Ten years of the Love Supreme Jazz Festival: “It’s a meeting of different tribes”

Monday, June 19, 2023

Ahead of the 10th Love Supreme Jazz Festival, Nick Hasted speaks to its founder Ciro Romano to discover the secret of the event’s success

The Love Supreme festival has become a fixture in the British jazz summer. Its unique mix of cutting-edge jazz names, crowd-pulling headliners from funk, soul and hip-hop, and its open-air setting in Glynde village in Sussex’s rolling South Downs celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Europe’s biggest green-field jazz festival right from the start, its current daily attendance of 24,000 was just 4,500 in 2013. Back then, festival founder Ciro Romano reflects to Jazzwise, Love Supreme required a huge leap of faith.

“The North Sea Jazz festival was a big influence,” he recalls. “I saw Prince, Herbie Hancock, Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, then something esoteric in a room upstairs, and I thought, ‘This would work in a field’, as a classic British jazz festival. We had a year of investors’ rejection. Jazz was very different then, perceived as for seated clubs, with a very old audience.”

Laura Jurd

Laura Jurd at Love Supreme

Romano was equally spurred on by what he didn’t want. “As someone into Elvis Costello, R&B and hip-hop, I loved jazz, but was taken aback when I went to shows in sterile, seated venues, with maybe 250 old guys like me watching someone talented but not exciting.” Romano also factored in the hopeful stirrings of a more energetic, youthful jazz culture: “I went to something in South London where everyone was dancing, and nobody was trying to look like Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. It was the beginnings of Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Ezra Collective. Jazz had been operating in a vacuum, and they broke out of it.”

Love Supreme’s 2013 edition was headlined by Bryan Ferry’s big band project, Robert Glasper and Branford Marsalis. Nile Rodgers, half-forgotten when Romano booked him, played a storming, televised Glastonbury set of Chic favourites just prior to Love Supreme, vitally boosting that year’s attendance. Romano remembers other crucial markers on the festival’s ascent: “We booked Gregory Porter in 2013 and 2014, by which time he’d exploded with his third album, Liquid Spirit. Then in 2017 we booked Gregory and George Benson as headliners, and ticket sales exploded again. And Lauryn Hill in 2019 pulled R&B fans in.” Lockdown cancellations in 2020-21 were survived. “Covid was difficult, but I’ve sort of forgotten about it. I was never worried it wasn’t going to happen again.”

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock at Love Supreme

Love Supreme is routinely attacked for its non-jazz headliners. The likes of Chaka Khan have, though, lured in vast crowds who’ve then sampled storming, packed-out sets by Chick Corea, Hugh Masekela, Pharoah Sanders or Ezra Collective. The outdoor setting helped detoxify jazz beyond its core fans, erasing borders and encouraging experimentation. Far from diluting jazz, this mix has been its secret weapon.

“People wander in and out,” Romano explains, “and acts like Kamasi Washington, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea all had huge audiences they don’t get at their own shows. There’s a curiosity from people. It’s a meeting of different tribes.” As Courtney Pine did when inviting UK soul star Omar onstage in 2014, Love Supreme also presents jazz as part of a bigger, often black British world, where jazz fans may adore soul, say, or funk.

“People who love jazz often also love Earth, Wind & Fire,” Romano says. “There’s a link between jazz, R&B and hip-hop.”

This year’s headliner Little Simz is a breakout UK hip-hop star, but she has previously worked with Sheila Maurice-Grey, Badbadnotgood and Ezra Collective.

“She’s sampled Ramsey Lewis, too,” Romano says. “We turn down quite big acts we know will sell tickets, but don’t share that DNA. It would be spoiling something.”

Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter at Love Supreme

The nascent new UK scene Romano glimpsed in South London was only represented by Zara McFarlane in 2013, but 2017’s Love Supreme saw Shabaka Hutchings play with The Comet Is Coming, Sons of Kemet and Shabaka & The Ancestors, followed by exhilarating 2018 sets by Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia, where young, dancing crowds roared on solos like rave breakdowns.

“When Ezra Collective headlined the Big Top to 6,000 people last year,” Romano notes, “the band said it was like a spiritual homecoming.”

Shabaka Hutchings

Shabaka Hutchings at Love Supreme

Love Supreme is, though, careful not to be defined by such acts. In 2022, Ezra Collective and a Sons of Kemet/Nubya Garcia summit were barnstorming but rationed bookings. “We don’t want to neglect other parts of jazz,” Romano says. “I follow the Scottish stuff very closely, and we had Fergus McCreadie last year. I want lots of colours that work together.” He books jazz with a catholic, attentive ear, which has previously seen the more cerebral likes of Michael Wollny, Ambrose Akinmusire and Julian Lage convert Love Supreme’s tents. This year’s diverse highlights include genre-straddling LA bass maestro Thundercat and Ethio-jazz icon Mulatu Astatke. “In jazz I love piano most,” Romano says, “so I’m also looking forward to Tigran Hamasyan and Shai Maestro, and the Blue Note saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. I think two African acts that nobody really knows, the Cavemen and The Joy, will be a hit.”

Love Supreme has expanded its footprint with London mini-festivals and Love Supreme Japan, in its second edition this year. “It’s a big decision whether to open Glyde’s Main Stage on Friday and have a real three-day festival,” Romano reveals. “We’re not going to get bigger than 24,000 though. We’ve adhered to our original principles, and still kept some form of intimacy and identity, with an even greater percentage of core jazz acts. It feels good.”

Explore this year's festival: lovesupremefestival.com

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

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