Nadin Deventer is the new Artistic Director of Jazzfest Berlin from 2018, having previously worked as production manager for the festival since 2015. Born in Ibbenbüren, she studied in Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, and was active in Brussels, Bochum and Berlin, before working with the Festival van Vlaanderen, the Ruhrtriennale and RUHR.2010 – European Capital of Culture. For ten years she ran jazzwerkruhr, was the curator of the Festival n.a.t.u.r. and for the last five years she has served on the board of the Europe Jazz Network. She has also been responsible for creating numerous formats, including the European co-production network jazzplayseurope, the programme “No blah-blah!” and the bi-national 24 hour run “What’s in the fridge?” in Wroclaw.

Nadin Deventer © Christoph Neumann / Berliner Festspiele

Thomas Oberender: Why did you study in so many places?

Nadin Deventer: I started off studying Literature in Paris. Then after a year I found out that it was possible to take France Studies in Berlin, a relatively new interdisciplinary course – and after one semester there I decided that European Studies in Amsterdam might be more interesting. When I did my school leaving exam in 1997, the subject of Europe was only treated very peripherally. I wanted to know more. Eventually I stayed in Amsterdam and did my Master’s in European Studies while also studying Music.

Your sister, Kathrin Deventer, now runs the European Festivals Association – where does your family’s passion for Europe come from?

It’s not something we were born with, but we were always curious and enjoyed travelling. The first time I stayed abroad for a longer period was when I was sixteen. On the first day of the summer holidays I happened to meet a French girl and by the last day of the holidays we’d managed to convince my parents, the school and everyone that I should go and live in Paris for a year and go to school there. That was very exciting and I never believed it would come off. But somehow I just grabbed this chance and wasn’t afraid of it.

And that is how you make festivals now. You produced your first big projects in the Ruhr region in 2008. How did that start?  

After only a year with the Festival van Vlaanderen in Brussels I was rather surprised to move to the Ruhr for personal reasons in 2008. I had to take the plunge there and start a new life.

I was still in Bochum in 2008 – but we didn’t meet. How did you manage to connect with the region?

I was lucky to be able to join in the discussions about the Capital of Culture. You could apply to RUHR.2010 for your own projects and jazzwerkruhr – that I ran as a freelance from 2007 to 2016 – became the anchor that enabled me to get going. I could look at the landscape that I already knew a little bit about from Holland and could tell that there were enough exciting projects to create an international network and establish them in the machinery of the Capital of Culture. And that’s how the international co-production network jazzplayseurope was founded as a five year project.

What exactly did you do there?

I recruited partners from seven neighbouring countries for the formats of jazzplayseurope – it really helped that I already had an international network from my time as a student. The first projects were small and risky: it was very important to me that the chosen musicians had the maximum artistic freedom to develop their music. The jazzplayseurope lab, for example, toured the partner cities with one musician from each of those cities. These laboratories had an intense energy that was very special and artistically they were really interesting. They brought us presenters together just as much as the artists, who rehearsed together for several days and then spent up to two weeks travelling through Europe. Some of those musicians are skill in touch with each other.

You know the different jazz landscapes in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in Germany, in Poland … How is the scene developing and with it jazz as an art form? My impression is that jazz is cool again. Like Poetry. What’s going on there?

There have never been so many well-qualified musicians as there are now. And, yes, although there are great challenges ahead of us, and we cannot overlook the often very precarious working conditions of musicians and presenters, I also get the impression that jazz is getting more attention now. Younger people are more interested in this art form again and I think the reason is that this music is so incredibly diverse. More attention is being paid to the breadth of this work, there’s a great deal of fluidity: new initiatives, alliances and networks are being created all the time. But what’s interesting is not equally pronounced everywhere. The reasons for this are certainly complex but are also connected to the individuals working in those particular places. I just read an article about the jazz scene in Helsinki that asked why hip young people are so interested in this art from – and not its mainstream, more accessible varieties either, but the more complicated varieties. And there too the explanation was that there are a few individuals in Helsinki who are seizing their chance and forming a network, for example with small clubs, and suddenly it turns into something big. I’ve already seen that happen myself several times and I’ve noticed that increasingly in Berlin in recent years.

It often requires bridge-builders to open up channels into other areas. Are you one of those people? As well as concerts in clubs and concert halls in Brussels and the Ruhr you also promoted concerts in small bars, living rooms, at stations and in galleries, a popularizing of the jazz experience that stands for a kind of empowerment against everything elitist.

Well if you come to the conclusion that the music and the performers need more of a spotlight because they lack an audience you’ve got to be creative and dare to go outside your comfort zone. I thought: if people aren’t coming to us, then we’ll go to them. Then we need to get out of our venues and send a signal that we’re here and we want to be part of this society with our art. Though these are processes and projects that I would only ever develop together with the musicians.

You called one project “No blah-blah!”. What does that mean? There isn’t any bla-bla in music.

That was the jazz programme that I developed for the Capital of Culture RUHR.2010. It was “No blah-blah!” because due to the short lead-in time of just a year I didn’t have any time to lose, I couldn’t let any unnecessary considerations or obstructions get in my way, I just had to start running. We managed to get a great deal moving in an incredibly short time, we found allies and suddenly it created a dynamic that we hadn’t expected. In the end there were 15 international projects, co-operations with almost 40 partners and 250 musicians that toured the Ruhr region and over 20 cities across Europe in 2010.

What did you want to achieve with these different forms of musical experience?

I think I look for challenges and opportunities to create special moments but of course I also want to generate attention. With “No blah-blah” we did a lot in public spaces. I remember the “Flying Grass Carpet”, a project where we transformed the rather desolate Willy-Brandt-Platz in Essen into a meadow on which hundreds of people were picnicking to live music when suddenly 50.000 flowers rained down from a giant crane. That special project, for example, was only possible because of the collaboration of a collective of Dutch artists. I don’t think it’s wrong to think in terms of spectacle in order to get people into jazz. It doesn’t get in the way of art, but the opposite: playing a good concert at an open kiosk, a station or in your neighbours’ living room represents a particular challenge for the musicians. Jazz is about interaction, communication and improvisation – music is created in the moment and the surrounding environment plays a large part in that and flows into the music. When children start dancing to jazz music behind their curtains, for example, or a guerrilla action gets people to bring their chairs out into the street and listen, then music is moving and touching people and it is creating special moments. Another example is the 24-hour-run ‘What’s in the fridge?’ in Wroclaw that I curated in 2011. As part of an exchange between North Rhine-Westphalia and Poland musicians from both regions were supposed to be brought together. Through my network I knew Piotr Turkiewicz in Wroclaw with his Jazztopad Festival, so I rang him up and said: Piotr, now we’ve got the chance to do something unique. We created a 24 hour journey for musicians and audiences that stretched from concerts and meetings in living rooms to a club night, then led through various cafés, continuing with a communal breakfast and discussions with international journalists and eventually ended with a large closing concert in the Philharmonie. The next day we got onto our packed nightliner exhausted but happy and with so many memories – and with 30 musicians aboard we drove back home.

What does curating mean to you?

Searching, researching, asking questions, listening, immersing yourself and disappearing into cities, material, reading and the music, recognizing opportunities and potential, creating possibilities and free space for artists, opening up places for people to meet, establishing thematic links, offering stimulation, taking a stand, overcoming borders, disarming reservations, surprising people, being brave, marching ahead, exciting people and enabling the power of art and artists to be seen.

If you value living room concerts for being non-elitist – what would you regard as an elitist attitude in jazz?

For me it would be elitist to sit there and say: I’m doing everything right, damn it, why has nobody come today again? That’s why I always try to enter into a dialogue very early with all the others involved: artists, presenters, partners or other curators, and not turn up with a finished package. I work quite intuitively, I arrive somewhere, let it have an effect on me, and look for allies. But there’s no patent recipe, ultimately you start from scratch each time, looking for possibilities and what makes sense.

What’s your impression of Berlin after all these places in Europe? You’ve been in the city since 2013 …

Berlin is amazing. I’ve lived and worked in different cities, including big cities but Berlin is in a different category. Perhaps even more so in jazz because the scene here works in a highly decentralized way. In Berlin there is no one central venue around which many others concentrate or migrate as is the case in other cities. I know of no other city in which this kind of music takes place so naturally. Perhaps because of the lack of a strong centre, it seems to happen everywhere.

Can you give us some example for special jazz venues in Berlin?

There’s the legendary Berghain, for example, which regularly holds jazz concerts and festivals: MaerzMusik has also done guest performances there. And of course there are excellent jazz clubs, but also a lot of other venues, especially in the districts where creativity gathers. Every scene in Berlin seems to have its own little place and at the same time a lot of clubs also programme jazz. Then there are a range of churches, rehearsal rooms, former factories …

Do you regard a festival as a place for processes or results?

Both. For me a festival is a tiny, lively microcosm and part of a varied cultural landscape and city society. Processes are important to me for creating a story with a festival that in addition to representative events and concert experiences should also always offer space for creative exchange and innovation. That’s where they both meet up again: results and process.

What would a modern festival be for you?

There are so many different festivals and I’m the last person to put a value judgement on them. Everything is very contextual so there is no all-purpose solution like a “super festival”. But what excites me and what I have had good experiences with is understanding and respecting the place in which one is operating and working there through dialogue. In 2013 I had the great pleasure of curating the Festival n.a.t.u.r which stands for “natural aesthetic meets urban space”.

Its slogan was: “How do we want to live?”  

Exactly. This festival was always very participatory and open. The decision where the journey was going was taken in the course of making it – if we’d had a fixed idea from the start, nothing would have been able to grow there. That’s the process part that I value so much and sometimes something unique happens that you could never have thought of on your own: in this case a conglomerate of collective energy and creativity that kept the entire city on tenterhooks for twelve days with over 170 events.

You invited Christopher Dell to the n.a.t.u.r. festival – why was he important for you?

Christopher Dell essentially has two professions – he researches urban development and is a teaching professor but he is also an experienced jazz theoretician and an excellent vibraphonist. What motivates him in both these fields is his love of improvisation. So with his philosophical-musical lecture performance he was the ideal opening artist for an urban art project.

Is it possible to improvise in academia?

Absolutely. Everything is always fluid: urban development and society are always moving, think about them in static terms and you’re lost. That’s one thing that I’ve learned from Christopher Dell.

Improvisation is the central element in jazz. You once said that for you improvisation is the counterpoint to social changes that you find undesirable. Improvisation as therapy for our society. Why do you believe that?

We are all improvising. All the time. Angela Merkel just as much as we are in this interview. Certain things can be learned, obviously: you go through training, school, university to prepare yourself for life. But in practice most things don’t happen the way you thought they would. In fact you never know how something will work. We would be in a very different place if people didn’t have the courage to improvise every day.

In your work you seem very receptive to impulses that have an effect on you. Could that be indicative of a new generation of curators who travel to festivals together and exchange ideas? In my generation there was a more jealous approach: I’m not going to tell anyone what I’ve discovered … 

I think that’s now developing very nicely. In jazz too there are all sorts of personalities and views but in the last twelve years I have learned to value everything that goes through my network. Exchange is fundamental to having ideas – what’s the point of travelling if I’m going to keep everything I’ve experienced to myself? Of course there are loners and it is competitive but fortunately there are a lot of colleagues who need a collective approach for their work – and that’s not a question of generations but of mentalities. I’ve been able to learn an incredible amount from older colleagues and been given intelligent advice and recommendations.

Was it true of your work from the start that you placed so much value on exchanging ideas?

I didn’t start by working in a large institution but I was able to combine freelance projects and jobs with institutions. But I was fighting on my own for many years and therefore had to rely on partners to be able to achieve and finance my ideas.

Is it harder for you as a woman?

Let’s put it this way: the gender debate has finally been getting louder and louder in the fields of culture and jazz. I’ve just come from the Winter Jazz Festival in New York where hundreds of people queued up to attend a panel on “Gender & Jazz”. This issue has been neglected for decades and has now become impossible to ignore. The lack of equality between women and men has also entered the collective conscious in the field of jazz: and that is the first step towards change.

Is jazz a man’s world?

On the side of the presenters, curators, big labels, journalists, institutions and also on the side of the musicians, men are the dominant gender not only in terms of numbers. But that is also a problem of society as a whole. I really don’t know whether it’s worse in jazz than in other areas of culture. The baffling thing is more that it does also happen in jazz when it’s supposed to be the art of freedom.

At the Jazzfest Berlin before last, that Richard Williams curated and which you worked on, 50 per cent of the bandleaders were women. Was that a coincidence?

An awareness of greater diversity – not only with respect to gender but also for diverse forms and cultures within jazz – was obviously not a coincidence. And I will make sure that it continues to be taken into account.

Can you describe how the plans for your first Jazzfest Berlin in 2018 are currently shaping up? How do you go about programming?

One small example among many: the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago will resume its reunion tour this autumn after an interval of several years. I want to use this occasion to take a closer look at Chicago and establish a link between its history and what’s happening now, to open a door to Berlin and the Jazzfest to other artists from that city where appropriate. I’m also concerned with the great challenges of our times such as the volatile political climate and social divisions. Festivals are socially relevant. They can be accelerators, spark debates or make time stand still for a moment. In any event they should be places for analysis and discussion.

Translation: David Tushingham

The German version of this interview is available in the Berliner Festspiele’s annual magazine for 2018.