Julie Sheppard, independent promoter and Director of Jazz Jurassica festival based in Lyme Regis.

Sophie Wales catches up with Julie Sheppard, independent promoter and Director of Jazz Jurassica festival based in Lyme Regis.

How did you begin your career as a jazz promoter and what do you love the most about your job?

I started running Lyme Regis Jazz & Blues festival five years ago when it had run out of gas – dwindling audiences, a tired programme and mounting debts.

I’m not a musician, or a venue owner but an unpaid volunteer, so taking on the festival was a huge personal commitment….and challenge. I’d never worked in the music sector or even organised a festival before. I could see the problems but also enormous potential – what could possibly go wrong?

With the benefit of ignorance, I decided to broaden the music on offer and change the name to Jazz Jurassica. I wanted to attract jazz fans, of course, but also those who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a “jazz” festival.

Overnight we went from trad jazz, marching bands and umbrella parades to a spicy gumbo of acid jazz, blues, soul, latin and funk. Plus, a new free festival along the seafront showcasing emerging young talent. For some festival-goers it was a shock too far and they never returned, but thankfully new audiences came to replace them.

It’s been really satisfying turning it around. And we now make a small operating surplus, without any external funding support.

My mission is to attract new, different audiences, bringing together, say, fans of hip hop and Miles Davis, into one musical community #onenationunderagroove. For me, nothing beats the adrenaline rush of standing in a packed house pulsating with excitement as some cracking performers give it their all on stage, and thinking “I’ve made this happen”.

Who have you been listening to recently?

I’ve retreated into my comfort listening zone in lockdown delving back into Weather Report, Miles Davis, George Duke and Jill Scott. Also, listening to lots of original Stax recordings as I’ve been reading Stuart Cosgrove’s trilogy on soul.

How has the promotions industry changed for you this year?

We had to cancel this year’s festival in May and a subsequent series of monthly jazz gigs.

Not being able to plan ahead has been the biggest frustration. If you cancel an annual event you don’t get another bite of the cherry for 12 months. And you need a 6 month lead in to promote the programme and put tickets on sale. I can’t really do that with any confidence in the current climate as who knows where we’ll be in May. It’s a waiting game.

It also means that all the 2021 slots are already full as they were automatically offered to this year’s cancelled performers. It means more disappointment for the next crop of hopefuls as the submissions for 2021 keep rolling in – awful for them.

Moving forward, what advice do you have for fellow promoters adjusting to the new normal?

I refunded this year’s ticket holders in full rather than carry over tickets to next year. It’s given us the flexibility to remodel the festival should we find ourselves in different operating conditions. So, keeping nimble, not locked into fixed ways of doing things, will be key in future.

I’ve decided not to go down the virtual route as it requires significant investment to achieve the production values to make events really compelling. I also detect some digital fatigue setting in. For us, it’s either live or bust next year. I may live to regret this stance!

What’s your favourite venue in the South and why?

I love Marine Theatre here in Lyme Regis. It’s an iconic 1930s building right on the seafront. It’s intimate with good acoustics and seems to bring out the best in artists and audiences alike. The dressing rooms have the best views in the country – overlooking the sea – stunning. We’ve had some great nights there!

What’s your favourite gig that you’ve promoted?

Oh, that’s a tough one! Can I nominate several, for different reasons?

Chris Barber – an absolute legend and totally charming. I was somewhat awestruck to meet him in person.

James Taylor Quartet – an explosive gig, with me behaving badly, dancing on a seat at the front of the auditorium – got my knuckles rapped for that!

Powerhouse Gospel Choir – a packed house of normally reserved individuals, on their feet, waving their hands in the air, singing their heads off, in an extraordinary outburst of exuberance. I stood at the back of the auditorium and thought “what on earth are they on”?

Any livestream concert recommendations? 

I’ve dipped in and out of livestreams  – sometimes for pure pleasure, other times scouting for new talent (not mutually exclusive!). The streams from Ronnie’s have been uniformly good and I really enjoyed London Jazz Festival. One unexpected bonus is binge-watching TV and films – everything from the recent BBC series such as Soul America, through Jazz 625 to films on Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.

As a promoter, what would you like audiences to embrace?

I’d like them to embrace an attitude rather than a particular slew of artists or genre. Sometimes you need to switch the brain off and just listen, without preconceptions. So many times, people who’ve been prepared to do that have said “oh, I didn’t think I’d like that, but I do”. Yes, music should surprise and excite you.

Our next ‘Catching Up With…’ will be posted on 9th December. Follow the series on our social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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