Just one of many strange thoughts I found idling through my mind as I sat in Manchester’s Albert Square, or should I say Thwaites Festival Square. That’s one of the fun quirks of Manchester’s Jazz Festival, not only do popular songs get the jingly revisionist treatment, so do the landmarks – The Midland, St. Ann’s Church, Central Library – each one is set to don a jiggier alter-ego for the next seven days as the city centre is transfigured by the playful and soulish sounds of what remains to many the oddball cousin of the music industry – Jazz.
Right now I’m sitting in a huge airless marquee, with the grungy electronic whine of what might be a guitar sliding in and out from behind mellow off-beat keys and the rapid lispy snap of a hyperactive snare as I listen to The Great Mountain, a hipster three-piece that may be jazz’s answer to Radiohead.
A man in a straw fedora and plimsolls is rocking a baby beside me. Suspiciously scented smoke wafts from a blonde dreadlocked teen behind. Meanwhile a grey-head, decked in tweed jacket and chinos, bops and nods in the row ahead as I struggle to shake the feeling that my mind, the city centre, and even the weather (27 degrees and not a cloud in sight, in Manchester?) are all slightly askew, as though someone’s taken hold of the whole place and given it a sharp tilt to one side.
And this, I guess, is sort of the point.
See, you’ve got to think when George Wein first introduced the outdoor music festival to the world back in 1954 that this is exactly what he envisioned. The Newport Jazz Festival was the first of its kind. In Wein’s words, it
‘was the foreground for everything like Woodstock and all the different festivals that have come after it.’
Whilst Lee Konitz, the only surviving headliner from ‘54, says it was
‘satisfying because we weren’t playing the popular music of the day… we didn’t get a standing ovation or anything.’
In other words, the aim then was to take the music out of its normal habitat and convert the masses. They weren’t trying to reach their crowd, they were trying to reach everyone else.
Problem is you get the feeling almost every festival that’s followed has gotten steadily less evangelical. Glastonbury, Creamfields, Lollapallooza or whatever else, they all have a specific market, a field-stomping, welly-wearing demographic to aim at.
Festivals today are remote gatherings, in parks or fields, where lovers of a given genre congregate to take in its offerings and be among their own kind. In fact they’re everything the Manchester Jazz Festival isn’t. Which is what makes it so refreshing.
And so as I sit here, surrounded by people of every generation, class and background, I think to myself how cool it’d be if more festivals were like this, and even wonder why most aren’t.
Because if music is – as a poet once said – the ‘universal language,’ why shouldn’t a festival’s crowd reflect that? Perhaps it’s time more festivals ventured from their fields and parks to invade city centres. And make music the thing that removes the barriers between people, rather than just the thing that reveals them.