A London festival – how the city impacts on festival – Emma Webster

One of the thoughts that I keep coming back to, and about which I have been talking with audience members, is about how the EFG London Jazz Festival (LJF) fits into London and whether its very size has an impact on people’s experience of it as a ‘festival’. Responses have varied, from those who feel strongly that the LJF does not feel like a festival, to those for whom the LJF is the first event which springs to mind when they think of ‘festival’. As co-Director of Serious, Claire Whitaker, commented yesterday, “There is the equivalent of a festival going on every night in London”, and signs of the Festival are often only overt at the festival venues themselves.

A constant idea to which I keep returning is: what is a festival? To some, the definition of ‘festival’ is that the festival is immersive:-

When most people think of a big festival, be it T in the Park, Glastonbury, or even Edinburgh, it is a completely immersive experience. Indeed the Edinburgh Festival obliterates the city: there isn’t a town called Edinburgh any more, there’s a town called the Edinburgh Festival. And you can’t escape it. Whereas the [London Jazz Festival] … Honestly, I will talk to my colleagues at work tomorrow and none of them will know it’s on. If there’s a proper festival on, everyone will know it’s on… The closest I can give you to what would be the London equivalent to what would be a proper festival would be the Olympics in 2012 which took over the entire city. There was no way you escaped it. Even if you didn’t go to it, everybody felt the vibe, and saw bits of it. [The London Jazz] Festival is completely insular; it’s a very different kind of thing.

An outdoor camping festival such as Glastonbury is immersive because you are in the festival – it surrounds you in a very literal sense in the form of a large security fence – once you are on site, you are in site and there is a very clear sense of who is in and who is out, unlike the London Jazz Festival, where who is in and out only becomes obvious at the events themselves.

However, as the previous audience member went to add, “People who come for the jazz festival in that way will immerse themselves in it and will get involved with all the events that happen during the day, and all the side events, and they can have that immersive experience.”

Indeed, for me, part of the experience of being at the London Jazz Festival is being in London. From the spectacular view of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye at night from the fifth floor of the Southbank Centre, to the sudden (sub)cultural shift of moving from the shiny, glassy high skyscrapers of Liverpool Street to the graffitied hipster exposed brick of Shoreditch, to tracking down new venues by bus and connecting the previously disparate islands of the underground stations, London as a festival setting is a different kind of immersive experience. The city itself becomes the festival site, or rather, the city hosts the festival, which switches on and off depending on time and location. As I type on the bus, I have just been past St Paul’s Cathedral, the Old Bailey and Somerset House, and have just emerged on the Thames over to Waterloo, and again the Eye and Parliament appear, all watched over by the taller evil cousin of Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid Stage; The Shard.

So while the LJF does not have the city-wide impact of, say, the London Olympics in 2012, the city does impact on the festival, both positively and negatively. Positively from all the benefits of being in a global city – the sights, the food, the shopping, the buzz and negatively because London is huge and getting around takes a long (and tiring) time. London is ‘on’ all the time. For just ten days in November, the London Jazz Festival amplifies jazz activity in London for a short but significant period of time.


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