Spotlight on…. Cheltenham Jazz Festival

An interview with a member of the Europe Jazz Network

Interview with Emily Jones, Festival Manager at Cheltenham Jazz Festival (UK), 6 days and 65 events + 80 events in the fringe programme. This year the Festival will take place between Wednesday 26 April and Monday 1st of May (more info on:

How did Cheltenham Jazz Festival start?

The festival was founded in 1996, one year after London Jazz Festival. Jim Smith founded it and Tony Dudley-Evans was involved from the outset as an advisor.  It was based in Cheltenham Town Hall, and from the start it had quite an international scope. The classical music festival in Cheltenham has been going for more than 70 years, and at times they used to have jazz concerts in it. I was shown a programme from the 1960s with Oscar Peterson in it. So there was already an audience, and this was sort of the catalyst that helped the Jazz Festival to start. Tony was Artistic Director for many years, and then in 2010 Ian George became Festival Director and Tony a programme advisor.
When did you start to get involved with the Festival?
I used to organise jazz concerts at the University, and I was firstly an intern at the Festival about 8 years ago. After that I stayed in touch with the team and went back a couple of times to do some artist-liaison work and front of house management. Then nearly 4 years ago I heard Phil Woods who was holding my position before me, was leaving, so I ended up working there.

How many people work for the Festival? 

Cheltenham Festivals is a charity that organises the Jazz, Literature, Classical Music and Science Festivals. There are about 50 people in the company, and  production, marketing and fundraising are shared between the four Festivals. For the Jazz Festival, working full-time is only me and Ian, and Tony part-time. The four Festivals are kind of spread throughout the year. We are the first ones, at the end of April, Science is at the start of June, Music at the start of July and then Literature, the biggest one, at the end of October. We are the first ones, so we often get experimented on. For example, if there is a new system for ticketing, we have to be the first ones to test it!

In which venues does the festival take place? 

One of the things that Ian did when he became Director was to change the model of the Festival, to move it more outdoor, so it is very visible in the town centre, and the local community know it is happening. It was moved to Montpellier Gardens, a public park close to the town centre. There we build two indoor seated venues and one free outdoor stage. The biggest one is a circus tent, which sits around 1300 people. We have to book big names to fill it up, but it is still a kind of intimate venue, as the people are seated quite close to the artists, compared to other venues of this size. The second venue can host around 600 people while the free outdoor stage around 3/400 people. This is where the fringe programme, festival bar, family area and other things are. Recently we are expanding back to city centre venues, so for 4 days we use as well the Town Hall (which holds about 800/1000), a small arts centre that has a beautiful theatre in it, perfect for contemporary jazz, which has about 300 seats, a restaurant that we turn into a jazz club which holds around 120. We are also looking for other spaces for specific events. For example this year we are using a really beautiful little chapel for a project that Kit Downes does on church organ with Tom Challenger (called Vyamanikal). We are also expanding the fringe programme back to the city centre, so we build a stage on the main shopping street; we are doing more things in local bars, restaurants and pop-up events in the shopping centres.
Which kind of audience come to the Jazz festival? 

There are separate tickets for each single concert, so in general you have to plan what you want to attend, you can’t just wander around and see what’s happening. We have a membership system, where members pay to get early booking and also get some special events. Members are usually very loyal, and come every year. We have now so many members that we can sell-out some of the headline concerts before they even get sold to the public. A lot of our members come from Cheltenham and the Gloucestershire area, while the rest of the audience come from every single postcode area of the UK (we can see that from the ticket orders). Generally, the audience has grown so much, especially in the last 5 years. Last year we sold around 25.000 individual tickets, and from 2009 to last year ticket-sales doubled. As the Festival becomes more and more successful, more events are sold out in advance, and this means that there are fewer opportunities to try something on the night, maybe when they are outside having a beer and are interested by what they hear. On the other hand, this also benefits some of the niche programming. People who don’t have tickets beforehand will tend naturally to go to them, and maybe they will like what they hear.
How about the side events? 

We always had one family show, but since last year we created a new family programme for the whole weekend, across 3 days, with 12 families shows in a dedicated venue of around 100 people. It was very successful; pretty much everything was sold out last year. We work with freelance programmers for that, and it is also a great occasion to involve some local musicians. It is really colourful, with a festival-like feel, big ladybug pillows on the grass and things like that. We are producing one new event this year, while others are existing projects. The new one is based on a beautiful illustrated kids book called “Ella Queen of Jazz”. The publisher is launching the book at the Festival and we put together an event with some readings, live drawings and of course music! We will also have Arun Ghosh playing a family show this year. Each event has a kind of “guide” age range. The shows for babies (0 to 2 years old) are really popular, we have two this year and they are already sold out!

Which approach do you use for programming for the festival? 

The core programming team is composed of three people: Ian, Tony and myself. We make all decisions jointly. Having three minds on this allows to always be questioning ourselves, and forces us to really think about what we do. Jamie Cullum is a kind of advisor; he feeds in to the programme with suggestions and ideas. This is great, because through his work as an artist and his radio work he is always in contact with new music. In return we are able to offer him opportunities to perform with his musical heroes. He is also helpful if we need to make contacts with some big names that are hard to reach. He is from near Cheltenham; he was coming to the Festival since he was a kid, which is why he has such a strong connection with the Festival. We have also free-lance programmers for the fringe and the family programmes.

What about the partnerships that you have, especially with the radios? 

The festival is in association with BBC Radio 2. Of course this has a great visibility impact. We have 8 hours live there. If you happen to turn on the radio on that weekend you will probably hear something from the Festival. They have around 15 million listeners; it is the biggest radio station in the country. The Friday night headline event every year is produced by them. It is a radio show with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Guy Barker’s big band, with a different theme every year and 3-4 guest vocalists. Guy Barker arranges all the music. So we have this huge 70-pieces band on stage and that’s always fantastic. We wouldn’t be able to do this show without the BBC Radio 2 partnership. We also recently started to work with BBC Radio 3 again, which is a really good counter-balance in terms of audience, as it has a bigger focus on contemporary jazz in its programmes. They record now around 3/4 concerts from the Festival. This year we have also for the first time BBC Radio 6 Music doing a show from the Festival. BBC Radio 2 covers the more mainstream pop/soul/jazz side, BBC Radio 3 the more contemporary jazz side and BBC6 the middle ground, alternative stuff in the programme like Meshell Ndegeocello and José James – this is a useful way for us to think about our programme and audience too.
What are the main sources of income of the Festival? 

We get some funding from the Arts Council, it is about 8-9% of our income. We have to raise quite a lot from sponsorships and trusts, about 30%, and then the rest is ticket sales (around 60%). It means our fundraising and ticket-sales targets and are pretty high which is a risk each year, but so far we seem to have been doing a good job.
What are the main difficulties in running the Festival? 

Because we rely so much on ticket sales, the pressure is quite high. There is always the scary moment when you announce the programme and you hope people like it. We announce the full programme by the start of February, which is around 3 and half months in advance, but we normally announce some of the headliners before Christmas. This year for the first time we were able to put three shows on sale before Christmas, as some headliners were already confirmed, for example Chick Corea trio. Our marketing team loved it, and asked us to do the same every year! Of course it would be ideal, but it is not always possible.

Did your involvement with EJN bring any added value to your activities?  

One of the most valuable things about it is the meeting we have with the Festivals that takes place the same time (April/May), such as Katowice JazzArt (Poland), Jazzkaar (Estonia), Maijazz (Norway), April Jazz (Finland), Kanuas Jazz (Lithuania), Bray Jazz Festival (Ireland) and others. Last year we also managed to instigate a tour for José James, we had 4-5 festival offers so we were able to contact the agency and basically “create the tour”. We also involved some EJN members clubs for the days in-between, like Lantaren Venster (Netherlands) and Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene (Norway). It is really productive to have this exchange of information at the European Jazz Conference. When you are programming, you are always worried you might have missed something, an email or the information that somebody is on tour. Having some people that you can discuss with, especially when they are programming for your same period, can help you to make sure it doesn’t happen.
How do you see Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 10 years? 

Bigger. At the moment we are a bit constrained by the size of the park. That’s why we are trying to expand back in the city centre. So it would be great in 10 years to close the main roads of the town and have music all over the streets, like in New Orleans. So that if you are in Cheltenham these days you won’t be able to miss it. The Festival already is a major event in the jazz calendar in the UK but we hope to make it become a major event in the wider public understanding.