Belgrade Jazz Festival
October 25-28, 2012
There are hundreds of jazz festivals around the globe every year, in places like Baku, Azerbaijan, and Sibiu, Romania, and Valletta, Malta. But there may be no more improbable setting for a jazz festival than Belgrade, Serbia.
Not that long ago, in the late 1990s, during the horrific, genocidal wars in the former Yugoslavia, Belgrade was famous. So were other place names in Belgrade's general vicinity, like Sarajevo and Mostar and Srbrenica. What they were famous for was the slaughter of innocents, the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. But now, 13 years after the 76-day NATO bombing of Serbia brought the Balkan wars to an end, you seldom hear anything about Belgrade anymore, at least in the United States. Americans have short memories, short attention spans, and something called a 24-hour news cycle. Only rarely does Serbia get mentioned on CNN these days, like when a notorious war villain is captured and taken to the International Criminal Court in the Hague (Radovan Karadžić in 2008, Ratko Mladić in 2011).
Since the downfall of the dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000, Serbia has been moving slowly and painfully toward rejoining the community of nations. A society undermined by economic sanctions and years of repression, isolation and war does not heal itself quickly. Serbia has made progress toward democracy in its politics and normalcy in its everyday life, but a potential setback occurred in the presidential election in May of this year. The hardline nationalist Tomislav Nikolić narrowly defeated the more liberal incumbent Boris Tadić. Whether this development will hamper Serbia's prospects for eventual European Union membership is an open question.
There are some beautiful vistas in Belgrade. From Kalemegdan Fortress, you can look out over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. But Belgrade is not a pretty city. It is gritty, austere and hazy. The dominant color is dirty white streaked with gray. The dominant architectural look is Soviet starkness, and virtually every outdoor vertical surface in the city is covered in graffiti. When you walk the streets, you occasionally come upon the startling sight of destroyed buildings, collapsed in on themselves, their guts exposed. They were hit by bombs in 1999 and have still not been rebuilt or even cleared. There is nothing romantic about Belgrade, but there is a certain edge to the place, an energy, that makes you feel fully alive. The people are watchful but very friendly once you break through. They have an attractive, unsentimental honesty that comes from hard experience. And if you are a meat-eater, the food is magnificent and cheap.
Somehow, in one of the poorest countries in Europe, with unemployment at 24%, the jazz community of Belgrade puts on a high-level festival every October. The Belgrade Jazz Festival can trace its history back to 1971, when the country was still Yugoslavia. In its early years, it was firmly established on the European jazz festival circuit, and everybody played there, including Miles Davis
, Duke Ellington
, Dizzy Gillespie
, Sonny Rollins
, Charles Mingus
, the Modern Jazz Quartet
and Ornette Coleman
. But the festival went dark after 1990 when the wars started. In 2005 it started up again, organized by the Dom Omladine (Youth House) Cultural Center, under Director Milan Lučić and Program Manager Dragan Ambrozić. They were supported by the Assembly of the City of Belgrade. Like jazz festivals everywhere, it has been squeezed by the world economic recession. For the last two years, the festival could not even afford to put concerts in the full-sized venues that they had used between 2005 and 2010. Instead, almost all events now take place in Dom Omladine's own facility, just off Republic Square in the city's historic center. The building contains two performance spaces. Velika Sala is a recently remodeled auditorium that holds 560 (or 600+ when people stand in the aisles for the sold-out concerts). Sala Amerikana is a smaller space upstairs where the midnight concerts are held.
One thing that has not changed over the years is the insightfulness of the programming. The Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy had a budget this year approximately 40 times Belgrade's budget. Yet the two acts that were arguably the most important on the Umbria program in 2012 also appeared in Belgrade: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
's Quintet and Sound Prints, the new band co-led by saxophonist Joe Lovano
and trumpeter Dave Douglas
. And when you go to Belgrade, you always make some exciting discoveries among the young artists who play the midnight concerts.