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Jazz really sounds great after 15 years of abstinence. It sounds too unbelievable, but sadly it is true. It's been 15 years since the last jazz festival in Belgrade has been held, until it was revived last year. During the Milosevic era (who passed away during the writing of this article) the last thing that his regime needed and wanted to sustain and finance was a jazz festival or any semblance of meaningful popular culture. Instead a cancer-like music and culture was produced and supported, which totally screwed up what was built culturally up to that moment. Not many people know this, but jazz is deeply rooted in the cultures of the Balkans region. It began with dixieland bands and jazz fans' societies in the beginning of the century and it grew from there. During the last century cities like Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Skopje, and these days including Sarajevo, developed strong and popular jazz festivals. Those festivals have provided unforgettable moments that people still talk about and hang on to as something special. Not many people (as told by saxophonist Gary Bartz the previous summer) know this, but Miles Davis played his electronic music live outside of the US for the very first time on the first issue of this festival in Belgrade. Of course, the audience booed him, but to Bartz's astonishment no one left the concert before the performance was over. There are plenty occurrences such as these that make good foundation for legends and myths like Metheny's performance just two days before the dissolution of former Yugoslavia (which made him the last musician to ever play there). The festival in Belgrade was founded in 1971 as "The Newport Jazz Festival" and the second year it was promoted into "The Newport Belgrade Jazz festival, and eventually it was named "The Belgrade Jazz Festival" in 1974. Even though the jazz musicians association began organizing concerts in the 50's, it wasn't until 1971 when it was promoted into an international jazz festival. And the musicians who have played there are the same artists that people these days talk about in awe. In order to remind people about the golden days of the jazz festival and its tradition, the festival began with an impressive exhibition of posters, newspaper articles and photographies of people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis with Keith Jarrett, Dave Liebman, Freddie Hubbard, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, BB King, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Muddy Waters, Chick Corea, Buddy Rich, Pat Metheny and many, many more. The festival was divided into several parts opening with Charlie Haden's Liberation orchestra and Billy Cobham's World Party. They were part of the festival's special program and their performance took place at the Sava Centar, a prestigious concert hall. These two acts gave different performances when compared together. Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra was very quiet; theirs was an intimate performance sounding like chamber orchestra that was influenced by jazz rather than vice versa. Interestingly, they set Charlie on a raised platform behind the other playersquite an unique arrangement. The band played a repertoire of covers, like a reggae version of Metheny's "This is Not America, Coleman's "Skies Of America, "America The Beautiful, Frisell's "Throughout, Samuel Barber's "Adagio. But, the real star was Carla Bley, who has arranged the numbers alongside writing several of them, and contributed typically brilliant piano work. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and pleasant. Haden began reminiscing about playing in Belgrade with Ornette Coleman some 30 years ago. Even backstage, he was in high spirits and in the mood for discussing his music and history.
Billy Cobham's performance was more upbeat and dynamic, and naturally, it was a more groove oriented music. The band played with vibrant energy guided by the delicate and precise licks provided by Cobham. Even though he has a reputation of having a thundering blast on the drums, he nevertheless showed he is capable of playing subtle, funky grooves on one hand and awe inspiring solo improvisations on the other.
But Dom Omladine was the place where all major events took place ( and they are the formal organizers of the festival since the 70's). The program at the Dom Omladine was divided in 2 parts with performances at the main hall and performances by Balkan jazz artists that took place at the facility's club upstairs.
The first night was opened by Al Foster, who played his set with an enormous grin on his face. Joined by Doug Weiss on bass, Kevin Hayes on piano and Eli Degibri on saxophone, the band went through a couple of standards, like Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, he dedicated a tune of his to Miles. He even played a tune that he played on when it was recorded in mid 60s by a young and promising pianist named Chick Corea. What began as a shaky and unsteady performance, soon turned into something nice and good.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.