How Music Works: the Bray Jazz Festival - 17 years strong in the seaside town

Bray jazz festival director George Jacob on the ups and downs of its 17-year run and what fans can expect from this year’s event

 

Running a festival, whether it exists in a field or multiple venues is no easy task. Putting on one edition is admirable; putting on 17 years of a festival with a niche audience in a seaside town, south of the city, and maintaining it through the lean years of economic recession is something else.

George Jacob is the man behind the Bray Jazz Festival that deserves much respect for this feat. As Jacob tells it, while the downturn meant the festival lost its corporate sponsorship, it gained in small ways that allowed it to continue.

“Suddenly everything became a lot more affordable, we experienced a huge amount of goodwill from different people including musicians, venues, production people hiring us pianos, instruments and sound engineering equipment. Some of our key sponsors, including the Arts Council and Wicklow County Council, stayed with us. And the audiences kept on coming.”

This year’s audiences can enjoy jazz events across Bray town for the May Bank Holiday weekend featuring international and local performers such as Ivory Coast singer Dobet Gnahore, American pianist Kenny Werner, Swede Magnus Öström, Mexican pianist Alex Mercado, Irish composer Ronan Guilfoyle and Scottish trad players Catriona McKay and Chris Stout.

“We’re well established at this point and are therefore on the radar of the main agents and promoters,” Jacob says of this year’s eclectic lineup. “When they’re arranging tours, they’ll drop us a note. We’ll keep be keeping an eye on their roster to see who is going to be on tour at around May. The festival also takes place on the same weekend as Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which is just a short hop across the pond.”

From soccer to solos
Jacob, whose day job is head of communications with charity Gorta-Self Help Africa, also has experience in putting on events such as pre-season international soccer tournaments at Landsdowne Road that brought players like Michael Owen, Ruud Van Nistelroy and Alan Shearer to play.

Having learned of a Millennium event funding scheme in the late-1990s, Jacob pitched a jazz festival for Dublin. When it was successful, he brought in those with more experience to help him develop a contemporary jazz programme.

“We worked closely with Gerry Godley, formerly of Improvised Music Company in Dublin for many years. This year, our main bill is being programmed by his successor, Ken Killeen. We’ve been fortunate to have built some great relationships on the production side too – Galway-based Ciaran Ryan supplies our grand pianos, Greg Ryan, formerly of Sensible Music and now of Litton Lane looks after backline, and sound engineer Paul Ashe Browne does all of our sound production work.”

Nordic sensibility
This year, the Bray Jazz Festival has a Nordic strand of programming, which Jacob says is where much of the emerging European talent is coming from. Jacob points to Norwegian festivals such as NattJazz in Bergen and JazzFest in Trondheim as inspirational examples of what’s happening there.

Jacob will contact the cultural institutions and embassies relevant to the festival’s performances for additional support. This year that includes embassies from Norway, Sweden, the US and Mexico, while two groups performing are receiving travel grants from agencies in Switzerland and France to help pay for the cost of travel.

As for local jazz and improvised music, Jacob says the recession lead to Ireland losing some of its best and brightest young players, who scattered to Berlin, Amsterdam, London and New York. At the same time, there was an influx of foreign players who established themselves here.

“Interestingly, and in part because of the great education programme at Newpark Music Centre, the country also attracted some hugely talented young players from across the globe. This year, we’ll have some of these players, including a Peruvian, South Africa, Venezuelan, Japanese and several English players on our ‘domestic’ roster. Bands who have impressed include UMBRA and CEO Experiment, the latter of which has a Hungarian, a Peruvian and a Venezuelan involved.”

Local support is key
Local support is important to the festival as are the buildings that lend themselves to the festival for performance.

“There’s a lot of goodwill towards the festival from bar venues, hoteliers, restauranteurs and from Mermaid Arts Centre, and local people come out and support us. We’ll have around 14 venues across the town involved this year and we are putting on lots of music at popular seafront venues including The Martello, The Harbour Bar, The Hibernia Inn; some local restaurants, and we are also using two heritage buildings within the town – the former town hall as a recital space, and a deconsecrated medieval church for other gigs.”

The Arts Council, Wicklow County Council and Fáilte Ireland offer sponsorship that enables 70 per cent of the 40 scheduled shows to be free to attend. Local businesses also contribute to the cost of programming in their venues.

Jacob says that up to 60 per cent of the audience to some of our headline concerts will travel out from the greater Dublin area to attend, which is both a blessing and a curse.

“The biggest challenge I see in staging a festival in Bray is convincing people to travel out from the city, as the Dublin market is critical to what we do. Secondly, trying to encourage them to stick around is a challenge. I sometimes look with envy at other festivals – in places like Kilkenny, or Wexford, because people go for the show and stay for the weekend. Our proximity to Dublin is a benefit in one regard, but a hindrance in another, as people can head off home afterwards.”

As for the performers themselves, Jacob says it helps that the musicians that come to play the festival are motivated by their art.

“Fantastic people come into your life for a few days and then leave it again. My experience has been that jazz attracts interesting and creative people, people who are more motivated by the art that they create than the money they can make from it.”

After 17 years, the Bray Jazz Festival has weathered ups and downs and arrives this week healthy and ready for 6,000 people to attend its events. Jacob says that covering festival costs is his first priority but as long as the audiences continue to come, then the festival will continue its impressive run.

“It’s enormously heartening also to see good houses at the shows. If people weren’t turning up to the festival, why would we continue?”

- The Bray Jazz Festival runs from Thursday April 28th to Monday May 2nd, 2016. For more, see brayjazz.com

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