Festival tents at the Marciac festival in France
The jazz festival above all explodes the whole notion that jazz is a big city music and underlines what a global music jazz is. That’s despite some of the best festivals taking place in big cities. If you can hold a festival in the field of a tiny village in the most remote of locations, and still attract huge crowds for a few days each year, then who says the music is urban? Its “big city" complexion is certainly not a condition for the music’s survival, at the very least but when the festivals pack up for another year what’s left beside the memories?
Almost in reproach like a spurned lover the jazz club standing there on a city street isn’t going away around festival time. And day-to-day, year in, year out, the club takes on a much greater significance as a home for the music than a festival can ever achieve. It’s an incubator for new talent, somewhere to go to hear the music, somewhere that really cares. The music grows in clubs while festivals celebrate that growth annually although the best festivals provide an experience no club can aspire to. The only other main alternative to club or festival is the concert hall experience, and as many gig-going veterans will tell you hearing jazz in a concert hall is at the very bottom of the list in terms of venue options even if it is the most comfortable and to its supporters the most civilised.
Festivals, even though the best of them have a unique ambience, can never replace the feeling of being in a great jazz club. They don’t have the bricks and mortar sense; that feeling of “jazz as a way of life” the solidity a club has on a street battered by the rain, bleached by the sun, a protective haven in the mess of urban street life to the beleagured chain stores or the corner shops.
Maybe jazz festivals are more about partying now, a “lost weekend”, or an “all you can eat” buffet to graze on as much of the international scene as time and good planning can muster. You may never hear jazz again live until the festival same time next year if you get your fill at a mega festival. The concept allows for musical bingeing; and it’s a tempting one. Twenty trips out late at night on a whim to hear 20 bands on separate nights at clubs, or according to one festival model 20 bands over four nights in a location where all the facilities are laid on is a real alternative for any but the most committed fans.
It’s more realistic in a way that jazz can no longer be seen just as a big city music. In the heart of the city the local jazz club struggles, and owners fight to keep their clubs going. So festivals have contributed to this shift in perceptions, but also the sheer ubiquity of jazz in a digital music age has made the notion of location less of a defining factor and within that the festival experience has a role. This pluralism involved in looking at the experiencing of a music in a different way is a strength, not a weakness.