Harbouring a Dream
The story of Hamburg's Elbjazz Festival could not be told without the partnership of Blohm+Voss.
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"Before we welcome Dianne Reeves,” said Tina Heine, “there's a lady here who wants to say hello.” The Director of Elbjazz Festival was speaking from the main outdoor stage at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg, introducing a soloist who doesn't normally turn up at music festivals, let alone perform. The 91,000-ton MS Queen Elizabeth happened to be in the next dock, and Heine's words were code for the vessel's captain to let off several tuneful blasts of the ship's whistle.
Hearing those sounds echoing round Hamburg harbour, to the delight of a crowd of several thousand, is just one of many good memories Heine and the Elbjazz team has collected over the past five years. There has been enormous passion and planning involved transforming Heine’s bold and unique vision to create a jazz festival at port of Hamburg into a reality.
Other port cities in the world also host major jazz festivals – Cape Town and Rotterdam, for example – but what sets Elbjazz apart from the rest is that it utilises the port, admitting the 15,000 people who visit the festival each year into a magical setting and to a place normally closed to the public.
The Timo Lassy Band perform at the Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg.
“What a view it is from the artist's perspective, the port in all its seafaring industrial beauty. Surreal, enjoyable...unique.”
Hamburg-based journalist Stefan Hentz (Die Zeit, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Jazzthing) sums this up as follows: “For the people of Hamburg, the wharf is something we feel – emotionally at least – belongs to us. Yet for many years it was somewhere we couldn't go. The Elbjazz Festival has been the means by which a wall separating us from part of our heritage has been removed.”
From that point, it wasn’t difficult to get Blohm+Voss on board. “When you think you have a good idea you tend to blah-blah about all the time to everybody. So I'd talked about the concept, the festival, the harbour, about how getting Blohm+Voss involved would be great, to good friends and to family.”
“After six months of trying to get a meeting, it was the day before Christmas 2009. We'd already planned a festival without Blohm+Voss, when I got a call from Dr. Herbert Aly, one of the CEOs: 'I have an hour,' he said. Well, I dropped all of my Christmas errands and went to meet him. We talked for five hours solid, about music, life, jobs, and ships. He thought it was a crazy idea; but he liked it. I'm sure that's when it clicked.
“In February, with three months to go, we got the go-ahead: we could do events on the wharf. Now, five years later it feels like a close partnership, it's an important event in their calendar. They invite people from all over the world.”
That idea of creating a unique destination for visitors as well as building a programme which puts well-known names – Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter, Hugh Masekela – alongside the young, the unknown, the unfamiliar, the way out, is important.
One of the openair stages set amidst the superyacht cranes.
The glamour of the Elbjazz Festival is a stark contrast to the machinery at the Blohm+Voss shipyard.
The festival makes a virtue out of the fact that the range of jazz is so wide to bring people in touch with different kinds of music. Stefan Hentz sees this as a real strength: “Elbjazz uses the charm of the festival, the whole experience in an unfamiliar place to bring audiences to music they wouldn't normally hear. An out-there, original, important artist like Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhuis has no fan base in Hamburg. There could be a risk he might play in a club to just 15 people. At the festival he gets to make an impact, and to play to a proper crowd.”
The statistics show that Heine's efforts to bring new audiences to jazz, in which the setting plays a big part, are bearing fruit. “In our marketing analysis, 50 per cent of the visitors tell us they have never been to a jazz festival before.”
People also comment that the stages look superb, that they are carefully located and well made. Elbjazz is definitely about the whole experience, and not just the music.
The musicians appreciate the festival too. Danish bassist and bandleader Jasper Høiby has played at the festival twice: “Elbjazz really stands out, it's a special festival. It' spectacular the way they set it up in these unusual places.” And how would he describe playing in the Alte Maschinenbauhalle? “Wow yes, that 50-meter high ceiling, those massive pipes, such an unconventional place. You don't have to try to create atmosphere there, because the surroundings are so amazing.” Gregory Porter echoed this too. He told us he just loves the “unusual setting – and the enthusiastic crowds.”
Jamie Cullum still remembers the special view he got when – as he does – he climbed up on top of the lid of the grand piano at the 2013 festival: “What a view it is from the artist's perspective, the port in all its seafaring industrial beauty. Surreal, enjoyable...unique.”