Tag Archives: Wangaratta

THE WORD ON WANG FROM THE BOARD

Miriam Zolin

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues

Q&A

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, responds to some questions about the future of this much-loved festival, which has been postponed by a year until 2020 for a “total re-think”:

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle you were quoted as saying it would have been “a huge risk” to go ahead with the festival this year. Clearly the board felt it would be a greater risk than to defer for one year, with all the implications for local businesses and for breaking the continuity of this event. What had changed that made it riskier to go ahead than to defer?

MZ: It wasn’t so much that anything huge had changed, just that we were able to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Prior to our festival managers resigning there was fairly limited transparency to how the festival was run. Boards have a responsibility to make sure they know what’s going on. They have responsibility for their sponsor and donor relationships, for the wellbeing of their volunteers and for strong, healthy community linkages. More than anything, Boards have serious fiscal responsibility right down to the line items on a budget. This is because Directors (Board members) are individually carrying risk and can be held liable if they’re not making it their business to be informed about the organisation’s workings. I joined the Board in April last year along with a couple of other people and we could see that there were lots of questions that needed answering, and the answers were not very forthcoming. The previous Board had either not been asking the questions, or had been asking and not getting answers. There were issues right down to artist contracts and our constitution, which contradicts itself in a couple of places.

Those of us who were new to the Board were good at asking questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons our festival managers resigned! It was probably quite annoying.

Once we had delivered the 2018 festival we knew we needed to hire a new festival manager but we needed to fix up those issues we’d uncovered first, or at least know what they were so we could get a new event manager to fix them. It would have been irresponsible of us not to address the multiple issues. As we started to understand the complexities, we also had a couple of Board members resign, so we were doing it all with a smaller team. We were committed to doing it but there just wasn’t capacity to do it concurrently with the work that had to be done for a 2019 festival.

Ausjazz: Also in that Wangaratta Chronicle article you said that the resignation of Adam Simmons from the festival’s artistic team was a tipping point for the board. Frank Davidson also announced he has retired from his role as co-artistic director. Do these departures signal a significant falling out between the board and its artistic directors?

MZ: Adam’s departure was a tipping point mainly because there was no way we could have programmed a festival that celebrated the 30th adequately in the time remaining to us. Adam worked incredibly hard during his time on the artistic team. He believed in the festival’s potential and really busted a gut to get the most out of the artistic budget and help coordinate a great program. For us to be able to proceed, programming would have needed to be well under way by the date of his departure. However the uncertainty that we’d been dealing with for the previous months meant that he had been unable to commit to a number of key artists. Also with his departure we would have had to recruit a new team member and work at a pace that our depleted Board simply could not have stomached. Honestly, no matter what decision we made at this point there would have been too much work to do, but this way, at the end of that hard work there is a greater chance of a future for the festival.

I know that Adam has spoken publicly on Facebook and elsewhere  about a difference of opinion that you mention below. I think I missed that. We’d told Adam that we had the same budget in 2019 for the program as we did in 2018, and that we were going to make some changes to how things were managed. The Board had agreed, based on our own observations and input from other individuals that far too much of an admin burden had been unfairly placed on the artistic team. We had also told Adam that we wanted the Event Manager – and until they were hired, the Board – to have an overview of all the funding being applied for. Again, it was about transparency and making sure the right processes were in place, with appropriate roles and responsibilities.

We have to remember that Adam was a member of a team so any programming vision was not just Adam’s; it was a shared vision, but I haven’t had any sense of a difference of opinion from other members of the team. Zoe Hauptmann’s contribution to the programming was huge, as was Frank’s dedication to the Blues. And I can’t speak highly enough of local musician and teacher Scott Solimo. He has been involved in the festival for years and in 2017 and 2018 was responsible for programming the community stage, and helped source staging, backline, sound, lighting… not to mention the strong local connections. What a star. Frank’s decision to resign had no relationship to Adam’s decision – though the timing made them seem connected. Frank had always been very clear that 2019 would be his last year. He is enjoying retirement, and being able to focus on his community radio gig and enjoy the surf where he lives. He had committed to three years of programming at Wangaratta. When we told him about our decision, he made the call to hang up his hat.

Ausjazz: Adam Simmons says the festival has a strong future, yet he has stated publically that he stepped down due to “a difference of opinion about the best way to try and achieve the same goal of moving the festival forward”. Can you elaborate on how Simmons’ vision differed from what the board wanted?

MZ: Again, I can’t speak for Adam. I’ve always held him in high esteem and I know that he had a vision that he would have liked to bring about over a number of years.

I’ve not been able to unpack exactly where Adam feels the disconnect between his vision and the Board’s arose. Last time we spoke about it I think I began to understand the extent of his hopes and dreams for the festival, and that’s a great thing to have in a co-artistic director. One thing we did say to him was that we wanted the 30th to celebrate the legacy of the festival as influencer and shaper of Australian jazz. We felt the idea of looking backwards so we can move forward was an important message for this 30 year milestone. He’s never said that this direction from the Board impinged on his vision, and I hope he would have said if it was an issue. It’s the only thing I can think of.

Ausjazz: You mentioned that last year’s festival was well acclaimed and a fantastic board had been in place. If there was not “a problem with money in the kitty”, why not pay for operational assistance to ease the load on board members and allow their role to remain strategic?

MZ: The 2018 festival went over budget, and the Rural City helped us out with some serious underwriting. The overrun happened around travel, accommodation, infrastructure and production – all aspects of the festival that we had to put in place quickly with minimal negotiating power after our event managers resigned 10 weeks out from the festival. Our draft budget for 2019 was showing that we could have pulled a 2019 festival together, but not with any fat. This would have been our fourth year without a significant surplus, and we needed to change that pattern. Running that close to the line, year after year, is just plain irresponsible. Late last year we also lost our major National Jazz Awards sponsor and failed with two Australia Council for the Arts applications. These seemingly disconnected events constituted a huge risk for our volunteer Board when lumped together. As individual Directors, we wear the loss, except when our very good friends the Rural City of Wangaratta step up to assist, and we have agreed that neither organisation has the appetite for that again.

Ausjazz: What aspects of the structure and organisation of the festival were so deficient that it meant taking a year off to fix them?

MZ: I’ve probably said enough about this above, but more will be shared as we progress through the year.

Ausjazz: You’ve flagged that from the festival’s annual general meeting in March there will be “a total re-think”. What does this mean for the music? Will there be an effort to further broaden the appeal of the festival and how far will this involve moving away from the festival programming as it evolved under the artistic direction of Adrian Jackson?

You’ve said this re-think would include whether the festival should continue to be held on the weekend before Melbourne Cup Day. What other options have been suggested, and why?

MZ: In recent years there have been some extreme weather at the festival, such as floods and heatwaves. Locals have been saying that this time of year is no longer as stable as it used to be. We’re not saying there will be a change, but just that there’s an opportunity to check whether there needs to be. We’ll work with the Rural City of Wangaratta on this one.

Regarding any suggestion of a change in music, the festival is famous regionally, nationally and to some extent internationally as a contemporary jazz music that features exciting collaborations and the best of Australian jazz. It’s an arts festival, which is why it attracts arts funding. While I am involved I will keep singing that tune (or maybe I’ll scat a little). We’re a jazz and blues festival, and I don’t see that changing, not least because of the National Jazz Awards. If the Board membership changes significantly and there’s decision to move away from jazz and improvised music in any significant way, I’d probably not want to be involved. Adrian Jackson was and is a gifted curator and programmer. The team that followed brought their own vision and delivered two wonderful festivals. I’m excited to see what a new Board will choose to program the 30th.

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle article, mayor Dean Rees said the council would be staging a music festival in November this year that would be “just as big or better for the community”. Given the difficulty faced by the board in continuing to hold a music festival that has been running for 29 years, how realistic is it for the city to stage a totally new and “better” festival in the time available, starting from scratch?

Cr Rees also suggested this new festival would perhaps involve “a new genre of music” and said “it may be time to steer away from jazz”. Does this mean the end of council’s support and effectively the end of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues?

MZ: I can’t speak for the Rural City of Wangaratta and I guess they can’t speak for the festival. I’m not privy to their plans for the weekend and we’ve offered to assist in any way we can, when they start to put some ideas together. We may be able to leverage our significant connections in live music, to attract and support some kind of a placeholder for the festival in 2019.

Although intertwined, we are separate organisations. There’s no doubt that we each provide significant benefit to each other and we’re receiving no indication that the Rural City no longer supports the festival. We’re in discussions with them about what their support will look like and we’re committed to an ongoing partnership. I guess Cr Rees’ response to the news supports the information we’re receiving that this decision was an unwelcome shock to many locals, which tells us we probably should have shared more of what we were going through with the local community so they understood what we were dealing with.

Last year RCoW underwrote the festival, as we ran at a significant loss. Linked with that, we have been really transparent with the Rural City and we want to make sure we work together to minimise the effect of this decision on the local community.

Ausjazz: Finally, a lot of regular patrons have an annual booking with accommodation providers in Wangaratta because they come every year. What do you advise people in this situation to do now that there will not be jazz or blues happening in November and the future of the festival is uncertain?

MZ: I can’t see into the future but I think that if people can wait a couple of weeks to decide, they should – at least until after the AGM on 4 March and until we’ve managed to figure out how we can support the Rural City with whatever they decide to do with that weekend. The accommodation providers will take a hit from this, and I know we’d like to find a way to make sure that’s minimised.

ROGER MITCHELL appreciates the effort by Miriam Zolin to respond so promptly to these questions. Her replies have been published in full.

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WANGARATTA FESTIVAL ON FURLOUGH

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Adam Simmons, third from left, takes a bow on stage at the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre Theatre during the 2018 festival. He has now bowed out of his role as co-artistic director.

BREAKING NEWS

There will be no Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues in 2019.

This esteemed festival will take a break before celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2020.

In a media release embargoed until 10am today — Friday 1 February, 2019 — the festival board announced it had voted to postpone the festival’s 30th anniversary celebrations.

The 30th festival will now be held in 2020.

“It was not an easy decision to make, but we all voted with the best interests of the festival in mind, and we will be working towards delivering a landmark festival in 2020,” said Festival Chair Miriam Zolin.

The news release went on as follows:

While the 2018 festival was widely enjoyed and praised for its exciting program of local and international jazz and blues, the organisation, like many small arts organisations, has faced a number of operational pressures in recent years.

The recent resignation of co-artistic director Adam Simmons, and departure of long-term festival managers Nolan Media Events last year, has underscored the need to look strategically at the festival’s operating model, and its long-term sustainability.

“The board is committed to ensuring the future of the festival, and for now that means taking some time to look at the way we operate and plan for the years ahead,” said Zolin.

In the lead-up to this decision, the festival has held discussions with its funding partners, including the Rural City of Wangaratta and Creative Victoria. In December the Board took part in a strategic planning day which pointed clearly to a need to look at the festival’s operational and fundraising models.

“The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has always been resilient in the face of change, and this decision will offer an invaluable opportunity for us to take a breath and revisit the festival’s structure,” said Zolin.

The Festival Board will work closely with its partners and the community to map out a future for the festival that ensures the festival’s vision and purpose stay strong.

“Just like the music that this festival celebrates, we’ll continue to be creative,” said Zolin.

“In 2019 we will develop a sustainable model for delivery of the festival into the future, and we need time to make sure we get it right. We will build on the success of 2018 and previous years to make the 30th festival one that celebrates all that Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has contributed to the jazz and blues scene in Australia and in bringing the local Wangaratta community together.”

“We acknowledge and thank all of those who have played a role in our extraordinary story to date and look forward to working together on this next chapter for Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues.”

As well, festival chair Miriam Zolin’s media release provided some background about the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues:

In 1989 a group of Wangaratta business people suggested the idea of a music festival to Wangaratta Council. Council funded a feasibility study which concluded that a festival in Wangaratta could offer a point of difference from other music festivals, with a program based on modern and contemporary jazz. The first festival took place in 1990. The festival also hosts the National Jazz Awards with its associated prizes and prestige. The professional careers of previous winners and finalists have been significantly boosted, making the NJAs a hugely important in developing a future for Australian jazz and improvised music. Programming for the first 27 years was overseen by the inimitable Adrian Jackson OAM, who was honoured in the 2019 Australia Day Honours List with an Order of Australian Medal acknowledging his services to music. Since its inception, the festival has been a huge influence in the Australian jazz scene, as well as a significant contributor to artistic and cultural life and economic development in the Rural City and the broader North East of Victoria. The festival continues to work in close partnership with the Rural City of Wangaratta.

This news will be a huge shock to many dedicated fans who have travelled to Wangaratta for many years on the weekend before Cup day to enjoy this feast of music – jazz and blues, featuring national and international artists – available at venues in one location and accessible via a daily or weekend pass.

It is a bold move to postpone such a festival for a year just as it prepares to celebrate 30 years in which many, many musicians have created memorable and often unexpectedly exhilarating moments for so many patrons.

Will this be a hiccup that opens the way to a brighter future for this annual gathering at which fans mingle in the streets with musicians and the anticipation of experimentation is often in the air? Or will this signal a parting of the ways for rusted on fans? Let’s hope it is the former.

And what will the streets of Wang be like on that weekend in early November, without the buzz, without the crowds and queues, without the blues marquee and without the bustle and hustle of patrons heading for yet another gig?

Quiet.

Bring on 2020 and the 30th Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: Those who have a regular booking for accommodation, remember to touch base with the local providers so they know you’ll be back, albeit a year later than anticipated.

MUSICAL COLOSSUS LEAVES AN INDELIBLE MARK

Ambon is performed at Wangaratta's WAPC Theatre

Ambon is performed at Wangaratta’s WAPC Theatre

REVIEW:

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 2015

MICHAEL Ondaatje, in his novel The Cat’s Table, paints a view of life in which “there is a story ahead of you, barely existing”. He says “only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it” so that “you find in this way the path of your life”.

It is a stretch, perhaps, to compare this view of life with coming to a jazz festival, yet there is always a sense of adventure, discovery and the lure of the unknown before this annual pilgrimage to Wangaratta for a weekend of music. What is the story ahead of us? To what will we attach ourselves so that we can feed our tales of the musical encounters ahead, building a narrative? In essence, what will we say to friends and colleagues back home about this festival?

A few preliminaries must be dealt with. This story does not cover the Blues Marquee. Much as I would have liked to hear Canned Heat at that venue, I did not find an opportunity.

Neither did I visit the new stage in the King George Gardens to hear jazz get “deconstructed, shaken up and unpacked”. The move to offer a less mainstream program at this venue did prompt some rusted on jazz fans to voice concerns about the festival losing its undoubtedly prestigious reputation as being serious about jazz.

But the stories I heard from those who did visit the garden stage were all positive — music that appealed to many, plenty of people and seats, interesting food and space for dancing. Heavy rain on Sunday forced some programming changes, I believe, but otherwise the move from Reid St stages to a ticketed venue may have been a success. If that provides revenue that can feed back to the jazz budget, it may be a positive.

Budget constraints were evident in the limited breadth of the international artist component, so a financial boost would be welcome. But after the last notes of the final night’s jam session at the Pinsent Hotel died away — some fluidly fleeing from the trumpet of James Morrison — there had been plenty of meat on the jazz bone (or quinoa in the salad for those inclined).

And a final preliminary comment: The festival app was a hit and a real asset, especially to reviewers.

Lloyd Swanton's Ambon

Lloyd Swanton’s Ambon

But let’s get it out there before delving further into any Ondaatje-style “story ahead” that may emerge from this festival: Sydney bassist Lloyd Swanton’s monumental work Ambon, performed too late on Saturday night in WPAC Theatre and lasting too long at almost two-and-a-half hours including a brief interval, towered over this weekend’s music.

However, to mention that an edit would help seems churlish in the face of a musical colossus so full of impact and affect, highlighting as it does in an intensely personal way the experiences of Swanton’s uncle Stuart as a prisoner of war on Ambon during World War II.

Twelve musicians and narration from Swanton invoked powerful and unforgettable images. Particularly in the second part, wails and strangled cries of assorted instruments conveyed to us with breathtaking, visceral, realism this world of suffering. Ambon will leave an indelible imprint on any who heard this performance.

But one concert is not a whole festival, so we need to pursue the elusive “story ahead” of Ondaatje’s theory. In practice — whether at a jazz festival or in life — we follow our noses and see what develops.

Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas

The festival could be described as a Dave Douglas club sandwich. The US trumpeter, bandleader and composer opened and closed the program and altogether featured in four concerts plus an onstage conversation.

On the WPAC Theatre stage on Friday evening his sure hand guided the Monash Art Ensemble through his suite Fabliaux, exploring medieval, bawdy tales via a series of transitions highlighting reeds, brass, percussion and strings. It was a texturally rich journey that I thought was even more impressive than when initially performed at Monash University in March 2014.

In two quintet outings Douglas was the energiser who kept pianist Matt Mitchell, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston pumped as they blasted us with often-remorseless onslaughts at full-throttle. Mitchell was superb and Royston exciting, yet I found more to enjoy when the group backed off, provided more dynamic variation and celebrated Douglas’s richer, more air-cushioned horn on hymn-like ballads.

The pick of Douglas’s concerts was a duo set with Australia’s Paul Grabowsky that drew on New England psalm tunes from The Sacred Harp. There were fierce exchanges (Ham Fist), but the whole concert had gravitas, offering solemnity as well as tension, wonderful interplay, rich tonality and masterful control of dynamics. This was a festival standout for me.

Grabowsky also featured in Fabliaux and with vocalist Virna Sanzone, saxophonist Mirko Guerrini and drummer Niko Schauble in The Italian Project, which I had heard performed in May 2014 at Chapel Off Chapel. Some may have found the traditional folk songs and works of Italian composers a little too infused with sweetness, but again deep empathy and warmth was evident between these musicians.

Linda Oh

Linda Oh

Linda Oh seemed to shine more outside Douglas’s quintet. Her quartet outing with Irabagon, Royston and guitarist James Muller produced some wonderfully warm solos and compositions that reflected a sensitive, intelligent musician. Undeniable highlights of this set were two movements from The Arrival Suite, inspired by the works of a graphic novel by Perth artist Shaun Tan (Folk Song was exquisite) and her piece Speech Impediment, inspired by Megan Washington’s Ted Talk on stuttering.

Gian Slater and Linda Oh

Gian Slater and Linda Oh

The latter composition was also part of an iridescent duo set with vocalist Gian Slater at Holy Trinity, where Oh’s bass seemed inseparable from the voiced notes Slater sent soaring and floating into the cathedral’s lofty heights.

Vocals were integral to two utterly different ensemble works. Kristin Berardi added her voice to another set of pieces drawn from words written in war, ably assisted by Sean Foran on piano and Rafael Karlen on sax. Hope In My Pocket seemed at times too gentle to convey the terrible losses and fears raised, especially as nuanced in Karlen’s luminous notes. Yet Berardi’s face conveyed the deep feelings exposed in these wartime letters.

Jane Bunnett in Maqueque

Jane Bunnett in Maqueque

Canadian soprano sax player and flautist Jane Bunnett, who led five young Cuban musicians in two concerts as Maqueque, the name translating as “the fiery spirit of a young woman”, took us in a completely different vocal direction. The award-winning ensemble took WPAC Theatre by storm on Friday night and understandably attracted lengthy queues the following night in St Patrick’s Hall.

Magdelys Savigne in Maqueque

Magdelys Savigne in Maqueque

Bunnett’s undoubted energy was upstaged by the enthusiasm and infectious joy of her ensemble members, who delighted with their collective sense of rhythm and captivated with beautiful harmonies. Dayme Arocena was billed as the standout vocalist, yet on Friday percussionist Magdelys Savigne demonstrated her admirable vocal skills, especially in the Bill Withers classic Ain’t No Sunshine.

Bunnett told the audience before Maqueque’s encore (Mamey Colorado) in WPAC Theatre “you have to dance or at least shake your booty”. I bet there were plenty of wiggling bums on seats.

US bassist David Friesen played two solo gigs in the cathedral as well as joining pianist Mike Nock for a duo set in WPAC Theatre. In each setting on Saturday these concerts gradually developed momentum. As a solo performer Friesen explored the playing of samples taken on the run to build layered pieces that were absorbing rather than exciting.

In the gig with Nock, with whom he had not played for 40 years, Friesen joined his friend and master of invention in again creating on the run — tentatively at first and then engaging in the way that such experienced improvisers can make seem so effortless.

Bass playing was naturally a big focus at this year’s festival because that instrument featured in the National Jazz Awards. So it was fitting that solos by Ben Waples (in pianist Jackson Harrison’s trio) and Steve Elphick (with Zac Hurren’s trio) were delivered so ably by experienced exponents of the bass arts (that may not sound so good, but it is).

Another bassist, Nick Haywood, can “play hard or be discreet” according to the program notes, and in TNT — with Tony Gould on piano and Ted Vining on drums — he chose the gentler approach. I did not hear all of TNT, but what I did catch was an exquisite experience.

The awards judges split hairs to decide between the three finalists, taking their time to return their verdict and award Sam Anning (back in Melbourne from New York) first prize followed by Alex Boneham (now living in LA) second and Tom Botting (expat Kiwi now in Sydney) third. Botting was undoubtedly the winner in comedic talent.

To put gender on the agenda as women’s jazz festivals are about to take place in Sydney and Melbourne, should all the judges have been male when there are women bassists in Australia and two of the top 10 finalists were women? (This point was put to me by a woman jazz fan with considerable expertise in governance.)

Sam Anning was performing in St Pat’s Hall when the news of his success filtered through. And not long after that he was looking a little bemused by the antics of Perth’s wildly exuberant drummer Daniel Susnjar in a septet playing Afro-Peruvian jazz as the festival neared its end. There was much spirited playing in this ensemble, but Grant Windsor has to be commended for providing much impetus from the piano.

And last, but by no means least, the search for a story to this year’s festival lands us at WPAC Theatre at 11am Sunday. On stage were two tenors, accompanied by Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson. Cameron Undy on bass and Danny Fischer on drums completed the band.

But the unseen player, in their thoughts and in our thoughts, was the late David Ades.

Hurren gave us that winning smile of welcome and then said, simply, “We’re going to play for Dave now.”

Play they did. It was a fitting tribute.

And it is a fitting place to end the “story ahead” that came to pass at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues 2015.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS:

1. The absence of Allan Browne was deeply felt this year.

2. Adrian Jackson again deserves much praise for his program.

3. Many gigs were not covered in this review. That does not mean they weren’t great.