That day at work, I was talking to my colleagues about New Orleans.
I’d recently watched a few films about Louisiana, and — in a very suburban twist, for me at least — had begun sinking into jazz playlists on Saturday mornings whilst I baked, so daydreaming about a trip to the southern state was on my mind.
Imagine my surprise when I returned home to a rather serendipitous email in my inbox, asking if I’d like to spend the weekend at Aberdeen’s Jazz Festival in March.
Since exploring the city was on my list thanks to Instagram, and as Aberdeen is just a little closer to home than New Orleans, I said yes straight away (and this from a girl who doesn’t really do press trips any more).
In this blog, I want to share what my first experience of a jazz festival was like — and, if you’re a newbie like me, why you too should consider making a beeline for the next festival you find.
We attended three headline events that weekend.
We had almost 48 hours to explore the Granite City, split between daytime wanders — which you can read more about here — and evening jazz. On the Friday, after following an avenue lined with granite mansions, we arrived at the first event’s venue, Queen’s Cross Church.
For the next few hours, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Arild Andersen trio filled the nave with the sounds of their experimental Norse Myths show, an hours-long musical narrative of the northern gods and their tumultuous journeys.
I find writing about music more challenging than describing landscapes, so here’s a few ear-etched memories which can only somewhat convey those musical moments: the meaty sounds of the orchestra; the buzzing of the saxophone; the talented drummer tickling the snare and high hat to make noises I didn’t know a kit was capable of; and the vibrations of the double bass which passed through people like waves.
I think an apt one-phrase summary might go something like this: with jazz, you don’t just listen to it, you live it.
We returned towards the city centre.
Past taxis of stag parties, girls in high heels, and golden-lit cosmopolitan pubs, after a half-hour we arrived at the Blue Lamp. The revolving door delicately burps you into an atmospheric, low-ceilinged bar which — with candles on round tables — wouldn’t, to me, look out of place in a New Orleans guidebook.
Late on Friday and into the early hours of Saturday, the Camilla George Quartet, a London-based jazz group led by MOBO-nominated saxophonist Camilla, rendered people’s pints warm with infectious and intelligent pieces that dealt with sometimes challenging subjects. Like Norse Myths, a key tenet of the performance was the symbolism and thought that had gone into the composition.
Bodies were packed into every corner of the bar.
After exploring the streets of Old Aberdeen and the corners of the maritime museum, on the Saturday night we were back in the Blue Lamp, this time with double the crowds, bodies packed into every corner of the dark bar.
We propped up the counter, coats quickly peeling in the heat. The band weaved onto the stage in their black uniforms to warm up the already roasting room.
For the next hour, the home-grown Aberdeen Jazz Orchestra played some of the classics, from the James Bond overture to The Candy Man Can, and a medley of Saturday Night Fever tunes that even had introverted old me swaying and singing along with joy.
And after the interval, we flew to the American South as Memphis-born Charlie Wood got behind the microphone. Watching him sing, his voice like butter, rippling his fingertips over the keyboard, was mesmerising. The talent of some people on this planet is astounding; I was static with the privilege of watching him from just feet away.
Whether you’re a newbie or a regular, it’s unforgettable.
If you’re a recent jazz enthusiast like me — perhaps rediscovering the genre after playing piano through childhood, or watching the zeitgeist La La Land — going to a festival, with its seasoned pros and keen fans, may seem too intimidating. But take this as a message from me to you: Go.
It’ll be unforgettable, and it’ll also be friendly. The bars are candle-lit and cosy; the musicians’ energy bounces off each other as they acknowledge the audience’s appreciation; but most of all there’s a camaraderie — a shared love — that’s in the face of every listener you lock eyes with.
It feels like one big zealous jazz family and to find this in Aberdeen — instead of all the way across the Atlantic — is a nod not only to my bank balance, but also to Scotland’s cultural credentials.
Supporting home-grown and international talent on our doorstep is something rather special and, to have the excuse to explore the overlooked Granite City on top of that, is but the grace note to an already perfect cadence.
Read more about Aberdeen Festivals.
P.S. I studied piano and musical theory for about ten years until I was a teenager, and one of the pieces I still regularly play (and always loved) is called ‘Jackson Street Blues’. Immersing myself in this festival has made me seriously consider getting back into music, and saving the pennies to potentially purchase our own little digital piano to have at home…