“From the very beginning, in 1966, we’ve been a festival for the people of Barcelona, not for tourists. We’re known to our community and to the music students here too,” says Joan Anton Cararach, artistic director of the Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival. His statement points to both a longstanding programming approach of mixing local and international artists, and a current survival strategy dealing with pandemic restrictions. Like many other annual festivals in Europe that continue to face the upside-downing impact of COVID, Barcelona has managed to soldier on while respecting shifting regulations and dwindling audiences, and it presented a robust schedule this past October and November.
Significantly, the 2021 program featured a range of events in the city’s Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu, the 183-year-old institution that first forged a relationship with the festival 10 years ago. Understanding the Liceu’s expanding partnership is one key to appreciating how the festival continues to thrive. While some marquee names continue to appear in Barcelona’s larger, commercial venues—for example, Chucho Valdés at the Palau de la Música and Richard Bona at Sala BARTS—most festival headliners (Vijay Iyer, Ambrose Akinmusire, Melissa Aldana, Kenny Garrett, and others) performed in the conservatory’s 392-seat, wood-lined concert hall.
The freedom a smaller hall affords—with a built-in audience of jazz majors—jibes with the festival’s mission to program “big names with completely unknown names,” Cararach adds. “This year we have a piano player from Poland, Marcin Masecki. Nobody knows him but he’s a genius. And then we have [guitarist] Ben Monder, whom I think is one of the most important and underrated musicians in the world right now. He could play clubs here, but it’s better for his music to be heard in a hall like this.”
Maria Serrat, general director of the Liceu since 1999, offers her take on the relationship between the school and the festival. “For us, it’s very important to be connected with the world outside, to reflect what’s happening, which is one of the reasons we continue to grow with the festival. We want our students and the city to think of us as a living place, a live music center where things are happening all the time.” Although the conservatory continues to emphasize classical performance, the inclusion of jazz—which began with the merging of the independent school AULA into the Liceu in 1993—and, most recently, flamenco studies demonstrates the curriculum’s gradual modernization. “Maybe in five years we’ll have a course in electronic music. Music is changing, and we have to as well.”
Unsurprisingly, a leading patron of the Barcelona cultural scene—pharmaceutical entrepreneur and restaurateur Sergi Ferrer-Salat—is a major force in funding both the festival and the Liceu through his foundation, Fundació de Musica Ferrer-Salat. As evidence of his support, Serrat mentions the upkeep of the conservatory’s instruments (including 100 pianos spread through 390 different rehearsal and performance rooms), while Cararach highlights the festival’s continuing focus on music of Catalonian heritage. “Sergi’s really into it. Before COVID, he had jazz and flamenco events at his restaurant Monvínic, which had to close. But now he’s helping us with getting behind the idea of flamenco master classes and shows at the Conservatori, developing this into something bigger.”
I was invited to attend the festival’s last full week at the end of November, and that main hall at the Liceu became home: the venue where all the shows happened, well-attended by members of the public and conservatory students. (“We only sell 280 seats to the public and the rest are reserved for the Liceu, free for the students,” Cararach says.) The variety of performances was impressive, with many drawing on students and instructors. Some concerts featured a visiting artist playing with a student big band, while others featured ensembles led by a noted American instructor at the Liceu: Bill McHenry fronting a hushed, modern septet, for example, or a large R&B ensemble—the BLAM Collective—boisterously reviving ’70s and ’80s classics under the tutelage of Michael League.
This integration of school and festival is reminiscent to a degree of how New York City’s Winter Jazzfest works with the New School’s jazz program, using its venues and providing students free access to many shows and a series of panel discussions and interviews with leading musicians. In Barcelona, the inclusion of talk events is in fact foundational to the school/festival association; in 2011, their first year together, the Liceu presented “three master classes with Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, and [clarinetist] Gabriele Mirabassi, and it was our sponsor, the beer company Voll-Damm, who initiated this idea,” Cararach recalls. “Now, people here know that if you bought tickets for a concert by Chucho Valdés or Ambrose Akinmusire, you also get free entrance to the master classes they all do at the Liceu. This year we had 27.”
As the educational spirit of these master classes serves the purposes of both the festival and the Liceu, so the school’s growth in the past 10 years can be measured by them. “There have been more than 135 master classes since we started and more than 15,000 students have attended them,” Serrat says. “It’s part of who we are now and what we offer—and the excellence of the students has a lot to do with this, I believe. Now, the students are also part of the festival programming with a series called ‘Carta Blanca’—performances put together by our instructors with students, and sometimes alumni like [pianist] Toni Vaquer. This year we did nine of those, more than ever before.”
Looking forward, Cararach is proud that the festival—produced by Barcelona-based The Project—continues to face the challenges of the pandemic: “COVID helped us learn that we improvise every day so that we can survive. I think that’s the most important thing we learned as a production company since coming back after five months of lockdown in 2020. Since then, we’ve presented around 300 shows—a lot of summer concerts and summer festivals such as Porta Ferrada and Pineda Arts d’Estiu. We are masked and we are vaccinated and now in Barcelona, every day during the year there’s something happening. There are small clubs, students are playing music in schools, and touring musicians are coming back and playing here again.”