Festival building on years of success

WITH its first-ever orchestral concert coming up this year in a big Last Night Of The Proms extravaganza, Chichester’s Real Ale And Jazz Festival kicks off an exciting new chapter in its rich history in 2011.

The word Jazz has long since been subsumed into the title they prefer these days - RAJF - a title which gives the festival far greater freedom to roam.

“We’ve reduced the Jazz to a J, and now the world is our oyster as far as the music is concerned!” says Chris Wood, who was chairman for the first eight years and remains keenly involved as vice-president.

More than ten years ago now, the Festival upped the stakes welcoming the late James Brown to Chichester. Since then the stars have shone brightly within their huge marquee in Chichester’s Priory Park.

Katie Melua, Status Quo, Robert Creil, Blondie, The Pretenders, Simple Minds, The Human League and Hot Chocolate are just some of the big names to have graced the stage in recent years.

And now, ironically on the very night that the Chichester Festivities will be offering a night of jazz in the Cathedral, the city’s former jazz festival is offering its very own classical proms in the park.

For Chris, it’s all part of moving forward - all part of honouring the festival’s commitment to raise funds for sports development in the city.

“Most years we make a profit, sometimes a small profit, sometimes a substantial profit. It has got more difficult in the past two or three years because of the economy and perhaps also because of competition, but the main thing has always been the quality of entertainment and that people have fun.”

The festival committee is the charitable fundraising arm of Chichester Priory Park Cricket and Hockey Club, which has been based in Priory Park for more than 150 years.

Chris was there, as he puts it, “one minute after midnight” at the start of the festival’s story.

“The Chichester Festivities were set up in connection with the Cathedral’s anniversary, and the director was Richard Gregson-Williams. He had the idea to set up a fringe to supplement the culture fest, so to speak, of the Festivities. He had the idea of a beer and jazz festival.

“He first asked CAMRA if they would consider doing it, but they were tied up.”

One thing led to another, and the Cricket and Hockey Club - realising it had the right skills to offer - took it on.

“Gregson-Williams offered a sponsor, Marks & Spencer, and they were willing to give us £750 to get the show on the road. We ran for two nights in 1981. We had 300 people each night in a conventional tent in Priory Park. We had six different real ales. The beer was 60p a pint and I recall the ticket price was £2.50!

“It was trad jazz really at that stage, and we made a profit, and it all went well. Marks & Spencers were so delighted that they offered to sponsor us the next year if we wanted to do it again. How could we resist!”

They learnt a lesson, though, that year, clashing with the football World Cup: “We became aware that we had to suss out what else was going on!”

From year three for about eight years, the fledgling festival tied in with BBC Radio Solent’s jazz programming, and by 1988 it had made sufficient profit to bankroll the first Astroturf hockey pitch in Chichester, at the Boys High School.

By now, the audience was getting bigger and bigger; and so the size of the tent became the critical issue, signalling a move to a big top style for a few years. By the early 90s, things needed to move on musically as well.

“We decided to diversify into having blues as well as jazz. Trad jazz was a fad of the late 50s, early 60s. We were by now 30 years behind the zeitgeist. We needed to shift the musical content.”

The festival also moved into an aluminium-framed industrial-style tent, big enough for a couple of thousand people, which kicked into a spiral of growing costs, growing audiences and a demand for bigger bands - not least, as Chris says, because trad jazz bands were dying away.

“This culminated in 1999 when an opportunity presented itself and lo and behold we got James Brown. It made us realise that if we should push the fringes towards more popular audiences and not constrain ourselves to jazz and blues, there was a future audience.”

Brown had a ball, loved the night, loved the venue - and his approval was key. Word gets around: “It opened the floodgates for bigger artists.”

And some spectacular names have followed. This year, Steve Harley and Alvin Stardust continue the trend.

But now too there is something genuinely new again - Chichester’s very own city-centre Last Night of the Proms.

“We will have to see how it goes!” Chris says.

This year’s line-up for the Real Ale And Jazz Festival in Priory Park is

The evenings 7-11pm: Friday, July 1 - ASWAD with The Selecter; Saturday, July 2 - Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with Alvin Stardust as support; Friday, July 8 - The Dictionary Of Soul featuring Sing Baby Sing; and Saturday, July 9 - The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The afternoons 1-5pm: Saturday, July 2 - The Jazz Smugglers with Turnaround; and Satuday, July 9 - King Pie with Turnaround. The programme for the RPO will include Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country, Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, Parry’s Jerusalem, Verdi’s La Traviata, Sempre libera, Arne’s Rule Britannia, Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1. Conductor: Stephen Bell. Soprano: Rebecca Bottone.

Tickets are available on http://www.chichester-rajf.com. The organisers have got tickets they are happy to give away to charities for use as raffle prizes. Get in touch via info@chichester-rajf.com.