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John Apelgren: Jazz, Resilience, and the Forbidden People

John Apelgren: Jazz, Resilience, and the Forbidden People

Courtesy Vlatko Mitashev


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For me, jazz represents the highest from of music.
—John Apelgren
With a career spanning 30 years in the music scene, John Apelgren can boast experiences like few others. As an integral part of what is called the jazz scene or jazz culture in Macedonia, he has performed with various jazz ensembles, ranging from the old Radio Television Skopje (RTS) Big Band to performances with the new Zdruzenie na Jazz Muzicari (ZJM) Big Band and the Macedonian Philharmonic. His velvety voice embellishes more than 200 recorded jazz standards, and he has collaborated with many composers. However, his repertoire is not limited to jazz but also includes bossa nova songs from Brazil, chansons evidenced by numerous concerts, and a big concert featuring Cuban music is announced for the latter part of this year.

As an activist, he has always been vocal about the rights of his colleagues, and one of those outspoken protests is the book Forbidden People, published by "Ars Lamina" in 2022. The book portrays portraits of 14 musicians along with their photographs, authored by Apelgren. The aim of the book was to depict the people whose destinies were affected by the pandemic through the ban on performances, which interrupted their sources of income. The book itself received an award at this year's Skopje Book Fair for Social Activism, and an exhibition featuring photographs from the book will open at the Cinematheque's Gallery on July 1st.

Also, shortly before that, in the small hall of the Philharmonic, together with bassist Martin Gjakonovski's band, they will perform songs from the announced album that will see the light of day, featuring well-known songs from the works of composer Dragan Gjakonovski-Shpato titled "Vo sebe te nosam" (Carrying You Within Me), so that the new generations will become acquainted with these jazz gems from the past, but also with new arrangements.

In this interview, we discuss his love for jazz, his experiences, the book Forbidden People and its messages, the collaboration with Martin Gjakonovski for the new album featuring songs by Shpato, as well as the collaboration with the new generations of jazz musicians.

All About Jazz: Johnny, how did jazz come in your life? Your beginnings were in a rock band, you studied violin, ballet, so how did jazz music become so important to you?

John Apelgren: For me, jazz represents the highest form of music. That's because through jazz, you can express yourself fully and tell a story in your own distinctive way, conveying a part of your sensibility to the audience, not just because you want to, but because you have the need to do so. I say this now as an adult, but the magical allure of jazz came from my mother's records, which she had brought from England. Somehow, that music spoke to me more than the classical music I was learning. Jazz is an exchange of ideas, freedom in interpretation, and playing with time at a certain tempo. Because of all that, I could live jazz, even though I dared to pursue it much later, after leaving the violin and ballet behind me.

AAJ: What were some of the first jazz songs that made a deep impression on you?

JA: There was no radio playing at my home. The two channels of RTS (Radio Television Skopje) didn't have jazz music, at least not that I remember, but every evening I fell asleep to the music of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra on the gramophone. I imagined myself in the stories they told through their songs, and it deeply touched me. Immediately after them, I discovered Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Julie London...

AAJ: What were some of the first jazz concerts you attended?

JA: The first jazz concerts I had the opportunity to attend were at the Skopje Jazz Festival. I can't remember which specific performance left the greatest impression on me chronologically, but Weather Report, John Abercrombie, the Count Basie, the son and grandson of Joe Zawinul, the Morelenbaum couple, and Betty Carter, are just a few of the concerts that fascinated me.

AAJ: Throughout your career, you have recorded over 200 jazz standards and collaborated with a large number of ensembles, people like Ilija Pejovski, Kire Kostov, Goce Dimitrovski, etc. What was decisive for you to choose this as your life's calling?

JA: The first jazz ensemble with which I recorded at RTS was M2. It consisted of my friends Martin Gjakonovski, Pavel and Petar Rendzov, Bedrija Sinanoski, and Zoran Kraguevski. Fortunately for me, I caught the attention of Ilija Pejovski as a producer, and right after that, I knew that I belonged there, in Studio M2, with jazz under Pejovski's wing. He was my mentor and friend, and he wrote the first arrangements for me for an orchestra where the string players were my schoolmates and the big band was still part of RTS. The luck didn't end there when I became a regular honorary vocalist for the big band, the only one in the former Yugoslavian Radio & Television. Collaborations with conductors Kire Kostov and Aleksandar Dzambazov, with Damir Imeri and Ljupcho Mirkovski, Goce Dimitrovski, only helped me to continue progressing and participating in wonderful concerts with the big band, the Macedonian Philharmonic, and various smaller formations derived from the big band members. The tours throughout Macedonia, performances at all notable Macedonian festivals, and recording numerous music shows were an endless joy for me because I was finally doing what I believed I knew best, which was performing jazz music.

AAJ: During the pandemic, you published the book Forbidden People. How did you come up with the idea to publish this book?

JA: My last live performance was on March 14, 2020, and already on March 18 of the same year, the government made a decision to ban all live performances. This left us musicians, who solely depend on our performances and are not employed by radio stations, music schools and academies, opera, or philharmonic orchestras, literally without the means to earn a living for our families. The assistance provided by the state was minimal, and the conditions were contradictory, especially for independent artists. For the first time in my life, I felt powerless and had a strong need to raise my voice and publicly demand that our political elites consider a segment of the Macedonian art and culture community that they had left on the margins. Despite the support from the public and some of my employed colleagues, we were unable to motivate the government authorities and commissions. They found time and a way to create protocols for all kinds of activities except for ours. We often heard that we could hold concerts, but we only perform concerts once or twice a year, and participate in another 5-10, but due to the limited number of audience members, it was impossible to generate any significant income to sustain a decent livelihood. There were paradoxes like taxis being allowed to carry three people in a 3m x 3m space with masks, or four people sitting at the same table in a restaurant eating a shared salad, while at the same time prohibiting anyone from performing in that same restaurant. They even introduced a ridiculous ban on music above 55 decibels, which is equivalent to the volume of normal speech. In my search for the most appropriate way to present our plight to the wider public, the way in which I could save that same plight from oblivion and prevent it from happening again in the future, I considered it appropriate to write the book Forbidden People.

AAJ: The title of the book is Forbidden People with an emphasis on "raneti" (injured). What does this refer to?

JA: The title speaks of the state in which we truly felt injured and helpless in the same society that consumed our recorded materials to preserve the spiritual and mental health during quarantine.

AAJ: What did you learn about the value of music during the pandemic?

JA: I learned that everyone will pat you on the back, but very few people will genuinely and specifically try to help alleviate the situation. I learned that music in our country has only declarative importance.

AAJ: What do you hope others have learned?

JA: If I'm completely honest, I believe that no one has learned anything. If a similar pandemic occurs again, we will once again be left on the margins by our "brilliant" politicians. You see, during a pandemic and a halt in the functioning of the state, economy, the ministries of health, social affairs, labor, and culture should have had the largest budgets since those sectors were most affected. However, the cultural sector historically had the smallest budget, so I don't believe that anything has been learned. We simply saw the selfishness of our political elites, the absence of humanity and political maturity, especially from a minister who couldn't be seen visiting the hospitals where people were dying, likely infected at weddings, but failed to extend the same invitation to his colleagues who were the first to infect others at congresses in Ragusa, returning from skiing, or infecting patients at the nephrology department after having breakfast at a café in Skopje.

AAJ: The book contains portraits and interviews with people working in different genres. As someone who is part of that industry and collaborates with many of them or is friends with them, how did you choose the people included in the book?

JA: It was important to me to include biographies and portraits of musicians from different branches in the book because we shared the same fate. It was important for these musicians, whose live performances were prohibited and who relied on them as their sole source of income, to be represented.

AAJ: Why is the question, "Why did you choose music as a profession?

JA: Everyone involved in any form of art has one common characteristic, and that is the natural urge to express ourselves through it. We all have an inherent drive without which we cannot live and be who we are. I wanted to clearly convey this to the readers and make sure it is not forgotten... that being musicians does not define us.

AAJ: During the pandemic and in the post-pandemic period, we witnessed significant cuts and restrictions in the cultural sector. Whenever something happens, culture is the first to be affected. How can a symbolic act like the book address the destructive practice of constantly cutting, extinguishing, and limiting the world of culture on a domestic level?

JA: In civilized countries, this is not the case. With various tax incentives and a strong societal awareness, a large number of companies choose culture and invest in it to support its preservation and development, recognizing it as an important part of social responsibility. We boast about being the cradle of civilization, but we forget that culture is the strongest and most significant pillar of civilization. Rarely do the declarative promises of our political elites materialize in reality. If you read the political programs of all parties in previous elections, you will see that culture is usually barely mentioned at the end of the program, on half a page of declarative narrative.

AAJ: The book received an award for societal engagement at the 2023 book fair. What role do music and culture play in building a better society and helping people overcome these difficult times?

JA: As mentioned earlier, music was most frequently used in homes during quarantine to help people retain some semblance of mental well—being and create an illusion of normalcy. It provided solace to those who were left jobless, uncertain, and frightened about the future.

AAJ: What story will the photography exhibition, which is part of Forbidden People, tell? What will it say that the book hasn't?

JA: For me, the exhibition represents a completely different medium from the book. The book is experienced personally and at one's own pace, containing textual content, and it remains in libraries for us to revisit. The exhibition offers a more intensive and shared experience. Furthermore, the exhibition space stimulates social interaction and dialogue among visitors, as they can discuss their interpretations, share their opinions, and engage in conversations with the photographer or other attendees. This collective aspect can create a sense of shared experience and connection, which is often lacking when we individually consume the book as a medium. In summary, while the book provides an intimate and personal experience with the photographs, the exhibition offers a multisensory, spatial, and shared experience of the exhibited photographs.

AAJ: Why is jazz music and its culture so interesting for photographers?

JA: Jazz music and its culture carry strong narratives, making it highly conducive to photography. It is known for its spontaneity, improvisation, and vibrant energy. These qualities provide photographers with the opportunity to capture the dynamism filled with passion, emotions, and creativity of jazz musicians.

AAJ: What message would you like visitors to the exhibition to understand?

JA: This exhibition is my first introduction as a photographer to the broader public. For me, the subject matter represented in the photographs holds greater significance, and I hope they capture some of the challenges faced by musicians who were forbidden people. Visually, they convey the seriousness of that period. That's why I opted for black-and-white photographs taken in a dark space, which are meant to evoke our emotions at the moment of their creation.

AAJ: The name Shpato is frequently heard in relation to the music culture in Macedonia, yet very little is known about him and his achievements. Could you explain the significance of Shpato for contemporary Macedonian music?

JA: It's simple. Shpato practically marked the beginning of Macedonian popular and jazz music in our region. His appearance is significant because he shaped the first jazz bands and orchestras in Macedonia. But what makes him even more interesting for me is that he is truly exceptional in his musical expression, both as a composer and as an arranger. He has a perfect sense of incorporating the Macedonian sound and rhythm into popular and jazz music. His compositions and arrangements for various ensembles, big bands, and vocal groups have inspired a significant portion of our musicians across different music genres. Just as Brazil has its Antonio Carlos Jobim, America has George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and we have Dragan Gjakonovski Shpato.

AAJ: What significance do his songs and legacy hold for you?

JA: His songs may appear simple to the average listener, but for us musicians, they are incredibly harmonically rich and powerful. Perhaps that's where their uniqueness lies. They are a beautiful part of contemporary Macedonian music. Usually, we associate each song with the singers, and rarely does anyone know who the authors of major hits are, not only here but also worldwide. No one would say, "I really like "My Way" by Paul Anka." Everyone would say 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra. But with Shpato, the situation is reversed. His imprint is felt and even evokes an entire era of Macedonian popular and jazz music known as "the time of Shpato."

With the formation of the ZJM Big Band, a tremendous opportunity has opened up for me to perform with such a wonderful ensemble, and for several years now, I have had multiple performances with them annually. The young colleagues are exceptional instrumentalists, deeply dedicated to jazz, and I believe that the fact that the state has finally recognized the need to institutionalize the ensemble is a huge gain for Macedonian culture, current and future jazz musicians, and, of course, for the audience that loves that powerful sound.

AAJ: If I have to single out someone from the younger musicians you frequently collaborate with, it would be pianist Gordan Spasovski and saxophonist Kiril Kuzmanov. They often perform with you and were part of the album Midnight Conversation (Self-Produced, 2019) that you released before the pandemic. What makes these people so interesting to you, and why do you collaborate with them so often?

JA: For me, there is no greater joy than having younger colleagues in North Macedonia with whom I collaborate and who, with their inventiveness, virtuosity, and dedication to jazz music, are on a world-class level, not lagging behind their colleagues from the Western world in any way. In the past few years, practically all of my concert performances have included these exceptional young colleagues, namely Gordan Spasovski, Kiril Kuzmanov, Trajche Velkov, Kiril Tufekchieski, and Ivan Ivanov. Thanks to the emergence of these young jazz musicians, I am confident that Macedonian jazz music has a promising and fruitful future.

AAJ: Considering that we have one of the longest-running jazz festivals in Europe, with a progressive and avant-garde program, as well as new generations of jazz musicians, events, and institutions, does jazz music still have appeal for young listeners?

JA: Jazz music will always be appealing to young people who have developed a taste for music. They know exactly what they want to hear, and nowadays, they can see through the internet how jazz ensembles perform and compare them globally. I assume they are attracted to the diversity of jazz styles and the expression that each jazz musician brings, and I believe they particularly appreciate the fact that North Macedonia is abundant with a large number of top-notch jazz musicians. This is also evident from the enormous audience that consistently follows our concerts, whether it's the ZJM Big Band or smaller formations with members of ZJM.

AAJ: How can young people be attracted to the world of jazz when the standard and popular jazz songs or compositions are at least half a century old?

JA: Jazz standards represent the same thing for jazz as the iron repertoire does for classical ballet or symphony orchestras. The difference is that jazz allows for different interpretations of a particular jazz standard, which only increases curiosity among the audience. For us musicians, every new performance is a new creation. To paraphrase Pejovski: Classical musicians are interested in how they play, while jazz musicians are interested in what they play.

AAJ: As someone who constantly performs with different generations of musicians and different ensembles, how do you maintain the freshness of what you do within the framework of jazz music?

JA: Indeed, it is not easy to stay relevant to your audience and interest new listeners when you have been on stage for over 30 years. Perhaps I do it by always selecting an interesting repertoire, constantly enhancing it, and lately expanding it to include languages that are new to me. You may be familiar with my musical promenades, as I call the series of concerts I organize every year, where I try to engage and introduce the audience to beautiful music from around the world. After "French Chansons," there was "Sounds of Brazil," and this year, I hope to have a "Cuban Adventure" where I perform compositions in the language they were written in. This way, I present new music to my audience, not always hits from distant countries, but music that is beautiful and of high quality. We have already mentioned the concert "Carrying You Within Me," where I will perform songs by Dragan Gjakonovski Shpato, but there are also several projects I am currently working on and will be released in the future, such as a tribute to Nat King Cole, recorded with Martin Gjakonovski Trio, featuring the incredibly distinctive jazz trumpeter Dusko Gojkovic, who our audience has had the opportunity to witness live in North Macedonia on several occasions. There is also a project with compositions by my most trusted collaborator, Gordan Spasovski, and a few more surprises that will follow in the near future.

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