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European Jazz Conference 2017

Ian Patterson By

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I don’t think it is a music festival’s job to be a museum of music. Music is an emotional experience…way more than a cultural experience… —Rabih Abou-Khalil
European Jazz Conference 2017
Cankarjev dom
Ljubljana, Slovenia
September 21-24, 2017

The snow-capped mountains flanking Ljubljana form a natural border between Slovenia and Italy and provided a picturesque backdrop to the 4th annual European Jazz Conference. For the record two hundred and twenty conference attendees [Europe Jazz Network members and guests] the sun shone and the air was cool. The handsome Slovenian capital, with its bicycle-friendly, litter-free streets felt serene as tourists strolled through the old quarter and locals sat al fresco at street-side bars and restaurants.

Yet even the most idyllic scenes can be deceptive.

In Slovenia, as in many other European countries tensions have arisen over the numbers of migrants/refugees arriving every day, many of whom are fleeing the interminable conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The situation is complex and divisive. Debates over borders and human right are ongoing. Slovenia, however, is primarily a corridor, with the vast majority of these human waves seeking resettlement in third countries.

The very same questions about border controls, humanitarian and economic responsibility—along with rising nationalist sentiments derived from defensive notions of fixed national identities and cultural purity—are common to practically every other country in Europe. So too, the fear of terrorist attacks.

Without exception, for the festival directors, producers, agents, academics, jazz journalists and musicians who congregated at the EJC, these issues do not exist independently from their activities, but instead inform, to a greater or lesser degree, programming decisions, audience development, community outreach projects, research, the economic politics surrounding funding, the subject matter of panel debates et cetera.

Hailing from forty countries including Benin, Mali, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Azerbaijan, Italy, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Belgium, Norway, Finland and Sweden, the links between them all could be mapped out not just in musical terms, but also in the routes travelled by migrants and political/economic refugees, the insurmountable borders and those that are open, the centres of greatest migrant/refugee concentration and the rise of right-wing politics.

That two of the EJC's three Keynote Speakers had either fled war or effectively became an exile because of war, and that the third uses the arts to counter the socio-political, historical and psychological forces that compel many Africans to seek a better life in Europe, underlined the dominant and inter-related themes of the three-day conference.

Migration, crossing borders (cultural and psychological as well as physical), identity, racism and tolerance, integration and marginalization, language, the yoke of history, cross-border collaborations and political agendas. If it seemed like a heavy load for a conference focused on jazz and related music to embrace, it's worth remembering that these themes pretty much reflected the 100-year history of jazz to date.

Europe Jazz Network: A Brief Background

The Europe Jazz Network was founded thirty years ago as an association of promotors, presenters, venues, organisations and individuals dedicated to jazz, improvised music and related creative music. Essentially, the EJN promotes the diversity and identity of this music as well as its cultural and educational capital.

At the core of the association's ethos is the belief that this music contributes significantly to societies, not only in economic terms, but also as a force for social and emotional growth and as a conduit for promoting harmony and inter-cultural dialog between the diverse peoples and cultures of Europe -a fact, incidentally, that has been recognized by UNESCO.

It's a case of do as I do, for as Maja Osojnik—one of the Slovenian Showcase Festival musicians said to the EJC attendees in the audience on the first night of the showcase concerts: "It feels really like one big family, observing how you guys talk to each other. It's a nice feeling." The harmonious, family-like vibe of the EJC engenders a proactive, 'can do' philosophy that results in practical and meaningful collaborations, from the sharing of ideas and good practises and the co-commissioning and co-touring of artists, to research projects such as the monumental History of European Jazz project—an unprecedented 660-page opus due for publication in 2018.

As of 2017 the EJN boasts 112 members and the number is growing year by year. Significantly, the EJN has opened its borders to non-European organisations for the first time, with Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and—just two days prior to the EJC 2017—the Australian Music Society becoming two of the most recent members.

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