A to JazZ Festival 2019

Ian Patterson By

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We could charge forty Euros a day and have just a few hundred people here, or we can make it free and bring all these thousands of people in —Peter Dimitrov, Artistic Director, A to JazZ Festival
A to JazZ Festival 2019
South Park II
Sofia, Bulgaria
July 5-7, 2019

Jazz on a summer's day. There's nothing quite like it. To see Sofia's South Park II packed with somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand people for three days of jazz, where a veritable sea of good vibes held sway, was an uplifting sight.

That people came in such numbers was chiefly due to the fact that A to JazZ Festival is a free festival. As festival founder and director Peter Dimitrov said: "We could charge forty Euros a day and have just a few hundred people here, or we can make it free and bring all these thousands of people in."

To be sure, not everyone who came to South Park II over the three days was there specifically to see Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah or Ghost- Note. It's quite possible, in fact, that many in attendance had never even heard of them. But that's not important. Just bringing people to the music, whether they know it or not; that is the point of A to JazZ Festival.

"There's a lost generation in Bulgaria," explained Dimitrov, referring to the children of the last decades of Communism, who grew up listening to the state- approved, national folk music of their parents' generation. "Ours is like a cause to bring them the world of music."

For the past eight years, A to JazZ Festival has done just that, with a roll call of artists including Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves, Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Branford Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Michel Camilo and Jazzmeia Horn, to name but a handful of the A-listers who have graced the festival's main stage.

That American artists have dominated the programme should come as no surprise, given that the festival's main sponsor is the American Foundation for Bulgaria.

Since 2009, AFFB has supported Bulgaria's private sector and its democratic institutions, though American aid has been effective here since 1989 with the implementation of the Support for East European Democracy Act. In the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, SEED's aim has been to promote the transition to the free market and democracy. Significantly, this aid is not inter-governmental, but from private entity to private entity, therefore maximizing the power of donations.

In the case of A to JazZ Festival, the generosity of AFFB has ensured that Sofia enjoys the international prestige of a world-class jazz festival, while tens of thousands of Sofians' lives have been enriched by the music and the edifying experience of participating in such a joyous, communal gathering. And you can't put a price on that.

It's a far cry from the old days, when, according to Bulgarian jazz historian Vladimir Gadjev, writing in the Bulgarian chapter of A History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians and Audience in Context (Equinox Publishing, 2018), no American jazz band visited Bulgaria between 1928 and 1978.

Nor is this exactly the sort of Cold War diplomacy typified by the famous Jazz Ambassadors programmes of the 1950s—1970s, but it does underline just how prescient war correspondent Burnet Hershey's words were, when he observed in 1922 that "jazz follows the flag."

AFFB, to its credit, has certainly left its mark and, even after just nine editions of A to JazZ Festival, a lasting legacy. There were no American flags flying in South Park II, but instead there stood some five hundred trees planted by the American aid programme. Between the trees, festival goers hung hammocks and rested in the shade, providing a beautiful metaphor of sorts.

And it was that kind of festival. Families with baby strollers pitched up. Groups of friends picnicked together. Children and tots were everywhere, running around or enjoying the music from the vantage point of a parent's shoulders. Daily outreach in the form of a Jazz for Kids programme sought to engage with the youngest children; stars perhaps, of future editions of A to JazZ?

There were dogs galore, chasing balls and sticks to their hearts content. A dedicated sports area offered humans an alternative to stick-chasing, with table tennis, badminton, volleyball and a mini-football pitch all seeing action. Frisbees cut graceful arcs through the warm summer air and bubbles were blown.

Czech beer, cocktails and Italian spritzers provided chilled relief from the hot sun. In the evening, as the light faded and the mountains were silhouetted against the blue-night sky, the multi-colored flashing neon lights of plastic gizmos dotted throughout the crowd created a scene like something from a Grateful Dead concert.

As dusk encroached, the music increasingly became a magnet for ever larger numbers of people, with a huge crowd captivated by third night headliner, Jacob Collier. The main stage also featured some of the best Bulgarian jazz musicians, exhibiting varying degrees of folkloric influence. For those with stamina, late-night jam sessions in Bar Caché, on the edge of the park, burned fiercely into the small hours.

Finally, a half-day conference—see separate article —on day one set out to offer practical advice to Bulgarian musicians on how to equip themselves for a career in music.

Day One


It was a little bit of a thankless task for Romanian band JazzyBIT to open the festival 6:00pm, as there was only a small crowd gathered in front of the stage. Still, the audience showed its appreciation for the trio's upbeat, contemporary piano jazz. Bassist Mihai Modloveanu and drummer Szabo Csongor-Zsolt plied tight, funk and pop rhythms, while pianist Tendor Pop roamed more freely.

Notable, were the GoGo Penguin-esque "Le Tunk" from Horizon (2016) and the Latin-infused show-stopper "Curacao" from the trio's debut album, Touch the Sky (2014). On the latter, Pop's tumbling piano lines gave way to a vamp, as his right hand worked the Nord organ keys feverishly. Imagine Michel Camilo reinventing Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" and you might get some idea.

With its contagious energy, short but exciting solos, and hook-laden tunes, JazzyBIT was a sound choice for |A to JazZ 2019's opening act, taking the audience along with it for the ride.

Koka Mass Jazz

From Georgi Yanev's opening guitar riff it was clear that funk was the lingua franca of drummer Konstantin Katarsky's Koka Mass Jazz. Punchy melodic riffs from trumpeter Martin Tashev and saxophonist Dimitar Lyolev dovetailed with the soulful two-part vocals of Tiffani Blu and Krastina Kokorska, while keyboardist Milen Kukosharov brought swirling Hammond textures and bass groove.
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