A Quickie Guide to Jazz Festivals in Eastern Europe

Cyril Moshkow By

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Russia, the world largest country that spans from Black and Baltic seas in the West to Pacific Ocean in the East, has a chain of several dozen jazz festivals.
The Jazz festival movement did not penetrate the Iron Curtain until the late 1950s, when some Communist regimes, trying to liberalize their public image, allowed many things that were not possible during Stalin's era: abstract art, modern dance, cinema with no propaganda message, and jazz music.

Jazz Jamboree , the first major jazz festival to establish itself in an Eastern Bloc country, is the longest-running to date: its first edition took place in Szopot, Poland, in 1958, and since the next year it happens annually in Polish capital, Warsaw.

In 1962, Jazz Jamboree turned into an international festival. Hundreds of major names in world jazz appeared there since, but the most important thing for the Eastern Europeans was the fact that Jamboree started to invite jazz musicians from neighbor countries as well. Jazz Jamboree '62 was the first festival outside the Soviet Union where young Russian jazzmen could perform in front of sophisticated jazz audience and then to jam with their American counterparts: Andrey Tovmasian, then Moscow's best trumpet player who came to Poland to perform at Jazz Jamboree with Vadim Sakun sextet, jammed with Don Ellis, which reportedly was the first Soviet-American jazz jam session. Jazz Jamboree suffered hard times in the 1980s and '90s; its trademark has been leased to Poland's leading jazz event producer Mariusz Adamiak, who was lucky enough to turn it again into a major East-European jazz forum with a strong representation of leading European and North-American improvisers.

And this is not the only jazz festival in Poland. Another major event in Warsaw, though oriented almost entirely on American jazz, are Warsaw Jazz Summer Days. An interesting annual festival, Jazz Czterech Kultur (Jazz of Four Cultures), has been started in the city of Lodz in 2001: it was dedicated to the four cultural elements that formed unique Lodz heritage in 19th century - Polish, German, Jewish and Russian; thus, only jazz groups from, respectively, Poland, Germany, Israel and Russia were invited to participate, which formed an unusual stylistic landscape.

Three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have their own jazz history, which spans far into the past. Estonian city of Narva was the first in the whole Soviet Union to present a regular jazz festival (1958). The country's largest jazz event, Jazzkaar (Jazz Rainbow), produced by famous Estonian radio person, Anne Erm, in the capital city of Tallinn, inherited the traditions of the former Tallinn Jazz Festival, where in 1967 thousands of jazz musicians, enthusiasts, and fans from throughout the Soviet Union listened breathlessly to Charles Lloyd's highly spiritual performance with young Keith Jarrett on piano. Jazzkaar has been established in the times when Estonia still was a part of the Union, and exists successfully all years of Estonian independence (since 1991), featuring both major American and European names and prominent artist from the East (including Russia). Lithuania, which was the jazziest Republic of the U.S.S.R. before 1991, owns a strong chain of fairly good jazz festivals, including those in the cities of Kaunas and Vilnius (the latest, the Lithuanian capital, now holds two: the new one, the woman-performer-oriented Vilnius Mama Jazz, and the more established (and avant-garde-oriented) Vilnius Jazz Festival), plus a large jazz vocal contest in the tiny town of Panevezys.

Ukraine, one of the largest European countries that, together with Russia and Belarus, initiated the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and its dissolution in 1991, also had a chain of jazz festivals even during the Soviet era, though few of those festivals survived the years of independence due to major problems in the country's economy. But the jazz community in this East-European country, with its population of 50 million people, could not exist without their own jazz festivals. The historical Donetsk Jazz Festival, first held in this large industrial city in 1969, has been re-launched in 2000 under the name of DoJ (Donetsk Jazz).


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