Way back in the 1970’s, the London Borough of Camden had the enlightened idea of adding a Jazz Week to their long-established Camden Festival. Over the following fifteen or more years, the Camden Jazz Week was held at several venues around the borough – the Roundhouse, Shaw Theatre, Logan Hall, Bloomsbury Theatre, the Forum – both as part of the spring Festival, and in some years, adding an Autumn week as well.
Although the Capital Jazz Festival brought the familiar round of touring American stars to the city in the summer, Camden Jazz occupied an essential place in the London jazz scene, introducing key international figures, including many of the emerging Europeans, and always committed to UK artists, with an active commissioning policy.
By the early nineties, the Camden Festival was no more, and although the Borough continued to support the Jazz Week for a few years, it became clear that a new direction had to be found in the light of changing budgets and priorities.
With the active support of London Arts Board (now Arts Council England), Serious – who had for some years produced the Camden weeks – engineered a transition that saw the evolution of a London Jazz Festival in 1992.
Taking the mix of international and British artists – and a commitment to education activity – that had been at the heart of the Camden weeks, the new Festival began to spread its wings, with the intention of celebrating the place of jazz in a city that was becoming at ease with its rich cultural diversity, and drawing in the venues across London that present the music, week in, week out, throughout the year.
It’s like iPod-shuffling with live music, only governed by the nimbleness of your legs rather than your thumbs. – John Fordham, The Guardian, UK”
It has grown to be not only London’s largest city-wide music festival, but one of the major international jazz events.
The highlights have been many – each year brings its own character and momentum, and the riches of the Festival can as easily be found in a packed club as in the concert hall.
Some landmark moments for the Festival over its 17 year history include:
- The first ever concerts by the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at the Hackney Empire.
- Joe Pass and Martin Taylor playing to a hushed, packed house at Union Chapel – and Michael Brecker playing solo to a similarly spellbound audience at the same venue some years later.
- Wayne Shorter?s first London concert with his consummate acoustic quartet at the Royal Festival Hall ? and returning triumphantly to the Barbican in 2006.
- Specially-commissioned and produced performances by some of the great composers in today’s jazz – George Russell, Carla Bley, Gerald Wilson and Randy Weston among others – bringing together international stars and the best British jazz musicians.
- Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker pushing the limits at Southbank Centre.
- Jazz on 3’s legendary Festival live broadcasts from the Pizza Express Jazz Club – Sheila Jordan, Archie Shepp, Bad Plus, Tord Gustavsen, William Parker.
- The Monk Liberation Front living and breathing all 70 of Thelonious Monk’s compositions in a heady all-dayer on the FreeStage at the Royal Festival Hall….and the 150 members of Kinetika lifting off into outer space from the same venue, as they rekindled the spirit of Sun Ra, south London stylee.
- Gilles Peterson introducing a killer multiple bill of Robert Glasper, Heritage Orchestra and Dwight Trible at the Barbican.
- Saxophone Massive – Andy Sheppard leading some 200 saxophonists opening the Festival to an audience of thousands – and the rain held off.
- A capacity Festival Hall skankng the night away to Jazz Jamaica All Stars – just one of many world jazz shows that have brought audiences to their dancing feet.
- Brad Mehldau and Tord Gustavsen, John Taylor and Gwilym Simcock exploring the peerless acoustics of the Wigmore Hall.
- The Festival’s New Audiences scheme, enabling thousands of young people to hear some of the Festival’s international stars, and bringing fresh enthusiasm into major concert halls.
- Digging into history – Michael Garrick, Frank Holder and Coleridge Goode paying tribute to the late Joe Harriott in a trio that collectively was some 250 years old.
This is truly an epic event in the jazz calendar and one that will warrant people saying ‘wish I’d been there to see them play’.
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