Something I’ve come to realise in my work as a booking agent & manager for jazz musicians is that being a ‘successful’ artist is not just about the music you make and the way you make it.
It’s also about how you perform.
So, whilst you can (and should!) study the greats by listening to their records, nothing beats watching live music to see how it’s really done!
And what better way to see a ton of brilliant singers in a few short days than heading to one of the many jazz festivals around the world?
Whist programmes at jazz festivals can vary wildly, from contemporary, avante garde music to electronic and rock, there are many out there - including some of the biggest in the world - which are guaranteed to serve up the best of vocal jazz as part of their line-up, year after year.
Of course, there are literally thousands of jazz festivals around the world including, I suspect, at least a couple in your local area.
But I’d just like to highlight ten of the best for finding both new talent and superstar singers…
Where: a couple of hours from Toulouse, France
This festival is a phenomenon!
Outside of the summer, Marciac is a tiny village in the middle of the French countryside. But for a few weeks every summer, it’s filled with many THOUSANDS of people who come to see some of the biggest names in jazz.
The 6,000 capacity marquee has hosted most, if not all, of the big names in the genre and the newer, permanent, venue – l’Astrada – tends to showcase newer talents.
American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has made this an annual stop on his tour schedule – they even have a statue of him in the village – but there have been many impressive productions featuring singers.
Highlight: American jazz diva Dianne Reeves performing a set with full symphony orchestra in 2012.
When: a weekend in June
Where: The Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl, USA
Founded by Hugh Hefner, the annual Playboy Jazz Festival has been taking place at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl for more than 30 years now.
If you haven’t seen ‘the Bowl’ - you gotta check it out! A huge amphitheater-style venue with revolving stage so that the music can continue, uninterrupted, all afternoon and well into the night.
The venue was voted Pollstar magazine's ‘Best Major Outdoor Venue’ more than 10 years running and, along with a celebrity MC, Playboy Jazz brings some of the hottest names in jazz and soul to the stage.
Where: Bielsko-Biala & Katowice, Poland
It gets pretty cold in Poland during the winter, so the timing of Lotos Jazz is perfect for waming up both the locals and the masses of tourists who come for the event.
It’s been running for more than 15 years, with concerts in various venues around the region and a slight leaning towards the big American names.
The organisers have good ties with the local music conservatoire, with local jazz students being invited to host the evening jam sessions. And, as with all good festivals, this leads to some unexpected late night, after-hours performances with the visiting stars!
When: a weekend in July
Where: Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Widely acknowledged as “the biggest indoor jazz festival in the world," this titan of the international jazz scene has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz HISTORY. We’re talking Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie…
Aside from this, they also give over a bunch of stages to emerging talent and boast one of the earliest international Amy Winehouse shows, just after the release of her debut album Frank.
Stylistically, it presents a wide variety of music – from New Orleans jazz and swing to gospel, funk and soul and somehow manages to keep a cosy atmosphere, despite the enormous amount of people that pass through.
Where: Cheltenham, UK
With British jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum as its longtime artist in residence, this festival a couple of hours from London mixes international jazz icons with homegrown talent and cutting-edge new projects.
The gigs are spread between several temporary venues on the festival site – including a large circus tent where BBC Radio usually broadcasts from on the Friday night – and permanent venues around the town.
In recent years there have been more and more free events throughout the days, including an talent showcasing stage, so you really can go for a gig you really want to see and end up discovering 3 more things along the way!
Highlight: Kurt Elling performing a special tribute to Frank Sinatra with big band and Orchestra.
Where: Wolfsburg, Germany
It’s not every day you get to watch top international jazz talent in a car factory.
But that’s exactly what happens at the Movimentos Festival - organised and hosted in the Volkswagen headquarters. The town – Wolfsburg – even has an alternative name: Autostadt (“car town” in German)..!
For several weeks every Spring, various spaces around the site are given over to live music and dance, including a strong strand of jazz programming.
A stage in the car museum presents both local and international artists – with the audience surrounded by cars from years gone by - whilst the cavernous main factory is transformed into a huge theatre for headline acts.
Where: Montreal, Canada
Montreal Jazz Festival was officially named the world’s largest jazz festival by Guinness World Records back in 2004 and still causes a large part of downtown Montreal to shut down for 10 days every summer!
Although the headline acts can see audiences well in excess of 100,000 people, the festival also presents hundreds of free outdoor performances where local and international musicians have the chance to be included in this legendary event.
Highlight: Ella Fitzgerald performed at the Festival twice - in 1983 and 1987 – but, more recently, home-grown favourite Diana Krall has put on some enormous performances here, including this one filmed for a live DVD.
Where: Rochester, up-state New York
Whilst the Rochester International Jazz Festival takes place at multiple established venues throughout downtown Rochester, it’s "Jazz Street" (otherwise known as Gibbs Street!), which gives it a really great festival feel. The jazz radio station broadcasts live there and it acts as a meeting point for the festivalgoers, as well as a place to catch bands on the outdoor stages.
With its proximity to New York and its date-crossover with the Canadian festival circuit just across the border, Rochester has presented a whole host of big names, including jazz-singing luminaries Norah Jones, Diana Krall & Esperanza Spalding.
If you go, make sure to find the ’festival’ hotel which hosts late night jam sessions with lots of the visiting musicians…
From its beginning as a mainly Dixieland and New Orleans style event, Oslo Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most important fixtures on the Scandinavian calendar, presenting a wide mix of American and more European artists.
The gigs are spread across various venues, with a firm favourite being the city’s key jazz venue, Nasjonal Jazzscene Oslo. They also give an opportunity for a bunch of young local bands to showcase at the festival and open for the bigger acts, meaning you can catch some rising Norwegian stars along the way.
Highlight: Norwegian favourite Beady Belle
Where: St Moritz, Switzerland
You might not expect to find a killer series of jazz concerts high up in the Swiss alps at one of Europe’s most exclusive ski resorts, but you can in St Moritz!
Given its location, space is not as freely available as most of the other festivals on this list, which is great: you get a much more intimate and up-close experience than you’d find elsewhere!
As an extra bonus tip: if you’re flying in for this one, Milan is one of the most convenient airports to travel to. Which means you have to pop into the legendary Blue Note Milano to see a show!
Highlight: Italian soul singer Mario Biondi in 2015
Wherever you are, I hope this short rundown has given you a taste for finding some more live music this year!
And, if you are already out there gigging and releasing your own music, be sure to add these festivals to the list of promoters you are pitching to for a gig. Because remember: behind the big budget headliners and fancy production, most festival teams also count on discovering and introducing new talent – year after year – to keep their reputation high…
Matt Fripp has worked as a European booking agent and manager for international jazz artists more than 8 years. Alongside his day-to-day work of representing a roster of artists, he hosts the website Jazzfuel where he writes articles and posts interviews aimed at helping jazz musicians who want to get more jazz gigs, more fans. Learn more about Jazzfuel here.
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