For a moderately sized town in the west of England, Cheltenham hosts a surprising number of cultural events. The transport links are relatively good and the town is fairly affluent, but the main reason that the town has become associated with festivals is because it started earlier than most.
The first Cheltenham Music festival was in 1945 before the Second World War had come to an end. It began as a modest affair, organised by a councillor, the town hall manager and some local musicians. The Literature Festival followed in 1947, the first jazz festival was in 1996 and the Science Festival began in 2002. These four festivals are all run by a charity, but the Cheltenham name has almost become a brand and attracts other events not put together by this organisation – there’s a cricket festival, a design festival while even the National Hunt Gold Cup race meeting has appropriated the festival moniker.
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival has just celebrated its 19th year. It is based around Montpellier Gardens, a small park near the centre of town. The festival is always evolving and developing and this year there were two enclosed tented venues named ‘The Big Top’ and ‘The Jazz Arena’, a free stage open to the general public plus a number of other permanent venues within easy walking distance of each other.
The festival is held around the early May Bank Holiday weekend. This year it was gloriously sunny weather and the music from the free stage gave a pleasant background ambience as I spoke to Jazz Festival director Ian George about the event.
‘The free stage is where people can come onto the site, sit in the gardens and enjoy free music from Thursday to Monday,’ he explained.
‘It is important that we do that. There is this still this stigma about jazz and we can say ‘don’t get too hung up on that, just come in and enjoy the gardens’.’
Apart from the free stage, all the events are individually ticketed.
‘It is a bit of a hybrid festival’, continued George. ‘It has a green field site, but the main venues are tented and we use other venues in town: Cheltenham Town Hall, Parabola Arts Centre, The Daffodil, Hotel du Vin and The Playhouse Theatre.’
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival is an important event in the UK jazz calendar, bringing in many top British and international artists and putting on special events. This year the event hosted the first concert for 25 years from contemporary big band Loose Tubes and the launch of the new Jamie Cullum album. George emphasised that the programme is not for the jazz purist as there’s also music from a broad range of different genres.
‘The programme has broadened. We have Jamie Cullum here today doing his radio show. He is our guest director and the ethos of what we do strikes a chord with Jamie. Our core is jazz, but we are happy to celebrate other styles that relate to jazz.
‘We have world music with Tinariwen’s desert blues from the Sahara and soul legend Roberta Flack. We have lots of jazz on the programme, but we also have soul and blues and that’s okay. This brings in people who wouldn’t consider themselves jazz fans, but we can get someone into these gardens today to see Robert Cray and maybe they will like some jazz on the free stage. We try and get as many people as possible into the gardens and hopefully they will pick up a ticket for something that they weren’t expecting and enjoy it.’
Many of the people working at the festival are volunteers, but George explained that it is still a huge operation to raise funds.
‘The money is largely from sponsorship and ticket sales. We only get four percent of our income from the Arts Council so it is a huge operation to raise the money. We used to be a division of the council, but in 2006 the festivals and the councils separated. We don’t get any financial support from the council, but we work very closely with them, using the venues and the gardens we are in today.’
The festival also receives support from BBC Radio 2 and Radio 3. Friday Night Is Music Night was broadcast from the festival, Jamie Cullum broadcast a live programme on Radio 2 on Saturday afternoon, Clare Teal’s programme was live on Sunday evening and Jamie Cullum broadcast a round-up on his Tuesday show.
I spent a very pleasant couple of days and sampled music that was representative of the full range on offer. There was a fabulous atmosphere and an impressive depth and variety to the programme.