JazzUK relaunches with community festival

Heulwen Phillips, project director at JazzUK, on bringing the company out of the ashes and what its new #4Jazz Festival is doing for the community.

Jazz Services lost its National Portfolio funding from Arts Council England in April this year. However, the company’s positive attitude meant that ACE decided to support it with a small amount of transition funding. This enabled Jazz Services to undertake a business review, exploring opportunities it could pursue to secure its future. Then, six months later, they hired my to start a new programme.

The shock of there no longer being any funding, both to the members of the organisation and the many thousands of jazz musicians it had supported over the years, had a numbing effect. It felt like a bereavement.

Balancing a positive outlook with a practical one proved difficult, but the route I took was to go for small steps, building programmes which reflected both the old grassroots support Jazz Services presented to the jazz industry, and the new fresh persona we wanted to embody. The first thing we focused on was a community festival.

I was really inspired by my own experience of growing up in Brecon, being there at the very first jazz festival, and witnessing first-hand how the whole town responded to the music – it was at every street corner, in every public garden and car park. This was a real community event, everyone got involved and everybody benefited from it. This is what jazz could do. Thus the little acorn of an idea for the #4Jazz Festival concept grew. I chose Coventry as I knew the city celebrated the old and the new; it is a tight-knit community where businesses, community groups and performing arts work together really well.

Like Brecon I wanted to see music in the streets but, as I also have a passion for carnival and street theatre, I decided to work with local carnival group Imagineer Productions. This led to a jazz street theatre commission from Ego Performance Theatre in the Westside Story style, with two jazz bands fighting for prominence in the medieval streets, historic gardens and modern settings of Coventry’s city centre. We’ve also got street performance cameos from Jazz Undead telling us the history of jazz, and jazz for under six year olds. I thought this would be a great way to relaunch Jazz Services and illustrate what the organisation’s new role would be – building new audiences for jazz, celebrating a wide range of jazz music, involving communities in presenting the music, reaching a range of people and waving the flag for jazz.

We went through a very valuable rebranding exercise in August, looking at our past work, seeing what worked, what didn’t, and debating what our values were as JazzUK, and what we felt was important for the future. We came up with this:

‘A progressive organisation that unites the jazz and artistic communities by sharing the power of jazz music to increasingly greater audiences. Is inclusive, collaborative, open, dynamic, true to jazz, energetic, exciting, and of high quality. Enriches peoples’ lives by providing jazz music in all its diversity. Ignites the senses and frees the spirit with the rich and diverse colours of jazz.’

We had the idea for the festival back in February, but as plans progressed, we saw how we wanted it to reflect this new excitement. People hear jazz music in adverts, on TV and within film scores, and yet some say they do not like jazz. I wanted normal shoppers to fall upon it in the city centre, in bars, bookshops, museums, streets, public gardens, and enjoy the music with no preconceptions or barriers.

Our sponsors Medwell Hyde Ltd inspired us to think of the nature of Coventry; more than 50 languages are spoken across the city. This led to a JazzLab learning and participation project with Coventry Performing Arts Service used jazz and Asian scales, working with 20 young musicians experimenting and improvising on tablas, sitars, saxes, trumpets, guitars, drum kits and keyboards. We thought a great way to showcase this work would be to include it in the festival at the wonderful Belgrade Theatre, with the performers appearing on the same platform as Arun Ghosh. We also have an Africa-Caribbean theme in our concerts at Urban Coffee in FarGo, which features Black Top and Cleveland Watkiss. Elsewhere young groups like Misha Mullov-Abbado Quintet and Perhaps Contraption are on at the music marquee in the city centre.

Something else we did is develop two new jazz apps with two of the bands performing, Perhaps Contraption and WorldService Project. You can play around with instruments against some great interactive backgrounds, hear each part in isolation or together, and find out more about the bands and JazzUK. These will be available to download from 27th November. Next year we’re going to work on more apps like these as part of our touring strategy – it’s great traction for us and the bands.

The festival is a lot of work, but if it engages new audiences then I’m all for it, and part of our strategy for the next three years is to develop festivals in different parts of the country. The Welsh Marches and Cornwall in particular are crying out for events like this, something that brings local communities and organisations together. In Coventry, for example, we have more than 23 organisations supporting us, including the universities, City Council, and Coventry Bid for City of Culture 2021.

In addition we want to deliver more JazzLabs alongside the festivals, working closely with local music education hubs. We also want to start supporting jazz musicians again by building their professional skills in fundraising and marketing, and working with those who book them so that they can reach new audiences for their music.

All of this has been possible because of major support from a private sponsor: Roger Medwell from Medwell Hyde Ltd. Roger started as an apprentice engineer at 16 years of age in Coventry and has worked his way up to CEO. His passion for jazz and engineering has been inspiring – and the two make for an interesting partnership. We’re very lucky to have his support.

It has been a lot of work, and very fraught. But I feel it’s rather like walking up the Skirrid near Abergavenny – you struggle up a steep incline, exhausted and out of breath…and then all of a sudden you are out of the woods, on top of the mountain and can see clearly for miles.

#4Jazz Festival takes place on 27 and 28 November in Coventry