The setting is one that makes avoiding clichés a challenge; spectacular white sands, coconut palms, and glistening turquoise ocean-think Bounty advert and you’d be halfway there. What sets St Lucia apart from the rest of the Caribbean islands though, are those five days in May when the island is penetrated with the sound of jazz, playing host to one of the largest and most prestigious Jazz festivals in the world. This year’s buzz centered around the 20th anniversary of the festival, inviting headliners Trey Songz, John Legend, and the legendary Chuck Brown, among others.
The St Lucia Jazz festival was originally set up 20 years ago by the St Lucia Tourist Board in an attempt to boost trade in the area and the Islands visibility in the main tourist markets (the tourism figures today have grown tenfold as a result, with increasingly more fans visiting from Europe). Despite organizers coming up against initial criticism (other islands such as Aruba and Curacao had already tried to stage Jazz Festivals and had failed) and staging just 4 venues, the quality of Jazz Fusion, and high profile artists in attendance all contributed to its resulting success.
Today, the Island welcomes over 30,000-festival-goers to countless stages over 10 days, with the last 3 days festival culminating at the Pigeon Island national park, spanning 44 acres of green expanse which is transformed from one of the Caribbean’s most historic landmarks, to a bustling jazz forum, complete with by main stages, port-a-loos, jerk chicken stalls and even weave huts where women are on hand to fashion your hair into a local style (I regret not getting this done now). The rest of the events are dotted in various places, little pop up stages around the Island, so named for their location: ‘Jazz on the beach’ ‘Jazz on the square’ ‘Jazz on the pier’ etc, and as a result, the sounds of the festival can be heard in hotels and markets for miles around.
Despite its title, the festival pays homage to a range of Afrocentric and Caribbean sounds, notably, swing, reggae (Morgan Heritage headlined a main stage) folk and blues fusion – more than enough for even the most diverse jazz palate. As the days warm up, people start opening white umbrellas to reflect the sun – think Glastonbury in a parallel universe – and the smell of rum punch I’m told, is as classic to the jazz fest as the saxophonists on stage.
In the run up to the main stages at Pigeon Island, you can visit Rodney Bay to enjoy acts in the evening in the warm up to the long weekend- this year showcased Ledisi, British group ‘Bad Ass brass’ and Regina Carter as highlights. Ledisi, a4-time grammy nominee better known stateside, sang assay collection of Erykah Badu-inspired soul tracks with infusions of scat, and vigorous impromptu dancing that shook her Mohican loose on more than one occasion. Indeed, the Caribbean has a reputation for high energy dance-I was even pulled up on stage to dance with African songstress Angelique Kidjo on the last night, to my horror, and was forced to represent the UK in a dance off; I feel I did us proud. Regina Carter is also worthy of mention, closing the first night with folk-infused African soul, where the band played accordion, drums, violins and the indigenous kora (21 string bridge harp) setting the bar for the musical quality high.
The festival sets itself apart from others across the world thanks to the simple point of proximity to its Afro-Caribbean origins. The colorful backdrop of older fans teaching young energetic children to scat and hum along with accordions in discordant rhythms and beats, creating makeshift beats with sticks on tin cans or on bottles of ‘piton’(a local beer so named for the landmark pitons that surround the island) is a fresh insight into how the sound of jazz has developed. The line-ups high profile stars are an important factor which reflect just how relevant the narrative of jazz is to a younger generation.One of the most striking and controversial ways the festival encourages a younger demographic is through the often American pop/r‘n’b headliners (past years have included Neyo and Shaggy) where the artists are framed within the jazz-heavy performers. The Saint Lucia Board comment that the line-up “Is effective in portraying the relevance of jazz and its history for a new generation”, and it is certainly true that the energy of the young people give the festival its unique spirit-as a relative jazz amateur, I was struck at how accessible the genre can be if the acts are curated in the right way.
Speaking to Trey Songz, one of the headliners booked for what is traditionally known as a ‘kids night’ by locals, he commented that ‘I’m proud to be part of a festival like this that remind young people where the roots of urban music are. My sound is a development of those early jazz sounds.” Trey’s performance might be questionable in terms of what the more purist London Jazz Festival might expect (clue: shirt ripping, hip thrusting, winking to the ladies) but the sentiment rings true-many of the young people I spoke to recognized the origins jazz in ‘urban’ pop as we know it, and cited Herbie Hancock as a big influence as Jay Z on their musical tastes.
The night after Trey, Sunday, (the big one) welcomed John Legend and the prolific Chuck Brown – a highlight for me. The electric energy of his performance which included disjointed hippy shakes, twists and that deep throaty voice which easily transcended his 74 years. Joined with an MC, who did a rendition of M.I.A ‘Paper Planes’ it was the young people like myself that weren’t as familiar with his extensive back catalogue that danced the hardest and shouted the loudest. ‘Now that’s what I call jazz!’ he sang as he took a bow and made room for John Legend’s piano to be set up on the stage. John performed songs from his new collaboration album with The Roots, ‘Wake up’ with a few of his classics, leaving the popular ‘Ordinary People’ as a well-received encore.Dressed in white linen trousers and a waistcoat, he cemented his reputation as an r‘n’b Lothario, inviting a woman onto the stage and offering her a rose, much to the delight of the swaying couples in the audience. The festival ended with a bang, quite literally, as fireworks filled the sky and the streets of Castries were filled with festival goers and locals setting up makeshift sound-systems to keep the party going. As the younger members of the audience headed home, this jazz amateur resolved to seek out the music of the festival, and this of course is precisely the point. To quote Chuck Brown: “The cultural tradition of jazz focuses on the special relationship between the artist pushing the listener to sample something new, and find some love for the music deep down in their soul. That’s jazz!”