Feature: The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues celebrates 28 years this November – how has it changed?

The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has been a staple of the Australian industry for over two decades now, celebrating its 28th year this November. As a live music event, the festival has grown and developed itself into a feature name on the national calendar considerably and as this year’s program further proves, the line up has continued to diversify with the likes of Dallas FrascaThirsty Merc and in 2017, Spiderbait appearing on the bill.

Along with three days of live music held in venues throughout town, the Wangaratta festival also hosts the prestigious National Jazz Awards. Established during the festival’s debut year in 1990, the awards have seen some of the country’s brightest players come through the ranks to either place as finalists, or take out the top title. Providing a platform for talented jazz players to not only be exposed to the national and, these days, international market, the National Jazz Awards offers more than just a sweet trophy and financial prize (this year’s cash prize amounts to an impressive $12,000).

Now New York-based, Australian trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis (pictured) returns to Wangaratta not only as a performer, but as awards judge. Alongside Scott Tinkler and Adrian Sherriff, Noordhuis has been poring through submissions from brass players around the country, the feature instrument of the competition in 2017. From the extensive pool of entries, ten finalists will be selected to progress to the National Jazz Awards finals on November 5th.

“There are some wonderful original musicians in this year’s entries,” Noordhuis says. “I can’t wait to hear them perform live. There is a distinctive Australian voice that seems to be present in almost all the entries. I can hear a strong influence of a couple of well known Australian brass players. I’ve judged a few competitions in New York, and the jazz style in the US is so completely different. Many of this year’s entrants have a predisposition for quite angular improvisations, and using effects like bent notes or growls, or half-valved pitches. It’s super interesting!”

A former semi-finalist of the National Jazz Awards herself, Noordhuis is well-experienced in the competition’s rundown from the entrant’s point of view. As she explains, brass players have had a better playing field to step onto with the 2017 competition.

“The process has changed significantly since the last brass competition in 2010.” she explains. “What I love is that it now features two out of the three submitted tracks being composed by Australians. This is a huge development, in my opinion. This makes this competition very unique, as it’s about Australian originality, rather than an emulation of music from overseas. Australian music has such freedom and creativity in it. There’s a bold enthusiasm in combining global influences from a variety of genres to come up with something new.”

“I was blown away by some of the entries this year. It’s going to be a spectacular showcase of talent, and I hope everyone makes time in their listening schedule to attend.”

This listening schedule Wangaratta attendees are set to put together for themselves is set to be an extensive one, particularly on the Saturday program, with Wangaratta’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, Pinsent Hotel, WPAC Hall, WPAC Theatre, St. Patrick’s Hall and the Merriwa Park Blues Marquee set to host some eclectic artists.

As Artistic Co-Director Adam Simmons says, 2017’s Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has reflected the festival’s wide reach and the calibre of jazz and blues artists that have either come to the festival for the first time or are returning artists to the fold.

“Start with two of Australia’s finest pianists, Tony Gould and Mike Nock performing with young artists from Monash University,” he says of Friday night’s program. “Followed by the New Orleans pianist, funk-master, Jon Cleary, in a special intimate show. Finish with another New Orleans resident and trumpeter extraordinaire, Christian Scott, showcasing his much more contemporary mix of influences with his young band. If you want a little more, wander down to see Ian Moss at the Blues Stage.” 

“There will also be a reunion of sorts with Philippe Guidat (guitar, France), Nadje Noordhuis and myself. Philippe and Nadje met as Fellows at Music Omi Artist Residency in upstate New York, in 2007 when I was the invited Guest Mentor. Ten years later we will be joined by their respective musical partners, Pascal Rollando and James Shipp, and Melbourne bassist, Chris Hale for a very special first-time musical meeting.”

Multi-instrumentalist Simmons is part of a four-person festival programming team for Wangaratta, completed by Zoe HauptmannScott Solimo and Frank Davidson, reflecting a new chapter for the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues following the public exit of former Artistic Director Adrian Jackson earlier this year. As Simmons has stated, this new phase of the festival will bring a ‘fresh perspective’.

“I believe Wangaratta is not just reflective, but influential, in shifting trends in Australia.” Simmons explains. “The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has always presented a broad cross-section of the jazz and blues community, from established veterans through to young emerging artists, and aimed to be representative of the myriad of sub-genres, often facilitating interstate and international collaborations that are unique to the Festival. Because of this, artists are often proposing and preparing works to be premiered and/or launched at the Festival.”

“It really is a showcase opportunity for artists to present their latest work,” he furthers.
“Because most of the artists are there in town for the weekend with no other regular commitments, they can meet and check each other’s performances, thus getting to hear friends and colleagues from different cities/countries that they may not see again until the next time in Wangaratta. Personally, I have been influenced as an artist by many performances I have witnessed at the festival over the years.”

First becoming involved with the festival in the late 1990’s as a performer, Simmons notes the changes the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has undergone, largely for the better.

“I first performed in 1997 with the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, which really did help establish me on a more national level. Since then, I have always sought to perform at the festival with various projects and have usually been fortunate enough to get a gig every two or three years; sometimes with several ensembles in the same year. I’ve snuck into the festival weekend via the workshop/educational aspect also working with Northern Rivers Academy of Music and the National Youth Jazz Academy on several occasions also as well as even playing with the local Blues Brothers band. Over that time, I have been impressed by the festival’s commitment to the artistic community from which it grew – it continues to champion Australian musicians of high quality and artistic integrity, placing them side by side with international artists of a similar nature, without resorting to just presenting celebrities to get bums on seats.”

“One thing I believe the festival has really fostered over the years have been the younger artists that were once the upstarts and rebels, but are now the leaders, teachers and elders of the scene – I can probably include myself as one of these. Over the time I’ve been there, I believe audiences have really come to expect the unexpected at Wangaratta – which makes it easier to step in at this point and be told to continue to be bold in our programming choices.”

For Noordhuis, her debut year at Wangaratta was in 2002 but as she explains, the festival provided great opportunities to reconnect as well as to see some renowned names.

“This will be my third time at Wangaratta Jazz Festival,” she says. “The first was around 2002, again in 2010 as a semi-finalist in the National Jazz Awards, and now as a performer and a judge in 2017. What I remember most about my first trip to Wangaratta was hearing the Dave Douglas Quintet – I had previously only heard them on recordings and was super excited to hear them live. In 2010 I had lived overseas for seven years, and so I spent most of the time catching up with old friends whilst feeling rather stressed about performing in the competition.”

Another reflection of the festival’s growth, as well as that of the National Jazz Awards, is the international reach it has developed. For the first time in the award’s history, the winner of the National Jazz Awards will be invited to perform at the Sena International Jazz Laureate Program and will be flown to perform the Rabobank Amersfoort Jazz Festival in the Netherlands next May.

While the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues’ sights are set higher than before and the scope has potentially broadened more to attract more international attention, the core principle of supporting Australian jazz and blues musicians has remained strong as ever. For first timers to Wangaratta, Simmons has some tips for navigating the festival, though it seems just as wise to immerse oneself completely and find something new.

“I suggest that once you arrive, you walk down to the festival precinct in Ford St, make sure you’ve got your pass and then head into a venue – pick a venue, any venue, but make sure you see at least gig in each over the weekend.” he says. “Each venue tends to have a different vibe, whether it’s the high quality, showcase jazz concerts in the Performing Arts Centre Theatre, the slightly edgier stuff in the adjoining Hall, the angelic and beautiful sounds in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the good-time swing in the Pinsent Hotel or the more party atmosphere at the Blues Marquee in Merriwa Park.”

“Along the way, talk to people, ask their advice, share your experiences. You’ll find people who will tell you where to get a good coffee, or which acts to see or will be just as new as you.”

The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues runs from November 3rd – 5th. The National Jazz Awards are held on November 5th, with the finalists to be announced at the end of September. For more information about the festival, visit www.wangarattajazz.com.

Lead image of Nadje Noordhuis by Mireya Acierto.