Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Steve Mead, Artistic Director

5 questions to...

For the first installment of my ‘5 Questions‘ to festival folks, I have the pleasure to share insights from my good friend Steve Mead, a veteran Artistic Director who’s been involved with Manchester Jazz Festival from the very first 1-day showcase, in 1996 (which, for the anecdote, was rescheduled at the last minute because of the IRA bomb that exploded in Manchester city centre that very same day).

1. Hi Steve! Your next festival is in July 2013. What’s a typical day right now?

You’ve caught me at my busiest time of year – I’m at the tail end of programming our festival (75 bands in 10 days) and just starting to write the copy for our brochure and website. So recently I’ve been having lots of phone calls and emails with artists about everything, ranging from whether a repertoire of Swedish folk songs is appropriate for a jazz festival (I think it is!) to whether a vibraphone, drum kit and sousaphone will all fit in one car… Putting together the copy – apart from the challenge of trying to find 75 different ways to describe music – really helps bring into focus the intense audience experience that a festival creates. Seeing the full schedule unfold before your eyes, one wonderful event after another, makes me feel enormously privileged to be just a small part of making it all happen.

2. You’ve been organising mjf for 18 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

Yes, it’s our 18th this year, and I wouldn’t say things get easier with time, the problems just become more familiar! One thing I do hear more of is how relaxed and well-organised the staff & volunteer team looks during the festival itself. Planning ahead and being able to anticipate potential problems (equipment or people not turning up on time, flight delays etc), and making allowances for tricky situations that may not actually happen, gives us more breathing space during the event if everything does go smoothly – so we’ve clearly got better at planning. The constant challenges are almost invariably financial: in the current economic climate, there can be unforeseen disappointments in any one of our income streams, which impact right across the organisation.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Seeing a band give an inspiring performance – especially if it’s an artist you weren’t sure about and were taking a bit of a risk on, or the premiere of new project that really delivers and connects with the audience. During many of the gigs I’m positioned alone at the side of the stage and often revel in some beautiful spine-tingling musical moments.

4. What other festival do you or would you love to attend as an audience member?

I love to see how other festivals work so can rarely attend just as an audience member. There are many jazz festivals like Molde in Norway that I can never get to because of our timing clash. I love going to other small festivals like One Taste in London – not jazz but a curious mixture of styles and settings that makes for a special festival experience.

5. Over to you – Steve Radio Presenter*, what question would you ask Steve Festival Organiser?

If you were to hand over the reins to your successor, what one piece of advice would you give them? I’d say: be yourself, be memorable and don’t just copy what I’ve done – make your own mark and take it in new directions.

* Steve’s other dream job – listen to him introducing each gig and occasionally on ALL FM and BBC Radio 3!

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Manchester Jazz Festival has just announced its new commission for mjf 2013 – I wrote a few words about it in a previous post, and you can read more about it here.

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