Adrian Jackson: “We continue to take risks at Wangaratta”

ajFor the Australian Jazz Community, the arrival of Spring means one thing: it’s time for the Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival. Less than a month before the event, the Festival’s artistic director, Adrian Jackson, offers an insight into this year’s program and shares his thoughts on Australian jazz, gender equality in the community – and his ambition to get himself back on a golf course, as soon as possible. When you think about the program you set out for this year’s edition of Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival, what is it that you’re most proud of?
Adrian Jackson: If I have to choose one thing, I’d say the fact that we continue to take risks, especially with the choice of international guests. Artists like Melissa Aldana, JJ Thames and Ronan Guilfoyle aren’t well-known here, they’re not an easy sell. But I think over the years, the audience has come to trust that we are only going to present internationals who have something special to offer. And for both the festival and the audience, including younger artists, potentially major stars in the making, can be seen as a sound investment in the future of the music.

AJN: How do you work on the program? Do you have a theme in mind?
AJ : Much to my chairman’s chagrin, I resist taking a thematic approach. I know it might give the marketing campaign a head start, but I think that programming to a theme would limit my choices, beyond what I’m comfortable with. Generally, I look to strike a balance between artists who have often played at the festival, and have a new band or a new program that I feel will be of interest to the audience, and artists who don’t play Wangaratta so often, or in some cases they are making their debut to perform. On one hand, you want the established top artists there to help sell tickets and continue to set high standards ; on the other, you have the younger or less-famous artists there to give them a chance to prove their worth, and to ensure the audience is seeing a new and fresh program from year to year.

AJN: What has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face, this year?
AJ : I think each year, the challenge is to match or better what we presented last year, including some standout concerts that might still be vivid in the minds of those who were there last year, or perhaps heard the concert on ABC Jazz.

AJN: Looking back, what has been the highlight of the festival, for you?
AJ: I feel lucky to have wandered into the position of doing a job that I enjoy and find rewarding, and to do it for so many years. The highlight has probably been having the chance to work with so many musicians who I hold in such high regard ; to propose or develop projects with them ; and then to see it all come together onstage, to be met with such generous approval by the audience.

AJN: A lot has been said about the cuts in funding, implemented by the government. What is your take on this issue?
AJ : Well, the first thing I should acknowledge is that the festival has benefitted greatly from government support throughout its lifespan. The Rural City established the festival and continues to provide funding, plus input from some key staff members. Arts Victoria (now Creative Victoria) has been a consistent supporter, and Tourism Victoria has also chipped in at different times. And at the federal level, we have been fortunate enough to receive Australia Council funding every year since 1991, even though the policy is that past funding is no guarantee of future support, and despite the increasingly tight competition for a shrinking arts budget.
I recall some discussions at board level, where our reliance on government funding was identified as a weakness; we needed to develop other revenue streams. I’ll admit I scoffed and said the AusCo would never withdraw funding for a flagship event like ours. But that did come to pass, at least for one funding round, earlier this year. And that was the result of the now-infamous decision by Senator Brandis to go against the entire purpose of the Australia Council, to confiscate a large slice of the arts budget to be handed out by himself as a matter of personal taste and political whim.

AJN: This year’s festival has a strong presence of women. Was this deliberate?
AJ : As discussed, I’m not keen on programming to a theme. But once this year’s program had been assembled, I couldn’t help noticing an unusually high number of women were featured, not only as singers as is often the case, but also as bandleaders and soloists. The fact that this occurred organically, rather than because of a theme or a quota, is the way it should be, in my view. It’s still a long way short of a 50/50 split. And there is no doubt that sexism and discrimination have long been part of the jazz scene, as in society in general. I’m not against quotas or themes, full stop. I think the Melbourne Womens Jazz Festival, and more recently its Sydney counterpart, have done a valuable service of putting women in the spotlight, creating opportunities for them to perform, and – what’s most important, in my opinion – presenting role models for aspiring younger musicians to draw inspiration from.

AJN: What is your take on the Australian jazz scene, in general?
AJ: I would say it is very rich and diverse, this country is home to a lot of outstanding musicians and bands. A lot don’t stray far from the iconic American models. But a lot have absorbed influences and ideas from a range of musics that would be hard to replicate elsewhere, and as a result, produce music that could only have been incubated here. I’m thinking of artists like The Necks, Band Of Five Names, The Hoodangers, Way Out West, Stu Hunter‘s bands or Andrea Keller‘s or Paul Grabowsky‘s. Or Joe Chindamo, the way he moves between jazz, classical works, music drawn from film scores or pop artists, isn’t something he’d necessarily be encouraged to do in most other markets.
I suppose that some fans, critics and musicians will see Australian jazz as an inferior version of American jazz, because it is different, a lot of the players aren’t so fussed about whether their music swings at all times, or always is rooted in the blues. As Scott Tinkler observed once, it makes sense for that to be important to the Americans, but that doesn’t make it the be-all and end-all for everyone else. The other major disadvantage is the economics of jazz here. No matter how gifted you may be, it’s very tough to make a living playing jazz here.

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?
AJ: It’s hard to answer that, exactly when so many diverse approaches fit under the umbrella of ‘jazz’. But among other things, what really drew me to jazz, and still does, is the idea that the music unfolds as a conversation among the musicians onstage ; and the idea that a musician’s experiences and personality will be apparent in the sound they draw from their instrument, as well as they way they express and develop their ideas.

AJN: What is your main aspiration?
AJ: At the moment, to get past a broken rib, put various back, knee and elbow injuries behind me, and get back onto the golf course.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
AJ: ‘Come Down To My Funeral’, by Flap!

The 2016 Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival takes place on the weekend of 28-30 October.