Spotlight on... MaiJazz Festival



An interview with a member of the Europe Jazz Network.

Helleik Kvinnesland is Managing Director of Maijazz Festival in Stavanger, Norway. The festival is now at its 28th edition and, as the name suggest, takes place at the start of May. It develops throughout one week with 50 concerts in 8 venues around the city and a focus on Norwegian and international contemporary jazz.

How did the story of Maijazz started?

It started 28 years ago, in the late 80s. Stavanger was a rather small city, but with a lively jazz club. At one point the club went bankrupt and in the ruins of that a group of people had the idea of creating the festival. One of them, Per Hasse Andersen, is still the Head of the Festival. It started off as a small event, with 4 concerts, but it was a success and slowly developed from year to year. The number of concerts was growing until the late 90s, after that it has not been growing in numbers, but in quality.

And what about your involvement with the Festival?

I was involved in the first edition of the Festival in 1989, as a volunteer. After that I have been taking part in all editions. Since 1995 I became Managing Director, working part time, and from 1997 I started working full-time on this. We are now 2 full-time people working on the Festival and on the club programme throughout the year. As most of the Festivals, especially in Scandinavia, we are depending heavily on volunteers, approximately 160-170 for every edition.

Who are the volunteers of Maijazz?

It is popular to be a volunteer at the Festival. We had to close down the registrations for volunteers because we already have a long list. They come mostly from Stavanger, but not only, and last year we counted 15 different nationalities. Stavanger is quite an international city. It is nice to see that the organisation with the volunteers is working so well. This year we had this hotel strike going on (in all the major cities in Norway there was a strike of hotel employees). There were many logistical challenges regarding accommodation and meals, with artists being moved from one hotel to another and so on. When I see that the organisation is on top of the tasks, is able to react and adapt very fast, I have to say I am quite impressed myself. As a volunteer you learn to improvise, to solve tasks that has to be solved in a short time. I think the experience the volunteers receive with us can be used in many places later on in their life. I started as a volunteer myself!

So besides the Festival there is also a jazz club?

The idea from the beginning was to come up with a great festival, but also to present jazz throughout the year. The Festival has been the flagship event, the highlight of the jazz year in Stavanger. The success of the Festival allowed us also to run the club. Apart from Maijazz throughout the year we organise between 150-170 concerts, and we also have a small Festival in January, more focussed on swing, called Vintage Jazz. We organise concerts in different venues around the city, but since 2014 we have our own venue, called Spoor 5, with a capacity of 200-250 people. The majority of events takes place there, but we do also concerts at bigger venues when needed.

What have been the main difficulties in running the Festival?

We started out of nothing, both the support from the government and from sponsors were lacking. We had to prove that we could do this. We established an organisation, we put together interesting programmes and the audience started to respond. At that point also the local government and sponsors saw that the Festival is both interesting and has a quality that is important to support.

What are the main sources of financing of the festival?

For this year the support from the government has been the main income, then tickets and private sponsors. For the previous edition tickets were the main source of income. In the last couple of years the issue of private sponsorships has changed, we had a massive loss of that. Stavanger is the oil capital of Norway, most of the industry here is oil-related, so with the oil prices going down and down the companies have been cutting down on sponsorships. We lost over 50% of private sponsorships. Therefore we also had to look closely at every budget line. The positive thing is that the audience keeps growing; last year we sold the biggest amount of tickets. We have the support from the audience, and that is the most important part.

Who is the audience of Maijazz?

We usually sell between 13.000 and 8.000 tickets. This year we don’t have any concert in the Stavanger Konserthus, that is the biggest venue in the city, with two halls with a capacity of 1.900 and 1.200. This year is more of a “club festival”. The biggest venue we are using has a capacity of 650. Often we need to use slightly smaller venues here compared to other European countries. For example this year we will have Avishai Cohen (the double-bass player) with his trio. He has performed a lot in southern Europe, so he could fill a big concert hall in Italy, France or Germany. But he has hardly played in Norway, and never in Stavanger. This is why we couldn’t use the Konserthus for that concert; he is playing in a venue with a capacity of 400. The positive side is that you can see the artists very closely, in an intimate setting, while the challenge is to explain to the artists which kind of audience we have, so that we can negotiate conditions and a fee that we can afford. Only 120.000 people are living in Stavanger, and the other main cities in Norway are quite far. This didn’t prevent us to have many big names, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek, etc...

How do you organise your programme in the different venues?

We are having concerts in different venues around the city, sometimes at the same time. We really try to find each time the best venue both for the audience and for the music. There is not much running around from one venue to the other, the audience usually prefer to focus into specific concerts. This is a good thing, but then as well having all the concerts concentrated in one venue would help in creating the special festival atmosphere. We have to build the Festival using what is available in Stavanger. It is mostly all walking distance; we have only a few concerts in the weekend outside the city centre. You have to make choices when programming, it is in the Festival’s nature. We try to organise the concerts in a way that the ones that are happening at the same time are likely to have different audiences, for example it can be an impro concert at the same time of a soul act. Of course sometimes you will find people that would like to listen to both of them!

I see that you have a big presence of Norwegian names in your programme

There are so many good artists in Norway so it is natural for us to present them. It is the scene we know best. We feel a responsibility towards the music life in Stavanger, to help building that up. But we will present as well the best of international jazz, it is a combination of both. For us to present Norwegian artists is also a bit easier, talking again in economical terms. The euro and dollar became so expensive compared to the Norwegian crown in the last 2 years, and this had an impact as well on our budgeting. But of course it is mostly about the artists we want to present, and who is available in that period. Most of the international stars tour in summer, we are a bit earlier than that, but we still were able to bring many of them.

Are you involved in any collaboration with other music institutions?

We have often collaborated with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. We identify and propose jazz artists that we think can fit well with the Orchestra. Last year we did the Symphony Orchestra together with Snarky Puppy, the year before with Jaga Jazzist. The E.S.T. Symphony, Palle Mikkelborg, Herbie Hancock, Oregon with Ralph Towner, Naná Vasconcelos, Jo Zawinul and many other good artists have performed with them. It has been a very interesting collaboration.

Which ones would you consider other interesting festivals in Europe?

There are a lot of very interesting festivals in Europe, with great line-ups. Unfortunately I haven`t been able to visit as many as I would like to, but I hope to visit more festivals the upcoming years. It has sometimes been a challenge to combine traveling to festivals with being a father of 2 children. When my kids were young I had to be "effective" when travelling, then the North Sea (Netherlands) have been useful to check out many artists since you could find a packed program in 3 days. The 12 Points festival is another type of festival which I find interesting. In Norway most of the jazz festivals takes place indoor, due to the climate, but it`s usually very nice to visit outdoor festivals in southern Europe where you can combine great music with a pleasant climate and atmosphere.

How has been your involvement with the Europe Jazz Network?

For us running a festival in Stavanger it has been very interesting and useful to be part of EJN. It is about the networking, the talks between the members. Through the General Assembly we have been able to visit many different cities around Europe, and listen to a lot of good music from many countries. We also had some collaborations with other EJN members. For example with Serious from London we did “Saxophone Massive” few years ago, we have been host of the 12 Points Festival, we have the Nutshell project in collaboration with Nattjazz and Vestnorsk jazzsenter, and this year we have this conference about jazz for kids at our Festival. During the last General Assembly in Budapest we discussed potential artists with other Festivals happening at the same time, such as Cheltenham (UK) and April Jazz (Finland), and after that we have been informing each other on who we are working with. For the Scandinavian countries we also met Copenhagen, Stockholm, Goteborg and we do collaborations with them throughout the year for the club programme. This is really useful, and it is through EJN that we met all these people.

Do you think Maijazz, with its 28 editions, had an impact in the city of Stavanger?

I think we did. We are the oldest Festival in Stavanger. In a way we have been pioneers in this. Now there are many Festivals in the city, a good chamber music festival, a comedy festival and many others. I think many of them have learned from us. They have been trying to establish pop and rock festivals for long, but they all went bankrupt. This shows how the jazz scene is usually better organised and more stable. Charles Lloyd was interesting in the 70s and in the 80s, and even now he is. Of course also in jazz you have some very popular names that are coming and going, but in general is a bit easier. You can book an act in your programme for next year that you know will be good. If you are running a rock festival, and you book a band for next year, you risk that they are forgotten by then! Our Festival is important for Stavanger. When the Mayor is talking about what is happening in the city, Maijazz is one of the first things that is mentioned. We are playing a role in building the identity of the city.

How do you see Maijazz in 10 years time?

If I look back at 10 years, at Maijazz 2006, one of the things that has changed since then is that Stavanger now has a bigger role in educating young musicians. More and more people are coming out of music education and they have already spaces to play inside the Festival. I think and I hope that this part will be even more important in the future of the Festival. It is about building an audience, both as listeners and as musicians.