By Adrian Jackson, Creative Director, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues.
One of the questions I can expect each year when the program is announced is ‘what is the theme for this year’s festival?’
Generally, I avoid programming to a theme. My goal is always to assemble a balanced, varied and strong program, and I feel that programming to a theme restricts the options to choose from.
Once this year’s program had taken shape, a theme emerged after the fact. That theme is the strength and diversity of female jazz and blues artists, whether as vocalists, instrumentalists, bandleaders and composers.
There is nothing unusual in the presence of so many talented female jazz and blues singers (JJ Thames, Chris McNulty, Kylie Auldist, Fiona Boyes, Olivia Chindamo, Monique di Mattina, Hetty Kate, Kimba Griffith, Leigh Carriage).
But it’s fair to say that (apart from the annual Womens Jazz Festivals in Melbourne and Sydney) we don’t often see a festival program featuring so many female bandleaders and featured soloists : Melissa Aldana, Shannon Barnett, Sandy Evans, Andrea Keller, Bridie King, Kellie Santin, Zoe Black, Tamara Murphy, Belinda Woods & Mary Doumany.
The fact that they were all included on merit, without reference to any theme or quota, seems to me the way it should be.
Another focal point when fans, musicians and media commentators examine the program each year is the choice of international artists. It’s great when we can land a high-profile artist like Dave Douglas, John Scofield, Charlie Musselwhite, Jon Cleary or Jeff Watts. There is no doubt that the bar will be set high, and it gives us a flying start in marketing the lineup for that year.
This year’s international guests aren’t so well-known. I think that even among dedicated jazz and blues fans in Australia, only a handful would recognise the names of Melissa Aldana or JJ Thames. But our marketing team will do their best to raise these artists’ profiles by the time the Festival takes place.
And I have no doubt that our audience will know who they are, and will be congratulating themselves for having taken this chance to see them before they become household names. It’s a riskier approach. But if a major jazz festival won’t take a chance on artists with such obvious talent and potential, who will? Don’t forget, the international jazz star Kurt Elling who tours Australia so regularly these days was ‘Kurt who?’ when he came to Wangaratta back in 1998.
The Ronan Guilfoyle Trio, from Ireland, first played here in 2004, along with Dave Liebman. I caught up with Ronan two years ago, during a too-brief visit to Dublin. One idea we discussed was to have him perform ‘A Shy Going Boy’ (commissioned to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising) with a group including some of his favourite Australian musicians.
And our other international band is a quartet from Koln in Germany, led by Melbourne’s own Shannon Barnett. She is doing well in Germany, so I would tell her many fans to take this chance to hear her back in Australia while we can.