lovers, what portion of a jazz festival should be jazz to justify the name jazz festival? I don’t think it is necessary to be exclusively jazz, but the non-jazz acts booked ought to be of a
genre derived from jazz and be made aware that they’re playing at a jazz festival and that their act should be jazzy in nature. Should the jazz portion be at least 50%, or just more than any other genre on the bill?

These questions are really all about numbers, music is not about numbers (forget counting beats for a minute), music is about feeling, emotions stirred up by the sounds. So at the end of the day, is it good
enough to say, that it sounds and feels like a jazz festival?

Etienne Shardlow

Etienne Shardlow

Etienne is a proud lover of South African jazz, and host of the weekly JazzE Radio Show on Bakgat Radio. He works as an IT Service Management consultant and trainer.
Etienne Shardlow

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