The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

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When night lasts four months, staying up until 7 a.m. is nothing.
Polarjazz 2008
Longyearbyen, Norway
January 30-February 3, 2008

"This place is abandoned by God and ought to have been abandoned a long time ago by mankind as well" —Historical quote on mural at Longyearbyen's museum

This is where people will come after Doomsday: a town 600 miles from the North Pole whose idea of fun is hosting the world's northernmost jazz festival in the middle of winter.

A glacier-covered land where the sun doesn't shine from October 26 to February 15 and where carrying a gun almost everywhere is necessary to avoid being eaten by polar bears. Where a vault deep in one of the Arctic mountains will eventually store up to 4.5 million varieties of seeds for global catastrophes such as nuclear war. And where in late January, sub-zero winds blast through the windows of a four-star hotel to cool off standing room-only crowds at Polarjazz, a four-day showcase of local and national talent.

"It was a very good idea because previously it was just cold and dark and nothing happened," said Susanne Hansen, 28, a singer who was one of the opening-day highlights at this year's 11th annual festival.

Polarjazz (featured in this BBC Destination Music video) takes place in Longyearbyen, Norway, the largest town on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, several hundred miles directly north of the mainland. The average January temperature is what one travel guide calls "a toasty 3Ã'ºF" thanks to the moderating effect of being on the coast of the Greenland Sea. The industrial-looking rectangular metal buildings are strictly utilitarian, but there's a strong infrastructure because of heavy investment in coal mining and scientific research (the region has been called "ground zero in the climate debate"). Booking quality musicians might seem like a challenge, but the response is consistently enthusiastic.

"This is like Norway times a hundred," said Haavard Stuboe, an Oslo guitarist appearing for the first time along with his acoustic trio. "All the Norwegian musicians want to come here."

The festival does more than offer locals a diversion during the long polar night. It provides a boost to businesses and efforts to market winter tourism activities such dog sledding, snowmobiling and watching the northern lights. The event's original purpose, in fact, was fighting efforts to reduce by half the six weekly jet flights to and from the mainland during the dark months, according to a co-founder.

Total attendance is estimated at 1,000 (fewer actual listeners), about two-thirds of whom are locals. Norwegians from other parts of the country make up most of the rest, but a scattering of devout and curious foreigners usually show up.

"My interest in jazz has been rekindled and this place fascinates me," said Peter (he asked his last name not be used), a retired science worker from Melbourne, Australia, who visited a year and a half ago on an science research icebreaker offering passenger tours. "It was an excuse to see it in the winter."

"There are some people who come every year from England and Germany," said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year's festival director. "I say 'Why don't you spread the word?' They say 'We don't want to. We want to keep it for ourselves.'"

For some traveling far, the lure exceeds the norms of more cautious travelers. Not only did I come here with my ex-wife Kristan and her current flame, but I flew them here as a belated Christmas gift. All of us have worked in Antarctica and wanted to see what in many ways is its northern equivalent—from the same research in the same kind of buildings to the political neutrality that permits a large number of nations to work here relatively free of interference. Also, Joe knows a lot more about jazz than I do, they both take better photos and their insight was invaluable throughout.

Judy Ross, a New Jersey resident, said she and her friend Donna Fritzer, decided to come after plans to visit Kenya were canceled after ethnic violence broke out following a disputed election in late December. "Donna wanted to wear a mink coat, I wanted to hear music, so I said 'Let's go north."

They participated in most of the major tourist activities during their four days and were jovial during the shuttle bus ride to the airport despite tragic circumstances, as word came from home midway through the festival that Ross' father had died. The family advised her to stay in Longyearbyen and she said she has no regrets.

"It's OK," she said. "I took him to the top of the world."

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