On the eve of the 2013 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Michael Tortoni, owner of Bennett’s Lane and festival Creative Director sat down to talk about the logistics of running a festival, the balancing act between accessible and adventurous, and offering a masseuse on the plane to tempt an ageing jazz legend to endure the 24 hour flight.
Matt Hurst: So just a few days until opening night. Is everything in place?
Michael Tortoni: Well you always think so… Although you never can tell. But yes, it feels good. Lots of work on the ground coming up, but in theory, everything is in place.
I imagine it would be potentially nerve-wracking in the days leading up to the festival no matter how many times you’ve done it. How long have you been involved with the festival now? And how big is the team you work with?
I’ve been artistic director since 2008. We have a full-time, year-round team of three, and this of course swells up drastically as we approach the event. At the moment the office is crazy.
Is there a sense of pressure with each year’s festival? An expectation of growth, more numbers, ticket sales, more acts?
I try not to get caught up in that. I aim to stick to consistency and quality and to not get caught up in ‘bigger is better’. We do like to be accessible and we do like to be adventurous, but not just for the sake of being different. It has to make sense.
But yes, there is a necessity to get it right, for sure. You can’t bomb drastically, with the way money is in terms of funding for organisations and events like ours… it is tight at the moment.
How is it funded? Is government the main source of funding?
We have three major streams, it’s government, it’s corporate sponsorship and it’s ticket sales.
Is government funding based on ticket sales each year?
Basically, we have to return a surplus. Between government funding, the sponsorship and box office we need to break even or return just a small surplus. So the government funding is of course there, but we can’t go into deficit each year and call for additional funding beyond that, it’s just not sustainable in the long term.
How does this influence programming decisions and your position as Festival Director?
Well it means the concerts must stand up on their own and be commercially viable. The vast majority of them, at least.
In some ways this is fair enough though? Although conversely events such as the Melbourne Festival are also thought to be there to bring works to the public that may not necessarily be profitable.
Well yes, many say that festival events should be commercially sound, but you do also want to bring a diverse line up to the public. You can’t be safe all the time.
So I try and do both. Some of the bigger concerts might help cover the losses that some smaller acts might incur, but that we think should be seen. The role of the festival is to celebrate and share greatness, but also to support those who are emerging. It’s not just the legends and the ‘greats’ who are compelling – so much contemporary jazz is really outstanding.
So how do you go about programming a festival like this? Are most acts you go for available?
You really need 12-18 months in advance to secure major international acts. I’ve already got a 2014 wish list and I’ve got the team pursuing them already. Last minute things do come together, but you need get moving early for the major acts. Although to do that, you need to be secure in your funding of course.
With the events calendar that Melbourne has, it seems like a city that should have a jazz festival – but it’s not a given that funding comes through each year?
Absolutely, without government funding it couldn’t happen. So we’re triennial, every three years we make our case.
The government funding and sponsorship is vital as it is what comes first – you don’t get ticket revenues until the last minute, but you need revenue in advance to make those events happen. We’re running a full time office year-round, so those non box-office revenues are vital for the back-end infrastructure necessary to create and deliver a quality festival.
Then there is the outlay to stage each major concert. Travel for a major headline act like Cassandra Wilson, is huge. They want business class flights for a six-piece band and a manager. That could be around fifty thousand alone before the artist fee, which could easily be that much again. We have shows at that level, night after night, booked well before the public knows they exist.
But when those shows come around, you need to strong attendance at Hamer Hall to make it work for next year… Because if you half sell it, you can stand to loose money.
How do you gauge demand then? It’s a big difference between a 1000 seat show at the Recital Centre or a 2200 seat show at Hamer Hall…
A lot of scientific guess work (laughter). But yes it is important, that’s the skill and the knowledge you need to have. You can produce charts and graphs, but ultimately, after running Bennett’s Lane for 21 years, you develop a gut feeling. And yes, it can pretty scary!
I can imagine – if you misfire, a half empty Hamer Hall isn’t good for the performer or for the audience.
Not only that, but a couple of misfired concerts and you could wipe the festival out. If I had a couple of hundred grand deficit due to a couple of disappointing gigs, who’s going to make that up?
What do you look for when compiling a program? Are there any acts you’d like to bring out but haven’t been able to so far?
Well a theme of the festival is that music is a conversation. Musicians have a conversation with the audience, a conversation band members, it’s those musicians that connect with an audience and all those other elements that I look for to bring to the festival. Communicating is a really important thing. Be it through the music played or through the energy of the physical performance, it’s got to have a strong presence.
Let’s see, John Zorn, I’ve tried to bring him out a number of times. Keith Jarrett trio, I’ve also been wanting to bring them to Australia for some time as well…
Is it just timetabling and scheduling? Or is it too far for some of the older acts?
Well Keith Jarrett is reluctant because he didn’t have a good experience on his last visit – but that was 30 years ago! Seemingly he holds a grudge (laughs).
And yes, perhaps it is too far away these days… He’d be around 70 now as well. A 24 hour flight when you’re in your 70s is a big commitment. But we’ll do what we can. I’ll offer him a masseuse on the plane. Whatever it takes.
2010 festival identity by 21-19
Can these guys still play at a high level this age? With rock and pop, some of the heritage acts, come out and really disappoint. It can be really it and miss. Can a 75 year old still play? As strong as they used to be?
Sonny Rollins came out two years ago, could hardly walk, hobbled over to his chair, and played the sax like a 20 year old. Wayne Shorter is still playing like a monster. So yes, a lot of these guys are still delivering incredible performances. Perhaps it’s the pop vocalists who loose their power with age, but jazz is different.
Do you travel much to scout acts?
Well deep down I’m a reluctant traveller also, but yes I have, and plan to do so more from here on. Last year I took a trip to New York for the festival and it was inspiring for myself and for the festival. You can go on word of mouth and reputation for the legends, as they’ve been renowned for so long. But it was worthwhile to see small up and coming acts especially, and I did book acts as a result of that trip.
And part of a major jazz festival program should be to pioneer and to bring some of these acts out… Though if you want to see that connection with the audience, you do sometimes just have to be there.
Exactly. When you’re part of an incredible moment, that’s never going to translate unless you’re part of the experience. There’s nothing like being there. If you weren’t at Charles Llyod and Zakir Hussein at the Town Hall in 2010, you couldn’t have known just quite how much of a journey it was. That response from the audience at the end, those intangible moments.
New York was inspiring also to see acts like Kneebody. You see the thing is, unless you grew up in the 1940s or 50s, you probably weren’t listening to jazz when you were growing up. It wouldn’t be your first music, it wasn’t my first music. So by the time a lot of the younger acts are getting into jazz, they have all these other influences already present. This keeps a healthy element of modern jazz that’s always evolving. And you really feel that with some of the younger acts playing in New York.
Who’s going to deliver those ‘moments’ this year?
Christian McBride is one of them, the double bass player who at the age of 19 he was playing with the likes of Winton Marsalis and Roy Hargroves. He’s at the Recital Centre, and is also artist in residence at Victorian College of the Arts. Headliner Cassandra Wilson will be fantastic, she’s still at the top of her game. Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers will be a blast. On the contemporary and experimental side of the program, Kneebody, Thundercat, Open Loose and the Bennett’s Lane club gigs… just really bold stuff.
Melbourne International Jazz Festival
May 31 – June 10, 2013
By Matt Hurst