Rhythm in Gloucestershire: The 2024 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

I’m not much of a festival-goer, to be honest. I find myself getting a bit bored after two days of non-stop music and two nights kipping on the floor. I could count on two hands the number of music festivals I’ve been to in my 37-year-long life, if I leave out Cheltenham Jazz. Because I don’t have to go to Cheltenham Jazz—it comes to me. Ever since moving to this gorgeous Georgian town five years ago, I’ve hopped on my bike each May and pedaled a mile up the road to Montpellier Gardens with paper and pencil, a picnic and a press pass—sometimes four days in a row. Then, after consuming as much music as I can comfortably stomach, I’ve pedaled back down the hill to my own bedroom.

It’s the perfect way to do festivals, in my humble opinion. Why go all in for days at a time, if you can dip in and out as the fancy takes you? If I can’t head home to my own bed when I’ve had my fill of gigs, a hotel or an Airbnb would be almost as satisfying. That’s the Cheltenham Jazz Festival experience: boutique, comfortable, laid-back. If that’s how you like your festivals too, then it might well be worth checking out.

Red Wood Coast

As ever, Cheltenham 2024 wasn’t one for traditionalists. The line up across the three main stages—the Big Top, the Jazz Arena and the Town Hall—was as eclectic as ever: headliners included six-time Grammy-winning soul singer Dionne Warwick, veteran reggae group UB40, ex-Led Zep singer Robert Plant, pop princess Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and African acapella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Continuing to call it a jazz festival really is rather daft, I reckon—but “Cheltenham Jazz and Genres Loosely Associated with Jazz Festival” is a bit of a mouthful. What’s more, some seats approached $100 each, making many of these events neither particularly interesting nor very accessible to any but the artists’ biggest fans.

All photos Dave Doyle

Of the jazz acts appearing on the main stages, most were very much not ST fare: you won’t hear fusion saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, hip-hop pianist Jordan Rakei, or electo-jazz producer corto.alto [sic] busting out “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the end of their set. But there were a few big bands and small combos of interest to old-time jazz fans, most of which I managed to blag press tickets to. And as usual, there was enough going on at Cheltenham’s smaller and fringe venues to fill the time between concerts—not least the Free Stage, which again hosted the best of the county’s youth and amateur orchestras.

Amongst the paid-for, sit-down gigs I attended was a set by veteran rhythm ’n’ blues singer Bettye LaVette. If ever there was living proof that old age needn’t mean slipping quietly into infirmity and irrelevance, then LaVette is it. The “Let Me Down Easy” singer has been working continuously since the sixties, bagging Grammy nominations as recently as 2008 and receiving her spot in the Blues Hall of Fame just four years ago.

Hot Jazz Jubile

At 78, LaVette is still an exciting and engaging performer. She still has a voice that is plenty powerful and packed with raw emotion—even if she does refer to her lyrics sheet occasionally. “I suffer from a terrible illness called CRS,” she told the audience at one point: “can’t remember shit.” After a few old and new tunes (“Things Have Changed,” “Hard to be a Human,” “Lazy and I Know It” and others) with her regular band, she was joined onstage by Cheltenham regulars Gregory Porter and Peter Long, the latter of whom conducting Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra.

Here the set took a jazzier turn, with big band arrangements of “Every Day I Have the Blues” and several other tunes. I’d tell you what they were, if I could still read the shorthand I scratched onto my little pad in the darkened Big Top. But it must have been good and varied, as I’ve scrawled next to the undecipherable song titles: “real showcase of what RSJO can do / like three gigs for price of one.

Dee Dee Bridgewater and We Exist at the Town Hall

Fellow headliner Dee Dee Bridgewater paid tribute to her idol LaVette in her own Town Hall concert, accompanied by the We Exist quartet. Her soulful, swinging set included Bridgewater classics like “People Make the World Go Round” and covers of female-fronted protest anthems like Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and “Mississippi Goddam,” plus Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” and “Trying Times.”

Another artist in her seventies, Bridgewater is also an energetic performer. She danced around the stage, dueting with each of her band in turn—singing, scatting, stomping, and even beatboxing alongside their solos. Her voice has lost as much punch as her inspiration LaVette’s over the years—that is to say, none at all. The disco diva positively drowned Cheltenham Town Hall in the joy and hope, pain and sorrow, frustration and rage encoded in those old songs. “We all exist and we all have a voice,” said Bridgewater, triumphantly, before leaving the stage to rapturous applause after several encores.

Hot jazz clarinetist Giacomo Smith, ragtime pianist Joplin Parnell, and Sarah Vaughan tribute singer Zara McFarlane were amongst the pre-bebop performers gracing smaller venues around the town—Hotel du Vin, Parabola Arts Centre, and Dunkertons Tap Room amongst them. Sadly I couldn’t get freebies to these, and there were no tickets to buy when I got on to the otherwise very helpful Dan at the festival’s press office. But they looked like great gigs, for someone who likes their jazz strictly early-twentieth century.


At the center of the Montpellier festival site was the Free Stage, where these choosier listeners might relax in a deckchair with a Cotswold Gin cocktail and listen to some good old-fashioned jazz. A whole host of school, jazz academy and amateur bands graced this stage during the daytime and the standard was, as always, very high. Cheltenham Ladies College and Sir Thomas Rich’s School both fielded particularly skillful outfits exploring the Great American Songbook—the crowning jewels of which were two very impressive teenage singers named Daisy and Rosie.

School band playing to a packed Free Stage tent.

These two talented vocalists appeared again later, duetting along with the very capable Gloucestershire Youth Jazz Orchestra. If you do come to Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the annual GYJO set is a must-see. For, while the other young bands are good for their age and limited performance experience, GYJO is just good. Some of their saxophonists, in particular, have got bright futures as pros if they keep the practice up.

I had just three gripes about this year’s festival, two of which related to the Free Stage. Reaching it on Saturday involved crossing a quagmire, as it rained Friday night and no temporary surface had been put down to protect the grass or attendees’ attire. (I came here because I don’t do wellies.) Moreover, knowing who was on when involved scanning a QR code and downloading a digital program, as no running order was posted nearby. Not only is this a bummer for those without smartphones, but my device wouldn’t even scan the thing.


My third bugbear was that several of the most interesting acts were locked away behind particularly high paywalls: the Jay Rayner Sextet and Lucy-Anne Daniels—who sang a Billie Holiday set, apparently—were dinner gigs with $80 price tags, as were Giacomo Smith and Joplin Parnell’s performances. An added point of disappointment was that the beautiful art deco Daffodil restaurant was not involved this year, having gone bust in 2023. There’s no hanging that one on the festival organizers, though.

Vocalist and Jazz FM broadcaster Clare Teal accompanied by guitarist Dave Archer, bassist Simon Little, and drummer Ed Richardson at the Jazz Arena. (photo by Dave Doyle)

But let’s not end on a bum note, because the Clare Teal Seven was the undoubted highlight of the festival, for my money. (Not that I spent any money thanks to me ol’ PR mate Dan.) Teal is a veteran jazz vocalist and broadcaster, whose first album for Sony Jazz (Don’t Talk, 2004) was the biggest record deal ever signed by any British jazz singer, at the time. She has worked with the Hallé Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, RTÉ Concert Orchestra and other top big bands, but mainly tours with her small combo—when not presenting her show on Jazz FM. This superb group comprises bassist Simon Little, drummer Ed Richardson, Dave Archer on guitar, Chris Maddock on sax, Jim Watson on piano, and trumpeter Freddie Gavita, all of whom gave storming performances—particularly Richardson, whose ballistic 64-bar solo had even Teal checking her watch.

Despite living in the nearby southern spa town of Bath, the singer’s Yorkshire roots are still evident. Between belting out standards like “Teardrops from My Eyes,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing”—waving her mic like a magic wand, modulating her volume like an organists’ swell pedal, in a way I’ve never seen before—she bantered with her band about their choice of stage attire, backstage gaffes and hotel arrangements, giving listeners a little glimpse of life on the road. Like LaVette and Bridgewater before her, she was a consummate entertainer, making for a set which was not only technically brilliant but very funny too. And that’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival in a nutshell: quirky, catholic, and compellingly fun.


If you’re very discerning about your jazz—as in, “Nothing that wasn’t first recorded on shellac, thank you very much”—then this probably isn’t the festival for you. But that certainly doesn’t make it a bust. If your tastes extend beyond bebop, and your travel plans include more than back-to-back ragtime recitals and queues for the portaloo—perhaps some designer shopping on the Georgian promenade, dinner at one of a hundred restaurants (including seven mentioned in the Michelin Guide) and a pint in an historic pub—then Cheltenham Jazz Festival could make for a very memorable long weekend.

Cheltenham’s strength lies in bringing that festival-in-a-field vibe to a small Regency-era town in the heart of the beautiful Cotswolds. If you’re a UK jazz fan and you fancy a weekend city break, do yourself a favor and book a room here next May. If you’re visiting from abroad, and you’ve the sense to venture outside London and see what else England has to offer, then Cheltenham at jazz festival time would make a great addition to your itinerary.


So check out the line-up as it begins trickling online (usually from around November), book your gig tickets early (they will mostly sell out well before May) and start looking for your summer accommodation now. As always, there’s a pull-out sofa bed for you at ours, if you want it…

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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