Swanage 2019 A View in Retrospect
In previous years I have reviewed the Swanage Jazz Festival in more than one part, covering in detail all the acts I had seen over the 3 days of the event and there was usually a lot to view and take in. This year I think it would be unfair to do this. The 2019 Jazz Festival was basically a salvage operation by a group of people who hadn’t run it before. There opportunity to run the event on the scale of the past was limited.
On Friday there were NO Festival events at all. There were 2 gigs put on by private sponsorship, one of which I did manage to see, the open air one behind The Red Lion pub with Sarah Boulter and her “Not Just Sax” band . I just happened to be in the pub for a meal, and the gig was a good one. Some of us old hands managed to get to it, although it was very poorly advertised. Her playing and singing was of a high order and the band an excellent first class local band. Personnel consist of Sarah herself on saxophones, Ray Shea keyboards, Pete Maxfield bass and Johnny Eden drums.
Saturday we had to collect our wrist bands to show at every venue to ensure we had paid our dues. Or in my case wrist band. Seemingly as a purchaser of a weekend stroller I was only allowed one band for the 2 days! One for each day would have been more hygienic. There was time to pick up this wrist band on Saturday morning, but there were some anxiety moments as the only music in the morning (the street parade) started at 11am and the wrist bands were only available from 10am. In the end there was ample time as there were definitely fewer people about, the reduced program obviously having an attendance effect. To be honest, the advertised gigs in total were not worth the overall cost of ticket, travel and accommodation, and I know many who didn’t go because of this. I personally want the festival to survive and flourish, so I would have gone along anyway.
The street parade was a very limited event this year, only going up and down the closed seafront road. There were the usual number of musicians, but a much smaller traditional audience and dancers. It didn’t encompass the whole town as in the past either, and the bucket collection fund raising must have suffered. It also missed the point that in previous years the parade announced the festival to all in the town, and encouraged the non committed holiday maker to maybe get involved with the jazz that was going on in the town, some of it free.
Now here I must explain that I am no longer able physically to get to all the venues because of their distance from my B&B and my inability to walk up hill, so mainly I supported the gigs in the Con Club and Mowlem area. This is sad, because half of what was available wasn’t so to me. A point of note here for future organisers. Make sure the idiot public know where all the venues are. I saw people looking at street signs for “The Centre” and asking around other people for where it was. The Centre is only a youth club centre, not central to Swanage. It is on the way out of town next to the Methodist Church!
Saturday in the Con Club the first group I saw were “Thokozille Collective”. This is a band playing South African inspired township jazz, and is led by Dan Somogyi on keyboard and guitar. They had done an exchange tour in SA, and were a very accomplished group of musicians. Dan, who I talked with at the end of their gig, knew our late great Zane Cronje. The rest of the Collective were made up of Rob Palmer on guitar, Terry Quinney saxophones, Jon Lloyd on saxophones, Jack Shaughnessy on bass and Neil Evans on drums.
My next viewing in the Con Club was a lady singer called Susie Kimber doing her tribute to the Jazz Divas. This is where it became obvious that the new organisers had saved on a sound engineer. The keyboard overloaded the amp and it was all very loud except for the saxophone, who didn’t have a mike. It was impossible to actually enjoy this, I’m sure they were all doing there best, but… “They” were Paul Francis on stick bass, Terry Quinney (again) on tenor sax, Guy Gardener on that keyboard, and Dave Mayne on drums.
Then for me the main event of the weekend, Nigel Price’s Organ Trio with Vasilis Xenopoulos on tenor sax. OK most of the Hedsor faithful know all about this wonderful band of musicians. New into it was the drummer, an Italian who’s name I didn’t collect (he wasn’t the drummer listed in the program). He was superb, as were the band. Sadly this gig was almost stopped by the extremely loud disco coming from the room below. It was so loud the chair I was sitting on was actually vibrating. Bad planning I’m afraid. BUT “OUR” band continued, and they were really wonderful. This gig was a proper 2 hours of music with an interval, so as it hadn’t started until 8.45pm, I stayed to the end and went “B&B home” at the end.
Sunday the highlight of my day was a free venue, and yes, it was again behind the Red Lion and again it was Sarah Boulter’s “Not Just Sax”, but with an additional member added in from Friday, non other than Derek Nash. 2 hours of bliss, albeit also 2 hours of sitting in the sun. It did go on longer, but by then, I needed to move. It was wonderful, swinging, singing jazz in the best modern jazz tradition, and drew in a big crowd. I think that Sarah funded Derek by organising a raffle, and she should be congratulated for her initiative. Derek had to leave very promptly at the end as he had to perform in Chelsea’s 606 club that night. Talk about tennis players stamina, how do jazzers do it!
Next I was back in the Con Club for a short dose of trad performed by “The Devon Magnolia Jazzmen”. Most of the more traditional music was being performed in that eccentric “Centre”, and this very commendable band playing New Orleans style jazz only seemed to have attracted a dozen listeners to the Con Club.
Following on from them was an extraordinarily gig for a jazz festival, Earl Okin. A singer and story teller, who was probably at his best back in the 1980’s. It was an act more suited to a comedy club, although he has an extraordinary ability to sing sounding like a trumpet player. He could play both guitar and keyboard and it would have been good in a more intimate evening atmosphere. Sadly in daylight it was just very odd.
To finish my 2019 Swanage Festival I thought I would try out the Mowlem Show Bar. I knew where the Mowlem Theatre was, but I still had to ask where the show bar was. Not where I thought it would be, opening out to the sea on the ground floor, but half way up the Mowlem Theatre. I wanted to see The Veronique Joly Trio with the renowned vibs player Roger Beaujolais. I got there in what I considered to be good time, and did get a seat. BUT the layout of the bar meant that in front of the band there were big arm chairs, and they were all taken, and from half way back to the back were rows of upright chairs. That would not be too bad if the sound system could cope with the building. It couldn’t, again in the end (at about half time), I left.
I am sure that the new organisers want it to continue. I want it to continue, but it must become a better value product. Yes I know I couldn’t get to see it all. I am also aware that a lot of other jazz fans are in their 80’s, so I dare say many others were limited in there choices by physical inability. But the acts generally were not of Festival Quality, the social side of the festival, meeting friends from the past, was not helped by the lack of a suitable meeting place that the two marquees and field and food in between used to provide.
Next week, back to the £7 value Hedsor Jazz, and in 2 weeks time the £10 value Hedsor Jazz with Sarah Moule and “The Genius of Duke Ellington”
Since writing this I have had correspondence with the chair of the organising committee, Paul Kelly. I will quote parts of this as it does explain the reasoning behind many of this years decisions.
Many thanks for your feedback. I have had a quick read of your notes and clearly you are a very experienced jazz promoter with a good knowledge of quality music. I am really sorry that you felt the artistic programme was poor. The names may have been unfamiliar to you, but we’ve had feedback from the audience and jazz critics that was very positive about some of the lesser known names. I take your point about the PA and technical aspects and we will address that next year, though actually most of the rooms were too small to need much PA at all. But we will be reviewing all that properly in the next couple of weeks.
I wouldn’t normally reply in detail to your comments, but as you are a jazz promoter, there is a backstory that you are unaware of which is worth relating. Swanage Jazz Festival is a business and like every business it needs a sustainable financial model. The team under Fred Lindop did a fantastic job for 28 years. But when they decided they couldn’t continue, for understandable reasons, they left without a clear succession plan. That created uncertainty and Swanage Jazz Festival nearly folded. They also gave about 70% of the reserves they had built up to local charities. A very nice gesture but it reduced the festival’s reserves and ability to weather variances in an increasingly risky and crowded marketplace.
Nigel Price also did a superb job, especially as he had never run a festival before. But he increased the costs (and the ticket prices) and the only way he was able to finance the 2018 Festival was, in addition to increased ticket prices, by raising £20,000 in crowd funding from jazz supporters. That was an astonishing achievement. But you cannot ask the public for additional money like that every year. His business model was thus not sustainable. Nigel’s Festival also lost money and he had to do a further round of crowd funding to pay off the debts.
The new festival team and I took on a Festival carrying losses – so no money in the Bank with which to get things going and promote the Festival. We only came together as a Team to take it on in late-January so we had a very short planning and marketing period. It would have been easy to postpone this year’s Festival altogether, but we felt continuing in some form would be better than no Swanage Jazz Festival at all this year. And I’m glad we did. As were the large number of musicians and audiences who thoroughly enjoyed the weekend.
Looking at the costs (I wrote Nigel’s Arts Council bid that pulled in £15,000 in 2018), I could see that the infrastructure costs of the much-loved marquees on Sandpit Field were between £20,000 and £25,000 for marquees, staging, lights, PA, fencing, loos, health and safety, electrical certificates etc. The artist costs were extra to that. I felt those infrastructure costs were just too much of a risk to take on this year, especially given the very short lead time. It also needs a team with some experience to set it all up and manage it which indoor venues don’t require. For most of the new Festival team this was their first Festival and they did brilliantly.
So, this year we opted for a ‘scaled down’ festival (though still with 40 concerts) and to use indoor venues to reduce costs and risks. It was a very sensible business-focussed decision. I want to create a sustainable festival model for Swanage, so it’s still here in 30 years time. We will review the decision on Sandpit Field – and scrutinise all the associated costs as well - for future years. But you can buy quite a lot of good bands for £20,000 and the Mowlem Theatre seemed to work really well as a venue. That’s an observation, not a decision.
We’re about to survey this year’s audience to ask them how much extra they’d be willing to pay for a ticket to cover the costs of bringing back the Marquees. I think the Sandpit Field marquees could easily add £30 - £40 to this year’s £85 ticket price. Some people might find the cost of the view just a little too much. It’s a balancing act.
I also want to keep part of the Festival as a platform for the best in the South West. But we can only do this if the Festival is financially sustainable. So thank you for supporting us this year. I am pretty certain we have broken even or better, so there will be a Swanage Jazz Festival in 2020. After last year that has been a really important hurdle to clear.
Please keep the faith and come back and enjoy another great weekend of jazz next year.
PS we had a lovely email from Fred Lindop yesterday saying how much he enjoyed the Festival and how pleased he was that we have taken it on.