Cheltenham Jazz Festival: the past and the future

Alyn Shipton
Wednesday, April 26, 2023

With the 2023 edition of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival starting today - Alyn Shipton spoke to adventurous artistic programmer Tony Dudley-Evans - who's been involved since the event's inception and steps down this year - and asked him to look back at his fondest memories and forward this year's personal highlights

Django Bates (photo: Tim Dickeson)
Django Bates (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Ever since the very first Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 1996, which was programmed by Jim Smith, Tony Dudley-Evans (pictured above) has been involved in the Festival's evolution and development. To start with, he was chair of the advisory group, taking a hand in recommending artists. Later he became artistic director, and more recently has taken a half-step back to become ‘Programme Advisor’. This means scheduling the part of the festival programme that focuses on free and contemporary improvisation, at the town’s Parabola Arts Centre.

To all of us who have been keen festival goers there over the last 27 years, Tony has been a vital and central ingredient, dashing from venue to venue, introducing acts on stage, sorting out last minute problems, but most importantly, clearly and visibly enjoying the music.

Oh, 2005 was an amazing year. We had both Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock on the same bill

Tony Dudley-Evans

So it was quite a surprise to hear that this year, as he enters his ninth decade, it will be his last as Programme Advisor and that he’s retiring from the Festival: “I decided at was time to step down and let someone else take over,” he tells me, “and although one side of me was slightly unwilling, I think it’s the right decision.”

So before we get to discussing the programme for this year, what does he look back on as the highlights of this long association?

“Oh, 2005 was an amazing year. We had both Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock on the same bill. Herbie was touring a new project and so that became part of his tour, but bringing in Ornette was more challenging. I discovered that Greg Cohen was playing bass with him that year, and I’d met Greg when he was over at a previous festival with Dave Douglas. So I asked him to put me in touch with Ornette, and he did. Then it was down to Ornette’s son Denardo, who not only played drums but managed the band, to work out a scheme with us that shared the costs of bringing the group to the UK with a concert at the Barbican. That worked out, and his evening in Cheltenham Town Hall that year was truly memorable.

ornette coleman

Ornette Coleman (photo: Tim Dickeson)

“Before I took over as Artistic Director, Jim Smith brought in Jackie McLean and his quartet. He was an early hero of mine, so to have him play for us was marvellous. Then as the years went on, there were other great events, I remember concerts by Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, but a very special memory was Michael Brecker’s solo set at the Everyman Theatre.

“I was always pleased to keep my association going with the Loose Tubes generation, not just by bringing the ‘Return of…’ to Cheltenham, but working over the years with Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, not to mention a special commission for Martin France and Spin Marvel, which brought Nils Petter Molvaer and John Paul Jones on to the programme”.

Mention of that concert, which was one of the first years that the festival moved from its Town Hall and Everyman Theatre base to a tented ‘village’, reminds me to ask about Tony’s move from overall direction to curating the programme at the Parabola.

“Well, it started before that, in the Pillar Room at the Town Hall and also at the Playhouse Theatre, in a series compèred by Stewart Lee that included Evan Parker among the artists. So I felt it was important to bring improvising groups and soloists into the programme, and early guests included Paul Dunmall, Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes. And in the same way I felt it was good to integrate their music into the main programme, I wanted to do the same for young up-and-coming musicians. So over the years we’ve welcomed such talents as Kit Downes, Seb Rochford, Yazz Ahmed and Laura Jurd. Sometimes, as a promoter, you also have to do things you really want to do and not ‘follow the money’. So I brought in the American vibes player Jason Adasiewicz. I’d heard him in Chicago and got his CDs, so I knew his music – but would a name unknown in the UK bring in an audience? Well, fortunately it did, and worked really well.

laura jurd

Laura Jurd (photo: Tim Dickeson)

“But there’s been another equally strong theme running through many of the years I’ve been involved, which is to pick up the excellent work Nod Knowles formerly did at the Bath Festival Jazz Weekends, and focus our attention on Europe. I felt we needed the right setting for this. In the Town Hall we’d have a big standup crowd for John Scofield’s more jam band projects, or a huge audience would pack the big top for an event like Jamie Cullum sitting in with Medeski Martin & Wood. The absolute opposite of that turned out to be the Parabola. It’s an intimate setting, with its own special sound and identity, and we’ve developed an audience that focuses on events there. Of course there’s a hard core of dedicated jazz fans, but we’ve been delighted that it’s drawn in those with open ears and a sense of curiosity. So apart from the one or two occasions the Ladies’ College (which owns the site) have needed the space for a school event, the Parabola series has really grown into a vital ingredient of the festival as a whole”.

With all that history of the Festival under his belt, what does Tony have in store this year?

“Very much reflecting the interests that I’ve just described, we have a commission for Laura Jurd, that puts her current brass ensemble together with a number of improvisers led by Paul Dunmall. It has some written material, it has some elements of early folk music – almost ‘primal’ music – and then it can grow into something wild, raucous, but extremely powerful. Keeping up our commitment to female leaders, we have Ruth Goller’s Skylla, which features Lauren Kinsella, and Alice Grant. Then, in terms of bringing people together, I’ve asked Xhosa Cole to come and play with Black Top, that’s Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson. Xhosa is a link to Birmingham, where I’ve been putting on jazz events since the 1980s, and from the moment I heard him I’ve been intrigued by the way he draws on the straightahead tradition of players such as Rollins or Monk, but is a really fascinating ‘out’ improviser too.

“The other thing, keeping up that European link I mentioned, is a number of bands from Europe and particularly Norway. There’ll be Paal Nilssen-Love’s band Circus, which is a really interesting blend of composition and improvisation with the timbre of singer Juliana Venter and accordionist Kalle Moberg in the mix, and they're currently using Brazilian music as a jumping-off point. Then there’s the Slovakian-Norwegian Orchestra Angrusori, which has links to Roma music. “And Espen Eriksen’s trio is also coming in, with their regular guest Andy Sheppard, who played the first notes of the first Cheltenham Festival Concert all those years ago. And that seems a very apt note on which I should bow out.”

Explore this year's festival:

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe to Jazzwise today

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