Contemporary Jazz in Denmark: Different Sounds, Different Scenes

Jakob Baekgaard By

Sign in to view read count
There's an often-quoted phrase by Shakespeare saying that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" but when it comes to jazz, the environment of the country is indeed very fertile, and at this point, the many sounds of Danish jazz are reaching across the borders and finding new listeners everywhere in the world. The homogeneity of a local scene that welcomed visitors from the outside has given way to a great global community with many genres and scenes. Nowadays, young Danish jazz musicians are tearing down the walls that separated high and low culture, avant-garde and popular music. A keen understanding of tradition blends into a daring exploration of the new. If one were to pick just one word to characterize new Danish jazz, the word would be "curiosity."

Swinging 'round The Montmartre

When did it all begin? Arguably, Danish jazz reached its first phase of fruition from the beginning of the 60s until the middle of the 70s. Of course, the origin of Danish jazz goes further back. In the thirties, a writer like Tom Kristensen connected the wreckage of modernity with the new sounds of jazz coming from the nightclubs, but the 60s was the time when Danish jazz started to get an international reputation. This was mostly due to a special club that to this day still brings back tears of joy when its name is mentioned: "Montmartre."

Jazzhus Montmartre (Jazzhouse Montmartre) was opened by Herluf Kamp Larsen in 1961 and became the prime venue for jazz not only in Denmark but also in Europe. This was the place where Danish players like Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums), Palle Mikkelborg (trumpet) and Jesper Thilo (tenor saxophone) developed their chops and reached the high level of musicianship that would inspire further generations and it was the venue where stars like Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Kenny Drew, Stan Getz and several others found a second home. At that time so much was happening and it all evolved around this particular place. However, all good things come to an end and in the 80s the impact of Montmartre started to diminish and after changing its location it was closed definitively in 1995. An era in Danish jazz was over.

From place to outer space: and Sunship

What has happened recently is that danish jazz has spread itself all over the map: geographically as well as stylistically. It's no longer concentrated around a particular place but rather develops in a sonic space where associations of enthusiasts and young musicians arrange concerts in different contexts and situations. The boundary between a jazz and a pop/rock venue has deliberately been blurred. Two associations deserve a special mention when it comes to the propagation of Danish jazz: Jazz Club Loco in Copenhagen and Sunship in Aarhus.

In recent years, Jazz Club Loco has been an important player in the development of the new Danish avant-garde that has also been propelled by the label ILK. Loco has become famous for its adventurous concerts held at different venues and its series of superb records. Thus, Loco is both arranging concerts and releasing records that avoids the well-trodden road of the mainstream. Among the essential names promoted by Loco are Yak, Bugpowder, Moskus and the surrealistic musical collective yoyo oyoy whose activities include the bands Slütspürt, Kirsten Ketsjer og Fjernsyn Fjernsyn. What unites all these different names is a will to experiment with genres and create new improvised music. Rock musicians meet up with jazzers, concept artists, composers and electronic wizards to make music filled with energy and passion. It is a spirit of looseness, seriousness and anarchistic madness that makes Loco compelling. For a taste of the unique improvisational spirit that pervades Loco see the attached video clip where young Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg, who released his acclaimed album, Triplepoint in 2007, meets up with French free-jazz guitarist Marc Ducret in an intense duo concert that throws away all niceties in favor of a wild spirit and raw energy. It might be said that to Loco jazz is the new punk.

Like Loco in Copenhagen, Sunship in Aarhus is a association that tries to bridge the gap between mainstream and the avant-garde. They have had a huge share in promoting the work of the extremely talented guitarist and composer Jakob Bro, who has gained recognition by the likes of Paul Motian in whose band he is currently a member. Bro's compositions unfold like melodic explorations of texture and sound, emphasizing the organic growth of musical structures that takes in various genres while remaining firmly planted in the idiom of jazz. In 2006 he received a Danish Music Award for his album Sidetracked. To see Bro performing his composition, "Chinatown," live at this event, take a look at the embedded video clip.

Besides putting the spotlight on Bro, Sunship has also promoted the works of several other talented artists including trumpeter Jakob Buchanan, drummer Jeppe Gram, pianists Søren Kjærgaard and Jacob Anderskov and the young avant-garde trio Saft. Like Loco, Sunship favors the young, genre-bending artists, who continues to expand the language of jazz. Going to a concert arranged by Sunship one is both able to experience the ethereal bliss of chamber jazz and the sonic explosions of avant-rock.

Overall, an association like Sunship proves that jazz in Denmark successfully has been spread out geographically. Aarhus, who is the second greatest city of the country, has become the second jazz capital with its own jazz festival, Aarhus International Jazz Festival, to rival the big brother, Copenhagen Jazz Festival. It is a joy to hear the many curious sounds that comes from the city.

Traveling Spirits and World Citizens

It would be wrong to assume that the country's jazz scene is strictly a national phenomenon. Part of the fertility of the danish jazz scene is its ability to work outside the national borders. Danish jazz has lost its air of provincialism. To have a capacity like the English composer and singer Django Bates teaching at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC) in Copenhagen obviously has meant a lot. It is in the creative milieu around RMC that many young jazz musicians have expanded their activities—one of them being the formation of the label ILK, who has brought a new generation of jazz musicians to public attention.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.