Last Updated - Thursday November 05, 2020
 

Jazz Promoter - Trevor Stent

 

 

When Fred asked me to write something on “Promoting Jazz”, I reflected on the fifty years that had taken me from 1960’s Liverpool to rural Brittany in 2020. Finding a venue for the Blue Magnolia Jass Orchestra on Merseyside in 1968 was not easy. One of the criteria for a bar in those days was it had to have a piano (half decent electric pianos did not really arrive on the scene until the early ‘80s). I remember The Lisbon Bar in Liverpool city centre was ideal in many ways (lively, a good size, landlord who was fairly enthusiastic) but had no piano. Pianist Bob Hayward tried to remedy this by transporting from the Wirral (every Tuesday) his pedal driven harmonium. This musical horror (the harmonium, not Bob) was imposed upon us every week but it was a victory for stubbornness over taste; the harmonium did for the band’s swing what the atomic bomb did for Hiroshima. Thankfully, we found the Coffee House in Wavertree soon afterwards and started a wonderful 14 years there.

In fact, pianos apart, the problems and the principles behind promotion remain very similar, no matter where you are or what epoch you are talking about. Here are some of the lessons learned during my years of jazz promotion:-

• The band(s) have got to be good. A statement of the “bleedin’ obvious” certainly, but if the band(s) aren’t professional in their approach (punctual, no faffing about between numbers, treat the concert as a proper concert not a public rehearsal, relate to, and involve, the audience) nobody is going to pay good money to see them.

• The size and shape of the room are critical. Much better to err on the size being too small rather than too big. It needs to have an atmosphere on a “bad” night. I have been involved in two excellent jazz clubs in my life: The Coffee House in Liverpool (1970 – 1984) and the Bar “Tal ar Pont”, Châteauneuf-du-Faou (2003 – 2017). Both could take 140 people, and mostly did, but they both had an “atmosphere” when there was only 40 there. Atmosphere is vital for all music but I feel for traditional jazz it is absolutely essential. The band needs to be “at one” with its audience. The musicians also have to be close to the spectators. No barriers at all; best to put the dance floors at the side, as we do at Fest Jazz. I remember hearing a young woman exclaiming with awe as she left a concert at the Tal ar Pont during the festival, “That was brilliant! You are so close to the band!”. That is often not the case in pop festivals where you need binoculars to see the musicians. No other distractions in the room either. It is demoralising for bands playing in some UK pubs to have half the audience more interested in watching Tranmere v. Gillingham on the TV.

• The band has to be paid and treated “correctly”. That means there has to be a charge at the door or some other arrangement. At the Coffee House, where the Blue Mags had a weekly residency, we had a contract with Tetley Walker Brewery (as it was then) and that was ideal, as it meant that we were not at the mercy of the whims of the pub managers who came and went (though, to be fair, we were very lucky with those that ran the pub during those years).

I would add that the band should be fed as well. Here, in Europe, every band gets a good meal before every gig. I remember those weddings in Cheshire where I played with the Blue Mags and we were told to “wait and see if there is anything left on the buffet at the end of the night”. Almost worse, we sometimes even had to eat and drink in the rain because we were not allowed to mingle with the guests in the marquee. In France, the musicians are fed first, often receiving better food than the guests, and I have never (repeat never!) had to put my hand in my pocket to buy a drink on a gig here.

• Encourage dancing. It attracts young people, adds enormously to the atmosphere and can be spectacular to watch.

• Communications. This has changed since Coffee House days. Eight years ago, here in Brittany, we started welcoming young interns from local art and design colleges to help us advertise Fest Jazz. Since 2016 we have young people working for us full time and now I realise how toe-curlingly awful were the posters/flyers that we used in the early days. The French stress the link between the graphics and the image of the festival. The unveiling of “The Poster” is a big event each year for every festival in France. It is vital, especially to attract young people.

The graphics that illustrate your club/festival have to be sharp, modern and professional. The image of Traditional Jazz in the UK is sadly not generally a good one and it needs to change. The communications are the first thing to bring about this change. Obviously, in the North West, Fred’s superb Traditional Jazz website is an essential advertising tool (as is Peter Butler’s Jazz & Jazz site in the South) but these only reach the converted, the existing fans of traditional jazz. The trick is to find advertising outlets that reach new fans.

• Social Media. This did not exist in the ‘60s. Then it was just local press and radio now the internet has transformed everything….. except that the press and radio are still important! Every year I argue with the young people who organise Fest Jazz because they are obsessed with Facebook and Instagram. They are right: it’s free, very effective, reaches the young and when it’s managed correctly (which is a daily task incidentally) it can bring great rewards. However, 40% of the population (especially here in deeply rural France) does not have Facebook (in fact, quite a lot of people don’t even have internet) so the press still has to be involved too. Incidentally, in France, Twitter barely exists as no French person could begin to express themselves in less than 280 characters!


• Don’t do everything yourself, not only is it knackering, it’s inefficient. Since 2015 I have done less and less of the organisation of the festival…. and it is much better for me and the event There is a committee of 15 who share the decisions and manage the finances (now approaching 230 000€ per year) and the role of Angelina, our Vice President since 2014, cannot be overstated. She grew up in a family of professional musicians, understands festivals and is a constant source of sound advice, good humour and glasses of red wine when needed.

• It won’t always go well and there will be bad times. It’s inevitable. In promoting, you are dealing with so many variables: the public (unpredictable), the musicians (sometimes demanding), the weather (!!!) and pandemics (!!). I’ve made mistakes and occasionally regretted not having done things differently. At Fest Jazz we had our horror year in 2018 (torrential rain for three days and we were let down at the last moment by a (crooked) marquee company). It was very hard but again I was lifted out of despair by the support of the committee and the young helpers who themselves organised a crowd funding project to save the festival. In 2019 we had our best ever Fest Jazz with 4 000 spectators, sunny weather … we even made a profit!

• Involve young people as organisers, the UK traditional jazz scene will be finished in 5 years if you don’t. We invited young students to help with our communications in 2012 and then, increasingly, to organise the festival itself. They are given real responsibility and, although I don’t always agree with their decisions, they have transformed the festival for the better. Importantly, young people attract other young people. We do have a wide range of generations at Fest Jazz and the festival has a young “feel” to it; it’s not like a scene from “The Last of the Summer Wine” like so many traditional jazz festivals.

• Book young bands and musicians. The Blue Mags always encouraged young musicians and with Juvenile Jazz in the 1980’s we unearthed gold. At Fest Jazz, we really try to put as many young bands on the programme as we can. We avoid the tired old groups (mostly from Paris) who were well known in the 60s and 70s but now are completely unknown outside their particular circle yet still want to charge ludicrous fees for the privilege of hearing them. Here in France there are plenty of young traditional bands, many of them jaw-droppingly good, who are only too keen to play for a reasonable fee and who attract young spectators.

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It’s been a fascinating 50 years, promoting jazz. I’ve had the privilege to hear so much fabulous music and enjoyed some wonderful entertainment. Often at the Coffee House, it was the local singers, musicians and comedians who got up on stage with the Blue Mags, who helped to make the night magical. At Fest Jazz the 1 500 musicians over 15 years have all been super people, a real delight to be with.

Best moment? There have been dozens of “best moments”. Forced to pick one, it would be 2014 and the first appearance outside Spain of the young St Andreu Jazz Band with Joan Chamorro, Andrea Motis and her 30 sensational friends. The 1,400 audience was overwhelmed by their talent and charm; many were in tears at the end…they knew they had experienced something quite extraordinary. And the next morning the festival goers could go and hear Tuba Skinny from New Orleans playing in Châteauneuf’s town square. Not bad for a little village lost in the Breton countryside. The music was superb, the dancers brilliant, the wine flowed ……. and there wasn’t a harmonium in sight!
 

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