Last weekend I was in Hamburg, on a press trip which tied in with the Elbjazz Festival, a festival quite unlike any I had ever previously attended. Which was both a good and a bad thing! On the positive side, it’s a festival which makes terrific and exciting use of its venues and locations. But it’s also, it seems to me, a festival which caters more for those seeking to dip their toes in the waters of jazz – rather than for the diehard jazz fan such as myself. As the name suggests, the epicentre of the festival is the River Elbe and getting to gigs involves boat rides, riverside strolls and exploring the vast indoor and outdoor spaces of the Blohm & Voss shipyards.
I loved the maritime feel of the festival and the way it makes use of the locations to enhance the festival experience. Over lunch on Saturday, the charismatic Tina Heine, the founder and director of the festival, explained how much thought she puts into matching artists with venues – which this year ranged from St Catherine’s Church, part of which dates back to the 13th Century, to the Hafenmuseum, a museum of shipbuilding.
She said: “Every artist I look at, I think about what the perfect setting would be. Sometimes you can accelerate the musical experience through the venue, and the artist can find inspiration in it too.” The shipyard has been at the heart of the festival since it began six years ago. “Blohm & Voss is there every year. Other venues change. How many stages we have at the shipyard depends on what’s happening there. This year everything is on the south side of the Elbe. In Hamburg we never get bored of being on the waterfront. Even if you’ve been here 20 years, like me. ”
Heine is a restaurateur – she owns an elegant-looking bar-restaurant called Hadley’s in Hamburg – whose love of contemporary and experimental jazz inspired her to branch out from staging weekly concerts in her own establishment to conceiving a major jazz festival which would embody her ethos of “cool venues and good food and good wine”. Indeed, Hadley’s had a satellite stall at the shipyard, one of many stands selling some of the best fast festival food I’ve come across – along with wine, served in wine glasses! “I don’t drink my wine from plastic cups,” says Heine, “so why should I expect others to? We’ve never had a problem. People hand back the glasses to us.”
Unfortunately, this year’s event was a bit on the damp and chilly side but the weather certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of the 15,000 festival-goers who seemed to relish the opportunity to explore the shipyards and hear the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, on an outdoor stage, singing songs about another great port as she performed her New Orleans songbook on the first night of the weekend. A little later on, there were ten rows of people trying to get indoors to hear Stacey Kent guest with Quatuor Ebene string quartet. A little later, the crowd had vanished and it was possible to get into the concert – right at the back, where a lot of people were listening on a sort of platform from which (unless you were at the front) you could see nothing. I gave up and went for a stroll outside. A little later still, I showed my press band and managed to get into the seated, ground-level area nearer the stage. I heard about 15 minutes of the set which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wished I’d heard more. During our conversation the next day, Tina Heine enthused about the fact that over 80% of the people who come to the festival say that they are not jazz fans. She doesn’t sell tickets to individual concerts; it’s all done on a first-come, first-served basis as far as getting a seat or a view are concerned. What, I asked, if you were a big fan of a particular artist and wanted to ensure that you had a decent seat to hear him or her from?
“No chance!” was Heine’s frank reply. “If we did dedicated tickets then that would go against my whole idea of the flow of people going from one concert to another that’s completely different.” This is a lady with a firm idea of how her festival should be. Punters leaving concerts en masse 15 minutes before the end so that they can get into the next one on their schedule is fine with her, and that movement and freedom is why you can only buy one or two-day tickets, rather than individual concert tickets. It also means that festival-goers don’t have to fork out for the boat and bus shuttle trips involved in getting to the different venues on the river – it’s all included, which makes that side of things more straightforward especially for the tourist!
She said she had also resisted the idea of having stages themed according to music genre. She is firmly anti-segregation within the numerous types of music that now come under the jazz umbrella. Which is fine for those who aren’t passionate about particular genres, but not great if you are. (And if you are, there tend also to be some styles which you just can’t stand!) Mind you, if – like me – you’re a fan of classic and mainstream jazz, you probably wouldn’t find too much in the Elbjazz programme since it is more weighted in favour of contemporary jazz and fusion, as befits its founder’s personal taste. My conclusion? I need to get my own jazz festival too!
All photos © Alison Kerr