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A Quickie Guide to Jazz Festivals in Eastern Europe


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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).

A new festival has been started in the ancient Vinnytsia, just a few hours away from the capital, Kyiv; and on the warm shores of Black Sea, the Odessa Jazz Carnival has been established as a joint Ukrainian-Russian venture in 2001, successfully repeated the next year with a strong artist lineup (superbly interesting music, though no 1st range stars) from France, the U.S., Israel, Great Britain, Ukraine and Russia, and a large amount of outdoor activities, such as street parades and open-air performances on the 200-years-old Odessa's places and squares. The Carnival's Ukrainian co-producer is Yuri Kuznetsov, a brilliant piano improviser from Odessa whose interests mostly lie in the realm of new jazz and new improvised music. In 2002, Yuri performed on the Carnival's main stage with Roman Kunsman, one of the leading Israel's creative jazz musicians. This happened to be Kunsman's farewell performance: the great saxophonist, who emigrated from Leningrad (now St.Petersburg) in 1971 and represented Israel with his Platina group on Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1975, died untimely shortly upon his return to Israel from Odessa. Another great act at the Carnival was ManSound, a brilliant male a cappella vocal sextet from Kyiv, Ukraine, the winners of several prestigious European vocal contests (such as Vokal.Total in Graz, Austria) who toured successfully the U.S. Northwest in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

Though Belarus, a large Slavic country between Poland and Russia, lives under a post-Soviet dictatorship, its cultural life is not as heavily controlled by the authorities as it used to be during Soviet era. Year by year, local enthusiasts try to launch an annual jazz festival in Minsk, the country's capital. Though the festival, in fact, happens every year, it still bears a new name every other time because of ever-changing sponsorship. Its artist lineup included not only local artists (such as the superb vocal septet Camerata) or leading East-European (mostly Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Russian) names, but also many Americans, like vibraphonist Joe Locke in 2000.

Even tiny Moldova, the small agricultural, vine-producing country sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania, produced its own (and very original) Ethno Jazz Trio festival in 2002, and repeated it the next year. The festival was produced in the city of Chisinau by the members of Trigon, Moldova's best ethno jazz formation, as a dedication to this viola/bass guitar/drums trio's own tenth anniversary, and became an artistic success that not only presented the existing innovative trios from the Ukraine, Russia, Poland and other countries, who try to incorporate their own cultures' musical idiom into the improvisational music (and vice versa), but also met together improvisers from Turkey, Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and Moldova, with a challenging task to create their own impromptu music triangles right on the site in search of multicultural interaction (which, once again, has proven the old maxima that all those interactions could work only when at least one jazz musician, with his knowledge of what the musical interaction is, performs with the world music masters in each setting).

Romania and Bulgaria, two other ex-Eastern Bloc countries on the Western shore of Black Sea, also have their own jazz festivals, though their economic difficulties prevent them from strong links with European jazz community, so far. Of those festivals, Varna Summer in Bulgaria seems to be the most successful.

On the opposing side of the Black Sea, Republic of Georgia still struggles to override the major political and economy problems connected with the ongoing post-Soviet civil conflicts. Which does not mean that there is no jazz: some of good Georgian performers, as well as many of Georgian jazz enthusiasts, do not leave the country. With its rich, 2,500-years-old tradition of unique choral singing (that includes the most ancient system of music scores notation known,) and high-educated listeners' community, Georgia (as well as the neighboring Armenia, the country with the similar set of problems and equally long history) seems to be a natural ground for sophisticated modern music. The once-famous (during Soviet era) Tbilisi Jazz Festival was only repeated once since the breakup of the Union (in 2000, after an 11-years-long break), but there is much hope that the tradition is not going to die. In Armenia, the Yerevan Jazz Festival that once featured Chick Corea, has been postponed in 2003 after three successful years, though local jazz enthusiasts hope to re-launch it again.

Azerbaijan, another post-Soviet country in the southwestern part of Caspian Sea, was once a birthplace of a highly original improvising music movement, mugam jazz, based on both the good knowledge of jazz mainstream and the ancient local tradition of mugam (an improvisational system of mixed Turkish, Arab and Persian origin). Pianist Vagif Mustafa Zadeh, who died untimely in 1979 right on stage while performing with his jazz trio on tour in Uzbekistan, was the leader of this movement. Unfortunately, after 1991 many Azeri jazz musicians, emigrated to either West Europe (Vagif's own daughter, pianist and singer Aziza Mustafa Zadeh ), North America (another female singer-pianist Amina Figarova) or Russia (pianist Vagif Sadykhov and trumpet virtuoso Victor "Arzoo" Gusseinov). Several different jazz festivals have been produced in Baku (Azerbaijan's capital) since 1991, mostly as free outdoor sponsored events.

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. Some of those annual or biannual events continue from the Soviet era, like Jazz On Volga River in the ancient city of Yaroslavl (since late 70s), Jazz Crossroads in Kazan (since the early 80s) or Jazz At The Old Fortress in Novokuznetsk, Southern Siberia (since 1984). The latest is arguably the most specific. Its producer, Anatoly Berestov, runs a jazz club in this polluted, half-a-million-big industrial city located in 4,000 km (roughly 2,500 miles) from Moscow and some 500 km from Mongolian border. The festival, sponsored by several local industrial companies (like the Kuznetsk Steel), features (year by year!) the likes of Billy Cobham, Victor Bailey, Bernie Maupin, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Dave Kikoski, as well as Russian greats: Igor Butman, David Goloshokin, Anatoly Kroll etc. People come to Novokuznetsk from as far as 1,000 km just to listen to those guys.

Several Russian cities, especially those with the population over one million people, located in the country's Western part (so-called Central Russia) - Moscow (10,000,000), St.Petersburg (4,500,000), Niznhy Novgorod (3,000,000), Rostov-on-Don (2,000,000) etc. - host more than one annual festival, and each of this festivals has its own specialization. Good examples are Moscow jazz festivals.

Triumph of Jazz, first held in 2000 as the production of the country's most popular jazzman Igor Butman, featured his U.S. friends that this saxophonist extraordinaire made during his 7-years-long stay in the U.S.: Gary Burton, Elvin Jones, Joe Lovano and many others, in a tight, one-night setting with Igor's own Moscow big band as the house rhythm section.

Boheme Jazz, now in its sixth year, specializes in non-mainstream big names (in improvised music as well as in world beat): in 2002, Boheme Jazz features Jan Garbarek Group, Vienna Art Orchestra, and Andrei Kondakov's Russo-Brazil Project with Claudio Roditi on trumpet. In 2003, the headliners included John Scofield Uberjam, Tania Maria and Cabo Verde superstar Cesaria Evora. The festival derives its name from its production company, Boheme Music, which also incorporates a record label and an e-media conglomerate.

Jazz at the Hermitage Garden is Russian capital's only outdoor jazz event, held at a small park in downtown Moscow every last week of August since 1998. In a less formal, laid-back setting, it features both traveling European and American acts and Russian groups, including the promising youth, which makes this festival a good place to discover the country's Next Best Things.

Those three are accompanied by many interesting events of a smaller caliber, though no lesser (and sometimes even bigger) creative significance. Most of those are produced by the leading nightclubs, like Le Club (straight-ahead jazz, jazz rock fusion, focused on North-American acts and Russian stars from the circle of Le Club's artistic director, Igor Buman), Dom (literally, The House, Moscow's avant-garde, New jazz, new improvised music, ethno beat and noise music central), or Cool Train (Russian and European creative straight-ahead and contemporary jazz acts). For example, Dom hosts two annual avant-garde festivals, Sergei Kuriokhin Festival (named after the legendary Russian avant-garde improviser, bandleader, and provocateur, who died in 1996) with the focus on new improvised music, and Alternativa, dedicated to the "classical avant-garde," electronica and noise music.

This brief overview of the East Europe's jazz festival movement is by no means comprehensive; for further details or any given festival organizers' contact info, feel free to contact this writer who serves as the editor for Russia's jazz web, Jazz.Ru, and Down Beat contributor in Russia.

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