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Alfa Jazz Fest 2017

Thomas Conrad By

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Alfa Jazz Fest 2017
Lviv, Ukraine
June 23-27, 2017

Jazz festivals are different in Europe. There are more of them, and they are crucial to the economic viability, social solidarity and creative evolution of the jazz art form. Many European towns that host their own annual jazz events seem like unlikely sites for festivals. They are small, and/or industrial, and/or off the beaten path. In the case of Alfa Jazz Fest, in Lviv, Ukraine, there is a jazz festival in a country at war.

No Eastern European country has gotten more media air time and ink in the United States over the last four years than Ukraine. The attention is all because of politics. In 2013, a wave of protests in Kiev's Independence Square (the "Euromaidan revolution") deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia's lackey. In 2014 Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. A proxy armed conflict with Russia broke out in the eastern part of Ukraine, which borders Russia. Ukraine has also made the news in the United States because it is one of the places where people associated with President Donald Trump (e.g. one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort) have had their fingers. (The extent of these shadowy dealings with once-powerful people like Yanukovych has yet to be fully revealed.)

The war is in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions, almost 1500 kilometers from Liviv, which is in the west of the country, near Poland. The whole world knows that Russia is sending arms and fighters to support the Ukrainian secessionists. Vladimir Putin even winks when he denies it. The violence has continued at a lower intensity in recent months, but soldiers and some civilians are still dying, and the conflict still creates a flow of "IDP's" (internally displaced persons).

Lviv is the Ukrainian city most strongly oriented to the West, toward Europe. Ukrainian, not Russian, is the first language spoken. Not only because of recent events, but because of 100 years of bitter history, there is profound antipathy toward Russia in Lviv. (Shops sell rolls of toilet paper with Putin's face printed on each square—a fine Ukrainian souvenir.) A question might legitimately be raised about whether an American journalist would be fully welcome there, given the current U.S. President's avowed admiration for Putin. But there was no cause for concern. The people of Lviv are warmly hospitable to Americans. In their long and often tragic history, they have lived under both Nazis and Soviet communists. They know better than to hold individuals responsible for the sins of their governments.

The old center of Lviv has a look all its own. The Nazis regarded the city has more Austrian than Russian (it was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and did not bomb it in World War II. Many of the buildings, a mix of Austrian, Slavic and Italian architectures, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. The fact that much of the cityscape looks just slightly gone to seed gives Lviv a certain decadent charm. There are rough cobblestone lanes and houses with thick, mysterious wooden doors. There are also black-domed cathedrals, large public squares, many parks and one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe.

The most important of those public squares is Rynok, in the heart of old Lviv. It has been the center of the city's communal life for 500 years. One of the three stages for Alfa Jazz Fest was set up in Rynok. Another smaller stage was a few blocks away, behind the Potocki Palace, built as a nobleman's residence in the 1880's, now an art museum. The main stage for the evening concerts was on a hill a couple of kilometers from the center, in a venue that held 3200. It was called the "Eddie Rosner Stage," in tribute to a legendary trumpet player, "the Polish Louis Armstrong." Outside the stadium there were three "free fan zones," with big screens and piped-in sound, that could expand the total audience by upwards of 10,000. The main stage and the one in Rynok Square were tent-covered. Alfa Jazz is not a festival of intimate musical spaces. It is a huge outdoor party. The two stages in the city center were free, and were overrun all five days of the festival. Tickets for concerts at the main stage went on sale in April and sold out immediately. Such a response is unusual for a jazz festival, even in Europe. It is only partly explained by the fact that Alpha Bank, a major sponsor, acquired a large block of tickets to provide to their management and guests. The Alpha Bank connection may, however, explain the dress code. Whereas the standard attire for summer festivals in Europe is an old T-shirt from a prior year's festival and shorts or jeans, in Lviv high fashion was the order of the day. Every night, the main stage venue and its grounds were swarmed over with men in suits and women in designer dresses and high heels. (Those, like foreign journalists, who had no choice but to follow typical jazz festival casual standards, were under-dressed.)

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