The World's Greatest Jazz Festivals: A Clash Guide

Because when the pop stops, the jazz bops...

Chances are you’ve been to a festival this summer. Music, mayhem, mirth... and mud, if you were unlucky (and if you like sloshing around in the slop, please, don’t come around ours for tea and biscuits). And chances are that it was one featuring Popular Rock Bands, and other such attractions: the sort of acts that make up much of Clash’s content, if we’re honest.

But stray from the pop path, into jazz quarters, and the festival-attending punter is well served, too. While this summer’s season is nearly over, 2014 will see the same cycle commence once more. And with that in mind, we’ve turned attentions to five outstanding jazz festivals, profiling them below. Why? Because nobody really wants to watch Primal Scream play eight consecutive festivals, do they?

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There are plenty of festivals taking place around the world, attracting and uniting thousands of people through the power of jazz. From the scene’s birthplace in New Orleans, to the best European festivals that have jumped on the hype, read on for five of the world’s top jazz festivals…

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Louisiana, USA
April – May

New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz, due to the region’s unique combination of soul, blues, R&B, gospel, country, rap and ragtime music.

The first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, also known as Jazz Fest, was held in 1970 when Mahalia Jackson, arguably the greatest gospel singer of all time, performed. Since then, legends like Billy Joel and Ellis Marsalis have graced stages at the colossal event, which attracts several thousands of music lovers each year – in 2001, 650,000 turned up.

Over the years the festival has become bigger, better and far more eclectic in genres: Foo Fighters headlined in 2012. There are 12 stages for attendees to choose from, featuring up-and-coming jazz musicians to pop-world heavyweights – clearly, there’s something for everyone at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.  

During your visit to New Orleans, be sure to explore the French Quarter and get your picture taken in front of the famous Mississippi.

Top Tip: There are many food stalls catering to the thousands. Perhaps order the Cajun jambalaya or gumbo – a traditional New Orleans stew and rice dish. Both are delicious!

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Montréal International Jazz Festival, Quebec, Canada
June – July

The Montréal International Jazz Festival has grown in size and popularity since its first incarnation in 1980. In 2004 it was named the biggest jazz festival in the world, with 700 concerts performed by 3,000 musicians over a 10-day period. The 2013 festival was opened by soulful saxophonist Charles Lloyd, accompanied by drummer Eric Harland, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran. Big names to have performed in the past include Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and the legendary Ray Charles.

The best part of the festival is that the majority of the celebrations are free – so it’s no wonder that it attracts around two million jazz enthusiasts each year. Emotional and electric performances are held across a number of outdoor stages and indoor concert halls, such as the P.D.A. (Place des Arts).

Music starts at noon and finishes at midnight, so be sure to cram in some sightseeing before the saxophones and skatting. Check out the Basilique Notre-Dame – a gothic catholic church with stunning stained glass windows and a 24 carat gold ceiling!

Top Tip: Temperatures reach highs of just 22 degrees centigrade in June and July. Pleasant, but don’t forget to pack a jumper for the evening gigs.

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Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Denmark
July

Copenhagen has been long regarded as a European jazz hub – and with huge names such as Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Thelonius Monk performing over the years since 1979, it’s easy to see why.

The 10-day event completely overtakes the capital. From free and intimate street performances to cafes and large concert halls, the soulful sound of deep bass notes and gibberish signing can be heard around the whole city, creating a great atmosphere.

Festival goers can listen to top jazz names at the spectacular Royal Theatre and Copenhagen’s Opera House, as well as along the harbour front while swimming in the Danish sea.

After a long day of jazz, head to Nyhavn, a vibrant, colourful port – the perfect place for dinner or beer on the quayside.

Top Tip: Although concerts are held all over the city, try to steer clear of public transport – most of the big venues are accessible on foot and that way you get to see more of the wonderful city in-between gigs, and save money at the same time.

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Malta Jazz Festival, Valletta, Malta
July

The beautiful baroque city Valletta on the Mediterranean island of Malta has hosted an open-air festival in and around the grounds of the Ta’ Liesse Church since 1990. Grammy-winner Robert Glasper performed at 2013’s festival – an experimental musician famous for combining jazz with hip-hop, R&B and rock to create a unique sound.

The three-day event has seen high-calibre performances from pianist Gerald Clayton and his trio, a powerful foot-tapping vocal performance from Gregory Porter and the Latin, classical and jazz-influenced Michel Camilo.

The Valletta waterfront is a magnificent setting to enjoy such beautiful music; gaze out to sea as trumpets and piano keys provide the ideal soundtrack.

Once the festival is over, make time to explore the historically rich city of Valletta, a World Heritage UNESCO site, built by the Knights of St John in the 16th and 17th centuries. The picture-perfect city is inundated with beautiful architecture, quirky cafes and bistro bars: a perfect spot to try Maltese cuisine.

Top Tip: To escape the city for the day, take a trip from Valletta to Malta’s sister island, Gozo, to relax and unwind on its gorgeous beaches. The island really has so much to offer holidaymakers.

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Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey, California, USA
September

The first Monterey Jazz Festival was held in 1958, making it the oldest jazz festival in the world. Since its inception, big names from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, to Louis Armstrong and Ernestine Anderson, have played at this Californian festival. It’s held across 20 acres of fields in the county fairgrounds, where there are over 500 artists performing on eight stages.

George Benson, Diana Krall and Wayne Shorter are headlining the 2013 festival, along with many up-and-coming names. As well as a fantastic collection of jazz, blues and folk music, the three-day event (September 20th-22nd) also hosts workshops, exhibitions and talks for non-stop entertainment. It’s a not-for-profit festival with an aim to educate and nurture young jazz talent.

The Taste Tent sells locally brewed beer and wine, as well as food served by Monterey restaurants – ideal for those needing to refuel between sets. Once the event is over, plan a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to gaze over sharks, otters, seahorses and jellyfish – the aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the world.

Top Tip: Once you’re in, you’re in. The festival doesn’t offer re-admission so be sure to remember everything you need.

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Words: Faith Norris

Faith is a travel writer for lowcostholidays.com who has been to many festivals home and abroad. Next on her ever-growing music festival list is the Monterey Jazz Festival, profiled above. Read more of her articles on the lowcostholidays blog.

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