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Back Roads Beat

Reykjavik Jazz Festival 2004

By Published: September 29, 2004

Another chilly day dawns in Reykjavik, as seen from the author's hotel window.

So begins a jazz-immersed initiation day that begins with a New Agey Kenny G clone and ends with a rightous "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The five-day Reykjavik Jazz Festival begins today (Sept. 29), although I don't know this yet as I stumble off the plane after a second sleepless night on a red-eye flight. My goal for the moment is keeping up with others making the long traverse common for foreigners at airports, wondering if any of them are part of the advertised three-day (!) festival package tour I signed up for.

The G-man clone gets left behind on the airplane speakers and customers is surprisingly fast despite the customs agent who exchanges sincere and pleasant remarks about tiny details he's obviously observing in passports such as birthdates and how buried among my stamps is one from the South Pole. It's that kind of pleasant first impression that makes one spend the prearranged bus ride to the city thinking a good trip is ahead, instead of reflecting the trip takes nearly an hour along a flat, dreary landscape with nary a tree - or even a volcano - in sight.

Iceland is roughly the size of Colorado (103,000 sq. miles) and has about half the population of Vermont (290,000 residents, 180,000 of them in or near the capital of Reykjavik). It claims to be a country of "striking contrasts" with lava fields and glaciers each covering about 11 percent of the landscape. There are hundreds of volcanos, enormous numbers of geothermal springs and a surprisingly green landscape that is mostly treeless due to lots of high winds. A tourist brochure boasts that Reykjavik averages two hours' more sunlight than Florida and January's average temperature of 30 degrees rivals New York City (ignoring how the July average of 51 is seven degrees colder than Anchorage, Alaska). It also assures that me that, despite smelling of rotten eggs, tap water here is perhaps the world's finest.

English with a Chekov-like accent ("we are looking for nuclear wessels") may be a second language here, especially among younger residents, but jazz apparently is not. A young taxi driver who rescues me after I get lost wandering the near my hotel with inadequate clothes for the frigid drizzle tells me the jazz festival has been widely advertised the past week and draws a decent crowd, but the real attraction is the multi-genre Iceland Airwaves festival a few weeks from now. She drops me off at the tourist office in the center of town, where to my surprise I learn the jazz fest actually begins today instead of Friday - and I have to buy tickets for the opening two days since they aren't part of my three-day tour package (spending extra money on a number of unanticipated "extras" - such as taxis to and from a hotel not quite as near downtown as implied - ends up being a common experience).

I'm wrecked and, facing a 5 p.m. opening reception at city hall followed by two concerts at a nearby restaurant, am wishing I could retreat back to the hotel for a nap. But I'm haunted by my own personal mandatory mission for the day - finding a collection of Icelandic jazz CDs, especially by those performing at the festival, to get a feel for the scene.

Finding a music store requires maybe half a mile of walking along a downtown that is much like any other tourist-oriented city sector, with wool sweaters, t-shirts with pictures of sheep and the Northern Lights, various art and dried fish seemingly among the more prominent wares. The jazz section of the music store is defintely on the small side and dominated by big-name mainstream artists from the rest of the world; still, I find and purchase the perhaps 20 CDs by Icelandic artists in the bins (fatigue can be a retailer's dream - my upcoming Visa bill will no doubt supply an interesting jolt of adreleline).

With a couple hours to spare, I wander slowly back toward city hall, discovering along the way that, in the true European tradition, while the coffee is exceptionally good, it comes in tiny cups compared to the "Venti" quanities hawked at Starbucks throughout the U.S. and therefore multiple purchases are necesary for enough caffine to keep me conscious for the next few hours. Much as I'm ready for the end of the day, the real stuff of course just beginning.

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