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European Jazz Conference 2015


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The independent scene is where jazz is really alive.
—Santiago Gardeazábal, Colombian concert promoter
European Jazz Conference
Budapest Music Centre
Budapest, Hungary
September 24-27, 2015

In times when war and poverty are provoking large-scale migrations to Europe, the responses both individually and collectively of the European nations have raised important questions concerning responsibility, human rights, humanitarian aid and trans-national collaboration. In the light of Orwellian fences, jazz—that most trans-national of all music—provides a prism through which it's possible to re-examine our capacity to work and play together despite differences in nationality, religion, race and politics.

This same prism can perhaps shed light on the essential things that unite us and bring out the best in us as human beings, and particularly in difficult times, of the challenges involved in nurturing closer, more humane ties.

Budapest Then And Now

The Budapest Music Centre, home to the 2015 edition of the European Jazz Conference, was just a stone's throw from the grey-steel ribbon of the Danube. The river, which bisects the Hungarian capital, winds its way from the Black Forest in Germany through seven countries before ending its 2,800 kilometre journey in the Black Sea. Its catchment basin extends into a further nine countries. The Danube is a powerful symbol of the inter-connectedness of millions of people, and like jazz and human migrations, it follows a course that obeys natural laws

In a sense it was fitting that the annual European Jazz Conference was held in Budapest, for it was here in 2004 that the General Assembly of the European Jazz Network launched its manifesto.

Written by Reiner Michalke and Nod Knowles, the EJN manifesto declared that jazz "has broken through barriers of language, race and class..." and "functions as a catalyst between different cultural heritages from local and migrant sources and between known and newly-discovered musical forms. Its openness and thirst for diversity is a permanent self-protection against any kind of nationalism."

Thus, it was with a renewed sense of openness towards all-comers that members from 105 organizations (festivals, clubs and venues, promotors and national agencies) from 31 countries gathered in Budapest to celebrate the diversity of European jazz. Over three days, seminars, panel discussions and informal workshops sought to cement existing working relations, foster new collaborations and debate issues pertaining to the production, dissemination and consumption of jazz.

Evening showcases showed the best of Hungarian jazz, which All About Jazz's Henning Bolte covers in detail in a separate article as well as throwing light on the Balkan jazz scene—an area of personal expertise.

Jazz Buffs

Appropriately, the opening ceremony got underway not with words but with music. László Gőz, the founder and director of the impressive Budapest Music Centre, gave a haunting mini-concert on a selection of shells great and small—a reminder that musical improvisation has existed since the dawn of humankind.

EJN President Ros Rigby then welcomed the assembled and outlined the program ahead. She also made note of the humanitarian crisis, "this global issue," and stated that an official statement on behalf of the General Assembly would be drafted and issued over the course of the weekend.

Network Manager Giambattista Tofoni's reply will be remembered less for his outlining of the program than for his own Chaplain-esque improvisations with the curiously versatile buff, a cloth included in the welcome bag for attendees that serves more functions than can reasonably be expected for such a seemingly humble object.

In a brief ceremony, the annual EJN Award 2015 for best festival, club or organization was awarded to the internationally renowned moers festival, with the festival's Artistic Director Reiner Michalke accepting the award to warm applause from his peers.

Christopher Dell: Keynote Speech

Improvising with function, in this case the function of urban spaces, was central to the keynote speech of Christopher Dell, an urban scientist, philosopher and jazz vibraphonist who has recorded and performed with the likes of Till Bronner, Jim Black, Bob Brookmeyer, John Tchicai and the WDR Bigband. In a stimulating talk entitled entitled "Improvisation on Urbanity: Visions Concerning Our Society and Future Challenges" the creative production of urban spaces was the abiding theme.

"In Germany we have a lot of not-used buildings, but we don't have the technique to re-use the buildings," Dell observed in direct reference to the current migrant situation. "So that will be the challenge for architects, to turn old buildings into working stations again and stations that are different now than they were twenty years ago."

Dell didn't offer any figures regarding empty buildings in Germany but acording to an article in The Guardian in February 2014 based on data from government censuses and independent research, an estimated 11 million homes lie empty across Europe—"enough to house the continent's homeless twice over," its author noted.

In a scholarly-cum-conversational talk interspersed colorfully with vibraphone improviations, Dell blended philosophy, science and just a little madcap humour in addressing questions of urban space, and more specifically, the production of space. Drawing from the work of Henri Lefevre's work The Production of Space (Wiley- Blackwell, 1991), Dell equated the production of space with improvisation. A city, Dell reasoned, is not a geogrpahical entity but a practise, whereby spaces are produced by human actions.

Dell's rapid-fire discourse—peppered with numerous slides—was in turn dense, complex and revelatory. His examples of improvised performtive space and the notions of the meaning of neighborhood—and how to transform it according to needs—were facinating and thought-provoking. Perhaps an hour was too short for the amount of information the audience had to attempt to absorb.

However, if one thing emerged from Dell's talk it was the notion that the imaginative production of urban spaces—using the existing instead of building the new—or in other words, the transformation of our cities to accomodate ever-shifting realities, requires a new vocabulary.

Insights Into The Hungarian Jazz Scene

One example of the imaginative production of space came from Judit Csobod of Mediawave International Film And Music Gathering, who alongside György Wallner of the BMC and György Szabo of Trafo House of Contemporary Art, was part of a discussion panel focussng on the Hungarian jazz and creative music scene.

The MIFAMG is held annually in Fort Monostor, a reconverted fort, in Komarom, Hungary. That the word 'festival' is absent in the name emphasiizes MIF&MG's alternative view of what art/entertainment entails, with the line between performers and attendees blurred. "Only half of the events happening we pre-organized," explained Csobod. "People are coming to participate, not just to sit and listen. There are a lot of creative people and they have a lot to say."

It's a far cry from the restrictions in place during the decades-long communist dictatorship, which came to an end in 1989. "The state had a monopoly to organize concerts," said Csobod referring to those times. "No-one even thought about organizing concerts. The stuff that we are presenting now was not possible and that is why people are so passionate about it."

In another innovative move MIFAMG decided not to advertise this year, using Facebook as it's primary tool of communiction. Numbers, Csobod related, did not change from the year before, underlining the increasingly weighty role that social media plays in promoting and driving events.

It's not possible to discuss Hungarian jazz without talking about the Budapest Music Centre. As Wallner related, the BMC got off the ground in 1996 as a website and nothing more, but began curating concerts in 1997. In 1998 BMC Records was born, since when it has released over 200 recordings, a significant number of which were recorded in the BMC's recording studio or live in the Opus Jazz Club—both housed within the BMC edifice.

In the late 1990s Hungarian jazz was quite closed towards the outside world and the BMC's vision, Wallner related, was to connect with the wider world: "The plan from the very beginning was to be an interface—to show what was going on around us in Europe and elsewhere, but mostly Europe."

To this end, in addition to giving a platform to both estbalished and up-and-coming Hungarian jazz musicians BMC has recorded and played host in its club to artists such as Chris Potter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave Liebman, Hamid Drake, Archie Shepp and Tomasz Stanko, amongst others. Recordings of German vocalist Michael Schiefel, Spanish saxophonist Perico Sambeat and the Polish trio led by Gregorz Karnas point to an inclusive world-view, one which celebrates quality jazz regardless of its origin.

And, as Wallner emphasized, the BMC's modern recording studio, library and club are not only concerned with the recording, archiving and propogation of Hungarian jazz, but with Hungarian music in general, wit BMC Records releasing numeros classical, choral and contemporary releases.

The EJN Conference's leitmotif for 2015 was 'Make It Happen,' and the BMC, inspired by the vision and dedication of László Gőz, stands as a shining example to any city of what can be achieved with determination, perseverance and a good team.

Jazz Beyond Europe

Following on from the previous years's Jazz Beyond Europe panel discussion in Helsinki, which threw light on jazz in Asia and Australia, the EJN Confernece 2015 turned its gaze towards South America.

Santiago Gardeazábal of Nova et Vetera, Columbia, Benjamin Taubkin of Casa du Nucleo, Brazil, Alexandra Archetti Stolen of Oslo World Music Festival, Argentina— the latter via video link-up—together painted pictures of vibrant, diverse music scenes in their respective countries.

Although Columbia had a history of tropical big bands and American standards big bands in the 1960s, recordings were scarce and modern jazz, according to Gardeazabal, really began to emerge in the 1990s as "a fusion between the traditional instruments and jazz, searching for a new language."

This is a fusion that Gardeazábal has nurtured in his own club, a different approach to the more formal jazz departments that began to surface in Columbian universities in the mid-nineties. Gardeazbal noted that in the beginning it was a challenge to overcome the perception in people's minds that jazz is an elitisit, middle class music and that a jazz bar would serve expensive drinks. This not insignificant perception of jazz is commonplace in other parts of the world and moderator Kevin Le Gendre reminded everybody of the importance of making audiences feel comfortable in jazz spaces—something which should also hold true for the performing musicians.

A fifty per cent beer discount brought musicians flooding to Gardeazábal's bar and helped drive the communication between different traditions and generations. This innovative lubricative approach might help European jazz festivals of a certain character attract bigger audiences. Bigger and happier.

Jazz festivals in Columbia can attract up to ten thousand people where by and large American headliners are still preferred. However, according to Gardeazábal the "independent scene is where jazz is really alive," with musicians setting up their own small recording labels and festivals.

Musician and producer Benjamin Taubkin also spoke of the growing independent scene in Brazil, with the flourishing of musicians' collectives in Brazil, stemming from in-house concerts—a trend seemingly gathering pace globally. Taubkin underlined the significant relationship between Brazilian and American music and the early-twentieth century custom of classical composers such as Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein and Heitor Villa Lobos to look towards trational music and local culture for inspiration.

"It's in this border between the classical and popular that the music develops in our continent," said Taubkin. "In this middle ground is where you develop everything. If you take what [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal did, it is always in the middle. In this border is the way we see and deal with the world."

Currently, Taubukin is collaborating with traditional South Korean musicians in a facsinating experiment entitled Kobra that straddles the middle ground he referred to, and which also highlights the tremendously fertile contemporary music coming out of South Korea today.

On the question of steretypes surrounding South Amercian jazz and in particular the widely held expectation that Brazilian jazz musicians should play bossa nova- inpsired jazz Taubkin responded: "This is music from fifty years ago. In the rest of the world it continues, which is beautiful, but in Brazil it's gone. Music cannot be apart from life, otherwise it's Disneyland."

Perhaps the main themes that emerged from this particular panel discussion were the diversity of jazz/creative music throughout South America, and indeed globally, the increasingly common fusions of musical traditions—both nationally and internationally—and the disconnect that perhaps exists between some festivals' desire to brand music and the musicians' desire to explore music freely—a situation which probably only serves to confuse audiences. Taubkin served up some food for thought when he said: "We that produce and want to have an audience, we have to be as creative as the music we want to present."

EJN Projects

On the Saturday the 200 or so attendees were updated on the status of the wide-ranging activities and projects undertaken by members of the Eurpean Jazz Network and supported by the Creative Europe funding 2014-2017. In fact, the conference was the first project of the second year.

Everybody then broke up into smaller groups to attend the specific project reports: Francesco Martinelli's wonderfully ambitious book on the shared history of European jazz is gathering pace, with a publisher secured, much of the content from individual writers completed or under way and the final product expected within a year, give or take. The tome, estimated to be around 700 pages long, will represent an unprecedented overview of the history of European jazz. The book will also be distributed to libraries in the USA.

Nina Torske reported on West Norway Jazz Centre's work on programming jazz for young people; EJN President Ros Rigby and Wim Wabbes facilitated a session on environmental sustainability in music; there were sessions on funding, audience devlopment, audience mobility across Europe, jazz education and careers, more challenging festival/club programming, communication and digital tools—in short, a very broad range of activities that said much about the progressive nature of the European Jazz Network and its desire to keep the music moving forward.

With each country of the individual EJN members experieincing unique political, ecomomic, geographic and cultural circumstances not all the proposed initiatives that arose over the weekend in Budpaest were viable; issues of co-production and co-commissioning in particular divided opinion. However, it's the desire to co-operate and foster closer ties that is the engine that drives the EJN.

A proposal from Nadine Deventer of Berliner Festspiele—during John Cumming's session on Autumn/Winter Festivals—to co-tour three bands internationally— bands recommended by EJN members—seemed like a very concrete way to help promote up-and-coming bands and to provide jazz club audiences with a special experience.

Fiona Goh gave revealing insight into the nuts and bolts of the EJN through her ongoing research, qualitative and quantitative, carried out since 2011. The figures produced from her intelligence gathering were striking, with the economic impact of the EJN members—ticket sales, public funding investment, employment of artsists/staff etc.— estimated in the hundreds of millions of Euros. The deatiled information could be used, Goh suggested, to attract sponsorship as well as new members to EJN.

The EJN members promote thousands of events annually—many of them free—that attract millions of people, but beyond the numbers what is most impressive is the commitment of the EJN through its creative partnerships to provide opportunities for musicians, to nurture jazz in Europe in all its diversity and to raise awarenss of jazz's significance as a cultural and educational force.


The EJN Conference was a celebration of jazz and a celebration of an international community. Twenty five years after its founding by Filippo Bianchi the EJN is bigger and stronger than ever and remains just as determined to transcend nationalism and celebrate difference. After considered discussion the General Asembly released the following statment on the refugeee and migrant situation in Europe:

"In 2004 the EJN Manifesto was approved in Budapest-the same city in which we are gathering now. In the Manifesto jazz is described as a catalyst against any kind of nationalism, as an art form that has broken through barriers of language race and class, as a driving force creating a Europe of the 21st century with a diversity of language regions and cultural heritage where mobility and flexibility are essential.

"Over two decades ago populations across Europe celebrated when walls and barriers separating Eastern and Western Europe came down, enabling free travel between countries. As a result of the influx of refugees and migrants now entering Europe, we are now witnessing new barriers being erected and people being stopped at borders.

"As the leading network of 106 jazz promoters from 31 European countries, we celebrate the fact that jazz has always broken down barriers, developed new musical forms through collaboration between cultures, and provided a context in which musicians fleeing persecution in their native countries have been welcomed in other places where they can thrive and develop their art.

"As a network we pledge that collectively and individually we will do all we can to influence national and European policy and public awareness by demonstrating positive examples through our work of the benefits of cross-cultural collaboration."

The European Jazz Conference was a success on multiple levels. Congratulations and thanks are due the fantastic Hungarian hosts of the BMC and to the dedicated team from EJN, notably the Italian Serie A team of Giambattista Tofoni, Francesca Cerretani and Stefano Zucchiati, whose tireless work, attention to detail and good humor helped make the conference an enjoyable, productive and thought-provoking event for all.

The next port of call for the EJC will be Wrcolaw, Poland 2016. Don't forget to bring your buff.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Balint Hrotko

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