Preview: Manchester Jazz Festival

Femke Colborne talks to artistic director Steve Mead about the continuing legacy of the Manchester Jazz Festival

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With its twentieth anniversary looming next year, Manchester Jazz Festival is now a much-loved summer institution, but the entire concept very nearly didn’t get off the ground at all. In 1996, the event’s first year, the opening band were warming up behind a temporary outdoor stage in Castlefield and the crowds were just starting to gather in the sunshine when the IRA bomb went off in the city centre. The area had to be evacuated, the crowds cleared and the musicians sent home.

But the team behind the Manchester Jazz Festival – a group of enthusiastic musicians and music lovers who had joined forces to address the lack of jazz in the city – managed to regroup and stage the festival later the same year. One of those musicians was Steve Mead, a classical guitarist who had latterly found himself drawn to life as a jazz musician. “We were frustrated that Manchester didn’t have a jazz festival, or even a jazz club in those days,” he says. “We made a few enquiries about funds for a ‘jazz day’, rallied a few people together, got a bit of funding, and we almost pulled it off.”

Mead remains artistic director of the festival and has watched it grow into an international event attracting top jazz performers from around the world. Starting on 18 July, this year’s festival will be the biggest yet, with 500 musicians performing across eight venues in Manchester and an international jazz convention at the Midland Hotel. Highlights will include Memphis soul legend Booker T, US jazz pioneers The Bad Plus, the Hackney Colliery Band and the Music Place Choir, a 60-strong vocal tour de force that will bring the festival to a close on 27 July.

The Festival Pavilion in Albert Square will provide a focal point during the ten days of the festival, offering food and drink stalls alongside small-scale performances. According to Mead, this stage will be an opportunity for the festival to showcase the huge variety of styles and influences that can be heard in jazz today – from world music to pop and electronica. “We want to show that jazz isn’t just about the dingy back room of a pub with a lot of old men tapping their feet,” he says.

Mead is also a composer, and his interest in new music has been reflected in the festival programme since the early days. This year’s major new commission will be Article II, a work by Manchester-born guitarist and composer Anton Hunter that will be performed in the newly refurbished Central Library. The piece, whose title is a reference to the EU right of freedom of assembly, has been co-written by 11 other musicians. Hunter sent digital extracts to each of them and asked them to reinterpret the music before sending them back to him. The end result will be Hunter’s own final take on their various interpretations.

For the festival’s twentieth edition next year, another large-scale new work will be created in collaboration with the Manchester Literature Festival. The two events have invited artists to propose new projects combining jazz and the written word and the winning proposal will be performed at next year’s festival.

Mead says it’s hard to believe the festival is preparing to celebrate such an impressive milestone. “I didn’t even think we would get to the end of the day, never mind still be here 20 years later,” he says. “We’ve planned it one year at a time. It was always hard to predict what the festival would look like in the future, but we have always had three core aims: to celebrate music in the North West; to encourage new music; and encourage audiences to discover new things. Over the years we have created a marker for quality and innovation.”

Manchester Jazz Festival, 18-27 July, various venues, Manchester 

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