Behind the Scenes: Peter Dimitrov

It’s time to go behind the scenes of one of the city’s most significant cultural events with our guide, Peter Dimitrov, the founder and festival director of A to JazZ. From July 4 to 7, Sofia’s South Park II will once again transform into a grand stage showcasing world music, emerging Bulgarian artists, and renowned jazz talent, featuring over 30 performers from around the globe.  A few weeks before A to JazZ kicks off, we met Peter on a warm Sunday afternoon. Over a few coffees, we discussed how the festival has become a symbol of the capital, the importance of viewing culture as part of the economy, and the surprising connection between oysters and jazz.

In our “Behind the Scenes” section, we introduce you to the individuals who have made music their profession without being in the spotlight. From festival directors and music managers to event organizers and sound engineers, these are the people who create and support the ecosystem around an artist, making performances possible.

What inspired you to found the A to JazZ festival, and how did a trumpeter like you end up being more active behind the scenes than on stage?

I began organizing festivals as a student, coordinating two pop music festivals in Bulgaria. My professional journey took several key directions. I played in two of Bulgaria’s biggest private orchestras and had the opportunity to work in the media industry for several years—starting at BNT and later joining Niki Kanchev’s team at Darik Radio. Together, we hosted a music show for three years, which honed my journalistic skills, allowing me to view topics from multiple perspectives.

In 2006, I started managing the Albena Media Festival, then the largest international media professional event in Southeast Europe. Around that time, a new wave of festivals began emerging in places like Kavarna and Burgas. This inspired me to create a new festival model amidst the declining interest in jazz music. By 2009-2010, the number of concert halls was declining, their audiences were shrinking, and they were becoming older. I realized the importance of presenting jazz in a fresh way to reconnect with audiences. 

A to JazZ has always focused on attracting a younger audience, especially those not typically interested in jazz. We started in the small Doctor’s Garden in Sofia, drawing perhaps 1,000-1,500 people over the three festival days. Thirteen years later, we’ve welcomed over 60,000 attendees over four days. A to JazZ has established itself as a major urban festival, showcasing not only jazz and improvisational music but also various segments of urban art and, more recently, world music.

photo by A to JazZ: Bobo & the Gang on stage

What were the challenges during the early years of the A to JazZ festival, and how did you overcome them?

The challenges were varied but seemed minor because we had an awful lot of energy and a strong belief in the power of the spirit to overcome them. When starting and building something new, there’s a strong sense of romance and conviction that drives you forward.

As the years passed, the responsibilities grew larger and heavier. The challenges became more complex and demanding, making the job extremely responsible and stressful, as we began to view situations from many more angles than before. Despite this, our core team has remained consistent over the years. Thanks to their high professionalism, our festival has become what it is today.

photo by A to JazZ: The festival from a bird’s eye view

The festival includes various platforms such as Music Talks Conference and the World Music Showcase. Can you explain the importance of these platforms to the festival’s mission?

After becoming a member of the European Jazz Network, an association of over 300 jazz festivals and organizations across Europe, we realized that the Bulgarian scene was not well connected with the broader European one. To address this, we spent the last few years developing a conference that began as an educational module for young professional artists, helping them learn about the music business. It was crucial for us to equip young musicians with the knowledge and skills to be competitive with their European counterparts and to bring them closer to the international stage. Beyond just playing music, they needed to understand how to manage and produce themselves until they could afford to have an official representative or agent.

photo by A to JazZ: Talks Conference 

The original purpose was to help these artists grasp the workings of the music business and support their growth until they could become established. Joining various organizations such as the European Festival Association Yourope and the European showcase platform for world music Upbeat, we decided to expand the conference to include a showcase module, further professionalizing the sector in our country. 

In our environment, working normally can be challenging, but it is us who create the environment. Despite the constraints of our local market, which is vibrant but limited, our goal is to become more competitive and attract foreign audiences. The economics of culture is a topic often overlooked, including data collection on both economic indicators and the societal functions of cultural events. This directly impacts our quality of life.

photo by A to JazZ: Talks Conference e

How can we improve the competitiveness of our cultural products and attract foreign audiences?

This involves cultural diplomacy. Bulgaria needs to be recognized as a country that produces and exports cultural products effectively. Attracting an audience is essentially exporting our cultural products and unlocking the immense potential of cultural events as economic factors. Currently, culture is not fully acknowledged as a significant part of the economy, and unlike sectors like energy, there is little data collected and demanded from it. However, culture is indeed measurable, encompassing both quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors.

For example, if you place two benches and a beautiful lantern in an abandoned park, people will naturally enliven the space. Similarly, culture has the power to transform environments. Today, South Park II, where our festival takes place, is a vibrant spot where people gather with their families, children, hammocks, books, and pets. It has become a new cultural space in Sofia.

The impact of culture extends beyond the artist-audience relationship. We need a clear commitment and plan for the future, considering what we will do tomorrow and the day after. Much of this depends on the environment, including regulations, institutions, and our dialogue with them. A collaborative approach and strategic planning are essential to enhance the competitiveness of our cultural products and attract foreign audiences.

photo by A to JazZ: The festival park

What advice would you give to young musicians and cultural entrepreneurs who want to make a name for themselves in music festivals?

The first step is to have a clear idea and turn it into a solid concept. However, it’s crucial to never lose focus, regardless of how big the event becomes. 

With A to JazZ, our focus has always been on the music and the stage. Everything else is supplementary, enhancing that core experience. This approach has cultivated an audience that connects with our festival both emotionally and responsibly. Last year, we conducted a comprehensive survey to understand our audience’s profile. We discovered that our attendees are regular participants in cultural events, ticket buyers, and active members of public life. This indicates that our audience is not casual; it’s a dedicated and engaged community, making A to JazZ a true festival.

photo by Sofia from Sofia: Jacob Collier on stage 

We’re creating a demand by attracting new people and offering a high-quality product. People recognize and appreciate this, developing a love for the festival because we’ve crafted an environment for them. As a result, jazz and related music genres are becoming more popular, thanks to the activity of all the artists on the scene. Jazz has become trendy, though not mainstream—it’s not mainstream anywhere in the world, not even in New York, where it’s considered part of their cultural heritage. However, people there understand its historical value, just as we appreciate the significance of our cultural traditions like rachenitsa or kopanitsa (traditional Bulgarian rhythms).

photo by Sofia from Sofia: Jazzmeia Horn on stage 

With the rise of digital platforms and live streaming, have you considered integrating online broadcasting into A to JazZ to reach a global audience?

I don’t believe in online streaming, especially in summer. However, we do record and upload showcase concerts to our video platform because it’s crucial for these artists to connect with as many people as possible.

How do you select the artists and bands for the festival? What criteria are important to you in this process?

I don’t have a strict method, but I strive to curate a program that embraces the vast scope of jazz. This includes classic forms like the McCoy Tyner Legends tribute project and contemporary movements represented by this year’s inclusion of the KNOWER duo. We’re also thrilled to feature Cyrille Aimée, presenting her latest album à Fleur de Peau, and to introduce the emerging talent of Kinga Głyk from the Polish jazz scene, whose fifth album was produced by Michael League of Snarky Puppy.

photo by Viktor Hlavatovic: Cyrille Aimée – one of this year’s headliners

Since the beginning of the festival, we have prioritized showcasing young debut artists, essential new voices in jazz and future stars. People need new things. Innovation is crucial—we aim to educate and intrigue audiences, introducing them to new sounds and experiences.

Each artist in our lineup embodies the soul and spirit of their music, contributing to the collective essence of the A to JazZ festival. It’s about conveying emotion, creating magic, and sharing a love for music that transcends explanation.

As the festival’s artistic and program director, you must have some fascinating stories from behind the scenes. What’s the most surprising aspect of your job that people wouldn’t expect?

One memorable incident comes to mind with Ilhan Shaheen, whose flight was diverted to Istanbul instead of Sofia due to major airport strikes. This happened at 2 pm on the day of his scheduled concert. Despite the setback, he managed to arrange a taxi from Istanbul to the border, where a Turkish Embassy car awaited him and brought him directly to us. He arrived backstage promptly at 7:30 pm, and by 8:00 pm, the concert started without a soundcheck. It turned out to be a truly unique performance.

photo by A to JazZ:  Ilhan Ersahin on stage

We’ve also had artists and official guests enjoy our jam sessions so much that they couldn’t be persuaded to leave for their hotels afterward. On several occasions, we’ve had to arrange pickups for them, only to find out later that they returned on their own to the sessions in a taxi.

photo by Sofia from Sofia: Cory Henry during the jam session

And did they manage to catch their flights the next day?

Some do, some don’t (laughs). But as I told one guest who missed his flight because he was at the hotel at 6 am for the first time in 30 years, “Enjoy it, these things happen, life is meant to be lived.”

Unexpected situations and people arise—you just have to handle them as they come. If our team members can’t resolve a matter independently or if it involves multiple people, we call upon our “council of elders.” A quick buzz on the radio, and within three minutes, we’re gathered in the office tent backstage. We discuss, reach a decision, and move forward. I have a fantastic team that I can always rely on.

Honestly, I don’t want to tempt fate, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate. Perhaps it’s because we infuse our space with positivity and love.

photo by A to JazZ: Peter with the festival team

If it weren’t for music in one form or another, what else would you be doing?

Music has been the foundation of almost everything I’ve experienced. 

Ten years ago, I entertained the idea of living by the sea, owning a boat, and becoming a fisherman. That phase passed, but now the desire has resurfaced. However, I envision myself now as a more settled fisherman—calm and wiser. Another aspiration I have is to open an oyster shack. In Bulgaria, much like jazz was unpopular years ago, oysters are not widely embraced, despite being locally produced. Just as with jazz 13 years ago, someone needs to introduce and popularize them, focusing on packaging and concept—these elements are crucial.

Last question: watermelon or melon—which do you prefer?

Definitely watermelon. Why? It’s refreshingly light, versatile, and pairs effortlessly with various flavors. Watermelon takes the top spot!


Interview: Sofia Hussein for Dinya
Cover photo: A to JazZ

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