The impact of jazz festivals – top three articles (so far) – Emma Webster

Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, University of Oford
Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford © Sabrina Chap 2013

One of the pleasures of this project has been that it has enabled me to read (and sometimes re-read) literature about festivals – and spending a day in the Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford whilst doing so is not such a shabby way to spend a day.

The following is my Buzzfeed style list about my favourite three articles (so far) about jazz festivals, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in jazz, festivals, or jazz festivals!

  1. Festivals can unintentionally mute the voices of the very people they attempt to celebrate

Helen A. Regis and Shana Walton. 2008. ‘Producing the folk at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’. Journal of American Folklore 121/ 482: 400-440

This is a really illuminating and enjoyable study of the New Orleans Jazz Festival from an anthropological perspective, in which the authors are researchers, insiders and fans: they have ‘multiple relations to the festival [they] are interpreting’ (p. 404) which gives remarkable insight into the backstage world of the festival, the performers and stallholders. I like the way that the article is almost a conversation between the two researchers, and the reflective ‘moments in shape-shifting’ which sprinkle the text. The article illustrates how the voices of the very people the festival purports to celebrate are muted, albeit unintentionally, by both the organisers and the attendees, as ‘while Jazz Fest ideology and marketed authenticity remain rooted in folk reverence, festival practices often result in folk marginalization, as producers are enmeshed in the larger process of cultural commodification of music and arts in the global marketplace’ (p. 401). One phrase in particular stood out with reference to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: ‘Rather than helping New Orleans avoid poverty and inequality, the city’s role as playground to the world continuously reproduces unequal social structure. Even as it offers opportunities for a national audience to experience our culture, the festive state of the city has muted the voices of those who try to focus attention on urban issues’ (p. 432, italics in original), illustrating how, while festivals can bring positive benefits for those with power, it can mask social problems also at play, thus highlighting the unintended consequences of ‘festivalisation’.

  1. Starting a festival and keeping it going is no easy task

Ingebjørg Vestrum. 2014. ‘The embedding process of community ventures: creating a music festival in a rural community’. Entrepreneurship and Regional Development 26/7-8: 619-644

I found this to be a really interesting sociological account of a rural Norwegian village’s attempts to be ‘released from cultural and social stagnation’ (p. 630) by developing its own jazz festival. Even the detailed methodology section felt like reading a ‘whodunit’ through a vivid account of how the author pieced together the history of the festival from emails and her own account of embedding herself in its story. For the ‘cultural entrepreneur’ who was tasked with the challenge of starting the festival, the embedding process was also not an easy one, and it is interesting that the author highlights how it would have been easier to develop a folk festival rather than a jazz festival as few villagers were interested in jazz. Indeed, the article highlights the tensions between the various actors in setting up a festival of this nature, but I would have liked to have learned more about why jazz was chosen and why the municipality chose a cultural project as a means of regeneration. The article focuses more on the process of embedding the festival rather than whether the festival’s impacts on the community and a useful follow-up would be to see whether the festival has invigorated the village in the way it was hoped (certainly the festival seems to have been a success).

  1. Government support for festivals can have unintended international consequences

Christopher Washburne. 2010. ‘Jazz re‐bordered: cultural policy in Danish jazz’. Jazz Perspectives 4/2: 121-155

What could have been a somewhat dry topic is instead a fascinating ‘study of jazz as a global phenomena’ (p. 123), using a case study of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, which deliberately acts as a showcase for Danish groups in both the programming and the production of a ‘insiders program’ which serves as a ‘guide to the best of Danish jazz’ (p. 122). Three particular points of interest raised by the author were that:-

  • The strong US dollar of the 1980s and 1990s meant that it was expensive to import American jazz musicians into Europe and hence allowed – alongside a burgeoning jazz education system – more opportunities for Danish musicians to perform at festivals (p. 124), thus illustrating the importance of examining festivals within national and international (policy) contexts;
  • The provision of funds by the Danish Jazz Federation means that Danish bands are ‘real bargains’ for festivals and clubs around the world (p. 150) but the flipside is that musicians’ fees drop when they find out a Danish musician is in the band because everyone knows about the subsidies (p. 151), highlighting the unintentional consequences of government support;
  • A lack of performance venues in Denmark means that jazz festivals are a major source of income for local musicians (p. 152).

However, while the author states that Danish jazz musicians’ exposure on the international jazz scene ‘continues to grow’ (p. 154), I would have appreciated more discussion on whether the Danish cultural policy has been effective in promoting Danish musicians outside Denmark.

For more literature on the impact of jazz festivals from all over the world, see the annotated bibliography on the Impact of Festivals website.