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The festival is in its 38th year, how did your association come about?
My father (John Speight) basically started the festival, so I was young when he got involved. He was initially the artistic director, but also handled a lot of the logistical side of things, and his aim was to take jazz music to the masses and for the general public to see and hear it and learn to appreciate jazz music in all its forms. One of the main drivers behind that was to encourage young people to get involved in jazz. The Young North Side Big Band was one of his groups which was made up of young performers across the northern beaches area, and back in the day had young players such as James Morrison and Dale Barlow. So as an educator and a musician he was very involved in the scene, and the Manly Jazz Festival became one of his projects to promote and push jazz music into the community. He wanted an opportunity for musos and young up and comers to play so he thought ‘well, I’ll create an event and then they’ll have somewhere to play’. So he really put the Manly Jazz Festival on the map and it’s been going strong ever since. Unfortunately, Dad passed away in 2007, and my brother and I were left with the dilemma of what to do – we decided to put it together for the year and then see what happens. Well that was seven years ago and I’m still here!


With the likes of James Morrison, Darren Percival, Jeff Clayton and the Rehab Brass Band, it’s a mix of international and national artists?
Absolutely, we’ve been lucky to have many international performers over the years, and we like to continue the balance of those with our own talent. There are names and lesser known players that are still phenomenal musicians in their own right and sometimes, like a good wine, jazz musos seem to get better with age, so we have performers of all ages. On the flip side we have a whole stage devoted to high school stage bands, as well as a community band stage, so it is open to all levels and age groups which helps with the welcoming feel of the festival. Putting the program together has always been a mix of jazz styles to hopefully cater for everyone. If you don’t like big band stuff you’ll find a modern/contemporary artist, or you can see [traditional] or vocal jazz, or something more Latin and worldly. We try and program different music on different stages, we are definitely careful that we have a mix of styles.


Are all performances free?
Predominantly so, we do offer a couple of ticketed events in the evening and some workshops but the idea has been to make it as accessible as possible. The Manly council have been great support and although there isn’t a bottomless pit of money, they can see the opportunities it provides, the enjoyment people get out of the festival and the number of people it draws. And again, one of the big things about the festival is the mentoring and passing on of jazz knowledge to the younger players coming through, so we want to continue to build up that part of the festival.


Some festivals seem to be under pressure to really mix it up and stretch outside their boundaries to modernize things – have you felt any pressure in that regard?
A lot of Australian jazz festivals are quite fixated on sticking to one particular style which has never been our outlook. Obviously people will have their own favourite style and over the years we have copped some criticism for being diverse, but we still seem to get the crowds, so we’ll continue to offer our broad palette of jazz which works for us and hopefully the Manly council and general public continue to support it for many years to come!


If you had to sum up the Manly Jazz experience in a sentence or two?
World class talent with something for everyone really. Its family friendly with a community feel and suits the casual listener right through to the jazz tragics.


For more information about the Manly Jazz Festival, click here.