Perth International Jazz Festival winds up ‘best festival so far’
The city run of the 2023 Perth International Jazz Festival (PIJF) wound up last weekend. From all accounts it is the best festival so far.
Founded in 2013 by legendary Perth jazz man, Graham Wood, who sadly passed away a mere two months after presenting the 2017 festival, year on year the PIJF has built in stature and program.
This year the festival spread over six weekends, up from three last year and one the year before. It began back in October with the Brookfield Place plaza party, continued with Perth band concerts on Thursday nights and one or two events each weekend—the Jazz Night Out at selected city venues, the Jazz Brunch in various City of Vincent cafés, Kekko Fornarelli’s Ellington concert, the QVI plaza party—then culminated over the last week with a series of international concerts and, this weekend gone, a full-on program in multiple venues throughout the CBD and Northbridge. The last hoorah is a boutique regional tour this coming weekend in Busselton/Yallingup (in previous years the region of choice has been York).
Unlike other West Australian music festivals, the PIJF grew through the covid years. The reason is partly the luck of its Spring time slot. By then the wave of lockdowns had finished, McGowan was prepared to ease restrictions and people were ready to get out and have some fun. In 2020, the organisers were given the go-ahead in September, the program was launched in October, and the festival ran in November. It was pretty tight but came off. Festival Director, Mace Francis, is thankful for this luck. In 2019 he drew up a ten year plan, already they are five years ahead of schedule.
In terms of it’s public profile, PIJF is currently flying just below the popular radar. The audiences are strong and sustainable but it has yet to reach critical mass. Many in the Perth music audience are yet to be aware of it, let alone have it fixed on the annual calendar. This should change within the next few years. For the moment though, this is a comfortable place for the festival to sit. The audiences are growing, curious to see what will come next, not locked into a familiar pattern. Crucially, they don’t have the heightened expectation that each year has to be better than the last, which gives the organisers the freedom to experiment with different formats.
The audience the PIJF has attracted are an interesting mix of young music fans, jazz devotees and empty nesters. This last group are becoming increasingly prominent at Perth art and entertainment events, Fringe World in particular. With the kids off their hands, a healthy disposable income and, significantly, tastes that have been finely-honed over years of exposure to popular culture, they are ready and eager for all things new. It’s wonderful to see these folk packing out venues like The Ellington, The Rechabite and Liberty Theatre, swelling into the free public spaces of the State Theatre Centre Courtyard and Hyde Park, all of which the PIJF utilised this year. Once these guys are on side, the future for any arts organisation is rosy.
The attendances this year bore that out. The Brookfield plaza party, which ran from 5 to 10pm with eight acts in the various cafes and bars between the BHP tower and Newspaper House, drew some 2,500 people. The QVI party pulled just shy of 1,900. Grace Knight (two shows at The Ellington—see separate review), Lisa Simone (Nina’s daughter, at The Regal) and Cecile McLarin Salvant (The Octagon) were all full houses.
The many international concerts at The Rechabite attracted respectable crowds, as did the (mainly Perth) State Theatre Centre courtyard concert, while the Liberty program on Sunday was not as well attended as last year. The festival’s Martini Lounge in The Rechabite's basement also attracted a solid following. It hosted a program of classic recordings curated by renowned Perth diva Jessie Gordon on Wednesday and Thursday, while the weekend was filled with acts, including the closing party on Sunday night.
Another good thing about being a smaller organisation is the dedication and commitment of the core organising group. At the moment there are but three part-time employees at PIJF—AD Francis, GM Richard Evans and festival producer Georgie Holst. A formidable team of highly-accomplished organisers, Evans has recently returned to WA after some years of working as a producer in New York. But they can’t do everything themselves and the rest of the work is picked up by the members of the board and a wider network of volunteers. The extended family are all passionate about the festival and don’t mind putting in those extra hours to make sure it runs like clockwork.
As organisations grow and the number of paid staff balloons, the board tends to step back into an oversight/advisory role. That’s the most efficient management structure for a larger organisation but, in making that transition, the beating community heart can be softened. That beating heart is vital—it keeps the festival’s blood pumping.
The program mix for the weekend extravaganza was probably 90% national and international acts whereas in the earlier ones the local content was somewhat higher, more like 25 to 30%. That’s not a bad mix for an international festival. It also gives the local jazz community the opportunity to mingle and jam with the travelling artists. A highlight was the late night jams Friday at The Ellington and Sunday at the Martini Lounge. Improvisation is the soul of jazz and these special nights allowed all the artists to jumble it up and let it rip.
Mace Francis splits his time between PIJF and his other job as AD of the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra. If that’s not enough, as a practicing musician (he has a doctorate from WAAPA in composition and arrangement), he also runs his own big band Mace Francis Orchestra with whom he has released a number of albums. As he says, he likes to make things, whether it be an album, a concert or a festival.
Before leaving us, Graham Wood anointed Mace as his successor at PIJF. The first thing Mace did was move the festival from May to November. He needed the extra time to find his straps but, as the covid experience shows, it was a propitious shift. A well-organised, ingenuous and highly talented artist, Mace bristles with energy, especially during the festival, and is not shy of throwing himself into the day-to-day. When we spoke, he had just finished rushing a stack of extra signage to the STC for the after/evening courtyard concert.
He is very happy with how the festival is travelling and looking forward to tweaking the format over the coming years. He wants it to remain boutique, not be overwhelmed by large scale concerts—one way a growing festival can turn—but to balance higher profile international acts at venues like The Regal and Octagon with shows at more intimate venues like The Liberty, The Ellington, and The Rechabite as well as the plethora of cafés around town that lend themselves to performance.
He also wants to consolidate their program of free public events: the plaza parties, Jazz Night Out, Jazz Brunch, and Sunday Jazz Picnic in Hyde Park with its signature parade and program of festival highlights. These events take the music into popular public spaces and really bring the city alive in this glorious Kambarang weather.
Mace is also considering running a more conventional ten day festival covering two weekends. From an organisational point of view, that would be less exhausting than a six week program though, for audiences, the six week format provides the opportunity to see more than they are likely to in a concentrated format. But then again, the beauty of flying just under the radar, is that the festival can trial these things without committing to them year after year.
So it was a lively weekend of jazz in Perth, and should be replicated this coming weekend in the southwest. There were too many shows for one person to see, especially if you hadn’t planned it out long in advance. Some personal highlights were Jessie Gordon’s hosting the Goodwill Club (she circled the room and engaged directly with each table, charming the guests in her inimitable style), the exuberant Matt Smith Septet in the STC Courtyard, Grace Knight, and the two enamel and brass sousaphones (wrap around tubas) that lapped Hyde Park lake in the Jazz Parade. It was a magical musical weekend.
And finally, a word about the sponsors.
PIJF receives its principal funding from Lotterywest as well as the Cities of Perth, Vincent and Busselton. These monies underwrite the free public program and general administration. In the crucial period spanning the 2021-23 financial years, they received special support from the Federal Government through its Rise Fund. Essentially seed funding, this was crucial to consolidating the administration (up until 2019, the organisation was completely voluntary) and paving the way for its recent growth spurt.
The media partner is RTR FM, who broadcast live last Friday’s STC Courtyard show. The major partners this year were Brookfield Place and QVI, while there were a plethora of program, hospitality, accommodation and venue partners as well as a series of festival support organisations. It’s an impressive array, further indication that the Perth International Jazz Festival is gaining traction in the WA community and will be around for many years to come.