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Francesco Martinelli: European Jazz - Tales of Etruscan Vases, Arias And Resistance

Ian Patterson By

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Jazz’ arrival reconnected to the Spanish tradition, the Balkan traditions, the Hungarian tradition, etc etc. So, jazz is really a maze of influences coming and going and coming back. —Francesco Martinelli, Jazz Historian
Few have attempted to tackle the history of European jazz in any meaningful way. That's hardly surprising given the size of the task. How do you address the jazz history of over forty countries in a succinct and logical manner?

How do you manage to throw light on all the major personalities at the expense of many lesser known musicans and still retain a balanced narrative? What weight should you give to the geo-political and socio-economic circumstances peculiar to each country as jazz evolved throughout the course of the twentieth century? How do you give due acknowledgment to the influence of Afro-American jazz and its practitioners while trying to get to grips with what is fundamentally European about jazz throughout Europe?

These are just some of the issues that have no doubt dissuaded many a jazz historian/author from taking up the story.

Then you have to ask -can one historian really do justice to the European jazz story without the linguistic skills to delve into the archives, magazines and books of over forty countries? For Francesco Martinelli of Siena Jazz the answer was clearly no. Author, translator, jazz historian, lecturer and former jazz festival director, Martinelli had long stewed over the possibility of creating a comprehensive history of European jazz. Not a history of Americans coming to Europe and playing with local pick-up bands and cutting a few records, but a proper history that explains the myriad roots of European jazz and pays homage to its chief practitioners.

What is more, Martinelli recognized the necessity for the story, or rather the stories, to be told by experts from each country. That realization might have been enough to stop most would-be editors in their tracks. The translations required, the professional editing of English draft texts, the cross-checking of thousands of details, and so on—it would take years, wouldn't it?

Six years, to be precise. After a huge, international collaborative effort lead by Martinelli, and with the invaluable editorial support of Alyn Shipton and Equinox Publishing's Dean Bargh, the 742-page book The History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians And Audience in Context was published by Equinox Publishing in September, 2018. It's a ground- breaking history that in examining the roots and growth of European jazz also raises important questions about the origins of jazz in the USA. It's in no way a polemical work but the narrative depicts a more complex picture of jazz's birth—both in America and in Europe—than has perhaps hitherto been the case.

It's a fascinating story, but as Martinelli emphasizes, it's really just the beginning.

All About Jazz: You presented the book, The History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians and Audience in Context, at the European Jazz Conference in Lisbon in September -how did that feel, after such a long process, to present the book before many of your long-standing associates in European jazz?

Francesco Martinelli For me it was a huge satisfaction. It was not only a feeling of satisfaction but of gratitude to the Europe Jazz Network for all the energy and support that they gave me along the way. It was a sort of giving back. Since I proposed the book I have been supported and assisted all along and the book would have been impossible without the Europe Jazz Network asking for European Union money to support the work through the Creative Europe program.

AAJ: You have lectured on the history of jazz for many years, would it be accurate to say that the idea for such a large-scale, pan-European history of jazz was something that you thought about for many years?

FM: In the process of discussing the project with other colleagues the idea for the book, which was a very vague concept at the beginning, took more precise contours, so it was a mutual process of getting deeper into the idea and developing a much more clear plan for it. There are a couple of inspirations for it -indirect inspirations -but I realized their importance later on while reading the book when it was ready. One is something that I guess you know quite well, which are the volumes of The Rough Guides to World Music. I admired that work a lot when I first read it, when it was first published more than twenty years ago. Unconsciously, it became a sort of a model. I remember there was a quote on the back of the book, I think it was Andy Kershaw, and it said 'a work of lunatic scholarship.' I understood that as a great compliment and took it as a model.

So that was one inspiration and another inspiration was the work that Rainer Lotz did in the 1980s when he published on the Harlequin label a series of records devoted to jazz in different countries outside of USA. They were called Jazz and Hot Dance In..., Argentina, Russia, Germany of course, France, Italy etc etc. These are still reference points. They have never been issued on CD.

There was also a feeling of not being satisfied with the way that jazz in Europe, also in Brazil or Japan, and everywhere else, was kind of compressed at the end of the American history of jazz books. There are many excellent American jazz history books but somehow there is always a last chapter where everything else goes in a sort of big stew. That is not a proper way to discuss the subject.

In the introduction of the book I also say that it is an act of respect in honouring the lives of people all across Europe who fought for their freedom -for their artistic and musical freedom in very difficult circumstances. Many of them paid for their integrity, commercially in terms of their career, and sometimes even worse than that. Those stories were worth telling and that is the main point of my introduction.

AAJ: The book could have been a multiple-volume epic running to thousands and thousands of pages; was it your intention from the outset to "streamline" the histories and keep the book relatively concise?

FM: It's about one and a half times what we had in mind for the original project. We wanted to do it in five hundred pages but it proved impossible. It proved impossible because the stories were so good. Alyn and I didn't have the heart to cut it. In the end almost every chapter is slightly longer than planned, so the book is two hundred and fifty pages longer than originally planned.

My plan was to ask the contributors not to focus on a complete picture but to focus on the crucial characters and moments of the music. You know, in many countries there is one name that comes up. When you think of Hungary, Gyorgy Szabados comes to mind, for Poland Krzysztof Komeda, and the like. Focus, at the risk of omitting some names, on the people who actually changed the course of the music in their country.

That's why we limited our scope to the year 2000, because this way, twenty years after, we can have a slightly better perspective of what was really important in the '90s -the last decade that we discuss. Attempting to discuss last year's records or last year's musicians is much more difficult.

AAJ: You mentioned Alyn Shipton. Can you tell us about his role in the book and what is was like working with him?

FM: In Italy we co-produced a series of books together in Italian. My school in Italy, the Siena Jazz University co-produced with a local publisher a series of translations. During this work I realized how important it was to work with a proper publisher and not to try and do it ourselves. Inside the Europe Jazz network we have many people with know-how, many people with knowledge, but we don't know how to make a book. It's important to find the right material and then to find someone who's able to put it out in a correct way.

Alyn embraced the idea from the very beginning. In fact, he mentions in his introductory note that one of his roles in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz was to enlarge the coverage of European jazz, so he was already interested in the subject.

His role, of course, was the liaison with the publisher because he was already the editor of the series. We had three types of work. I was commissioning the chapters and the chapters were sent to me. I was going through them and asking some questions of the contributors, including the answers in the text and then passing it to Alyn. Alyn was also checking the congruity, the logic of the article itself, and he was also trying to straighten up the language because about ninety per cent of the people wrote in English -we only had to translate two or three chapters -but of course the competence in English was very variable, so Alyn had to make it understandable and smooth it.

At that point it was the role of Dean Bargh, the copy editor, and he put everything into shape, so what you see is Dean Bargh's work and he did a fantastic job. He really went into it, worked with a great passion. Alyn also found the translators in English when it was needed, including from Polish, which was a real issue. Sometimes he also rearranged the content of the articles. All the articles in their final form were approved by the contributors. So, it was a huge exchange of material over the course of six years. Working with Alyn was a fantastic experience because I learned a lot about how to produce a book. He has invaluable experience as an author and editor. He was the perfect person for the job. He was always asking very direct questions that really went to the heart of the matter.

I was very lucky that Alyn accepted and then Equinox Publishing accepted the challenge. Alyn was also instrumental in keeping the publisher happy going along because the project was bigger than we thought and more expensive than we thought but it came good in the end.

AAJ: The general, dominant histories of jazz, usually written by American authors, tend to emphasize the Afro-American roots of the music and its adoption by Europeans after the event -this however, is a simplification, if not a distortion of the complex roots of jazz, is it not?

FM: It is and it is inevitable because you have so much territory to cover but to be fair we also have to say that there was not enough information available about many countries, or the information was very spotty. So, in fairness, it was very difficult for everybody, and if you are writing on a global scale it is even harder to collect the proper information. A journalist maybe visited a Norwegian festival so he knew a few Norwegian musicians, another went to Bulgaria and so knew a few Bulgarian musicians and so many articles, and sometimes books about jazz outside the USA were written from the visitor's point of view, and on second-hand information. There was not an organic point of reference, written by people who knew the language and had access to original material. Now we have it.

Another problem that I understood during the making of the book was that I made a political point of having someone from each country to talk about their country. In Europe, and I include myself, or in the United States, we are a bit too comfortable in going somewhere for a week, for a month or for a year and then writing a book about that. So we have a book about Russian jazz but the person writing the book doesn't speak Russian and all the information in the book is from someone else -it's not a direct research.

Now we have native writers referencing material in Estonian, Finish, Greek, or whatever. This is the first time that we have such a huge amount of material from people who actually did research first hand or who actually lived those histories. In fact I tried to invite people who were active as journalists or even promoters during the 1960s, '70s, '80s and who knew first hand who was organizing concerts with East German musicians or inside the ex-Yugoslavia, for example.

AAJ: In your chapter on Italy, you mention the Italian influence in New Orleans; can you talk about the Italian/European influence on jazz at the very beginning?

FM: It's a very complicated process with many back and forths. The first thing to remember is that jazz was born in a sector of North American popular music, from the African inspiration. But Europe has been influenced by African music many times throughout history. My favorite story when I speak to my students in Siena is that a few kilometres from Siena there is a museum where there is an Etruscan vase from the fifth century before the foundation of Rome -before the Roman Empire. The Etruscan civilisation was in Tuscany before Roman times.

There is a pygmy musician on the vase. Pygmy musicians were imported maybe as slaves but still, they were part of the entertainment system, so to speak -the theatre or the circus. Can you imagine how many waves of African influence there have been over the centuries?

Italians of course were very important because of the sheer size of the Italian community in New Orleans. Today I was teaching history of jazz in the conservatory and some of the students are not jazz students but classical music students. So I presented them the quotations from Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong of opera arias. Many people if you tell them Armstrong quotes opera arias they are amazed, because they don't think a New Orleans musician would know opera. But in fact, when Sidney Bechet came to Europe he knew opera and European repertoire much better than most of his audiences, who were maybe feeling superior to him because they maybe had conservatory studies or knew how to read music.

Jazz' arrival reconnected to the Spanish tradition, the Balkan traditions, the Hungarian tradition, etc etc. So, jazz is really a maze of influences coming and going and coming back.

AAJ: The book also states the importance of musical influences from South America on early jazz, which is very interesting.

FM: What I find kind of disturbing is how glib the North American history of jazz is in discounting everything which is south of the border, because most of the African music in the new continent is Cuban and Brazilian -that's ninety per cent of African music. But anything south of the border is considered not jazz because it's not in the English language, and also because the blues is not so important south of the border, for historical reasons. All of these different contributions were part of the texture from the very beginning.

Really, we cannot take things at face value. We have to go deeply in to this maze of influences.

AAJ: The chapter specifically on Afro-American entertainers in Europe pre-jazz is particularly enlightening on multiple levels.

FM: Again, I would like to quote Reiner Lotz, because his work on the chapter about Afro-American entertainers before jazz is very important. So, when you say the phrase the first jazz record was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917 it is true, but if you look at the recording of The Versatile Three in England one year before they are as jazzy or maybe even more—they recorded in London before recording in the United States—so it's really complicated. As you say, if you simplify too much it becomes almost a lie. That's where history disappears and ideology takes its place and takes the lead.

AAJ:In general, however, European jazz musicians have not found major inspiration in their own folk music -figures like Jan Johansson in Sweden, Vagif Mustafazadeh in Azerbaijan and Pedro Iturralde in Spain, to cite just a few of the best-known names, are largely exceptions-why do you think European jazz musicians, maybe even until today, haven't really explored European folk music?

FM: I think that they were rightly fascinated by the American language, because the language of jazz allowed them to rediscover essential processes, including the major one of improvisation, which had disappeared from European composed music in the previous two centuries. They were fascinated by the approach to the music, by the repertoire of the great composers like Duke Ellington and then [Thelonious] Monk etc, and they were so fascinated by the personalities and artistic strength of the leading figures of jazz and also the technical innovations that they brought to their instruments.

The piano, the double bass, the saxophone, all these instruments took a different voice and a different role and it took time for the European musicians to understand how it worked. At the beginning a phase of assimilation of the language was inevitable.

Plus, you have the pressure of the discographical industry -the pressure to imitate the model which is globally diffused. The same thing happened in other areas, it can be rock music or rap music. With rap, for example, we have rap in all languages but they had to try to jump on that wagon, they had to use that train, to get global, which I think is more or less the same phenomenon.

But what is interesting for me is that the great American musicians seemed to suggest continuously to the European musicians to play their own music. As Stan Getz said to the Swedish musicians, why do we only play American music? Don't you have a song that we can play? So they came up with Ack Värmeland, du sköna," which became "Dear Old Stockholm." Then you had Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain and John Coltrane's "Ole."

One example which was not fully followed until very recent times by European musicians, maybe because it was too original, or because of the dominance of the "nostalgic" association with interwar-Paris, was Django Reinhardt. If you look at the music of Django Reinhardt you find all the basic ideas of creating a European jazz right there. He used classical music, Greig and Bach, he used folk music, and he developed a specific language on the instrument. He had his own idea of arrangements for a band—so it's all there. But at some point it became nostalgic music because it was superseded by bebop in jazz and by the modern music of the '60s so it got lost along the way. All the ideas are there and it was much more modern than maybe people think, especially the post-1950 recordings.

AAJ: That's very interesting, and of course accordion and banjo were common instruments with that type of music.

FM: People said things like you can't play jazz on accordion, because accordions are Mitteleuropean and as soon as you have an accordion it's a different music, which is of course not true, because there are no jazz instruments. Jazz instruments are jazz instruments by social process -those that were available to African- Americans. There was plenty of imitation in Europe for a long time, which I think was inevitable but at some point there was the option to use the language of your own culture. There is another aspect that I understood while I was working on the book. Since jazz was, for everybody in Europe, American music, and you had to play the same tunes with the same rhythmic feeling it was also easier to play across the border because the people across the border knew the same tunes as you.

That's why they started with European big bands because the model, the repertoire was the same. Everybody all over Europe wanted to play like Count Basie's band. They could play together because they already shared a concept. African-American music created a lingua franca that travelled across borders in Europe.

AAJ: When reading about Spain I was excited to discover the name of Aquilino Calzado Gonzalez, the Cuban saxophonist who visited Spain in the 1930s to explore flamenco, anticipating the work of Pedro Iturralde in the late 1960s -I know Iturralde well from having lived in Spain for six years but this Calzado Gonzalez is a real discovery -it underlines the fact that this book, significant and comprehensive in many ways as it is, could be seen almost as a launching pad for further research and deeper investigation -was that your intention from the start?

FM: It's a great compliment for the book—and one that keeps coming—people who know a subject well, and then read the relative chapter and say "I didn't know that!" And absolutely I see it as a launching pad. This for me is the most important role of the book. It presents organically a huge amount of information -original information. For example, we had many ideas about chapters that we actually could not include. I wanted to have a chapter about female jazz musicians across Europe but, outside of a small number of countries, all the people that I contacted for the article said 'I can't do it because I don't have enough information.'

But when you look at the Irish chapter you realize there was an Irish, female saxophonist [Josephine Alexandra Mitchell] who was one of the first professional jazz musicians in Ireland and who was touring all across Europe. The most important thing this book can do is stimulate further research and connect the dots. It has been said as a compliment that this is "the definitive book" on European jazz—I hope not, I hope it's only the first one.

AAJ: Is it fair to say that European jazz was mainly imitative of the American model until the 1960s, when more personal response to the music began to emerge?

FM: In a way it was but it's interesting that these musicians, even when they thought that they were imitating their models, the results had a different flavour. In fact, improvisation and the nature of the music ask you to find your own language, which is the most important thing also in African-American jazz. Originality is valued and when you are a French saxophonist or an Italian trumpet player or a British trombone player the moment you start searching for something original your culture will come up, your language and the sound that you were brought up with will come up. The nature of the music makes the role of the performer so important. Even when they thought they were playing American style they were introducing already elements of innovation—things from their background.

AAJ: At various times, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century jazz was feared, vilified, censored and banned -by the church in Ireland, by the Nazis and the Communists -either as amoral or pro-American and therefore unpatriotic -what do these reactions, and the musicians' and fans responses to them, from Ireland and Poland to Germany and Azerbaijan, teach us about the power of music?

FM: This is a question that I asked myself. Under all these regimes, from the Generals in Portugal and the Colonels in Greece to the Communists in the Soviet Union, jazz was always suspect because no-one knew exactly what it was. It was very difficult to control. You couldn't control the repertoire because it was flexible and changing. It was partly improvised. A tune could have different titles but musicians would understand it was the same tune. A tune could quote another song inside it. It was a language in itself, a kind of opposition music against prevailing aesthetics and authoritarian regimes. That's why the reaction was always of suspicion.

In East Germany you had to write down all the pieces of the repertoire and then the authorities wanted to know if you played the same pieces. But because the pieces could change quite a lot the authorities were unhappy because they were not sure if their control was effective. This went for all the authoritarian regimes.

The musicians found ways to circumvent these controls and again the inspiration was African-American codes that were in the music. When Sydney Bechet quotes Verdi's arias in order to give a message about the composition that he's playing, when he's playing "Summertime," it's a coded message. The European musicians became experts at that: "Sigarett Stomp" in Norwegian means "Cigarette Stump" but jazz listeners and dancers knew what Stomp was alluding to.

There were many places were jazz was formally prohibited but everybody, including the Generals, including the bureaucrats and the big brass of the political parties were happy to listen to it. So, as long as they were not flaunting the American titles and the more obvious effects they were able to play the music.

So, all the musicians found a way to go in the cracks of the system, composing their music, changing the titles, changing the composers and finding their audience in different ways. It was, as you said, condemned as American, and used by Americans in the Cold War.

AAJ: Something that also emerges as a fairly constant theme was the racist terms in which early Black American performers who visited Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were portrayed in the press -it's quite shocking at times, no?

FM: Well, this is true but at the same time it was not so different if you look at the covers of the Race Record catalogues of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, with their pickaninnies or the sambos, when these things were current. It was a very different sensibility but of course it was part of the complex of superiority that Europe had. In Europe, especially in the colonial countries like France, like England, you had in this battle for cultural hegemony, the colonialists had to come to terms with the idea that African-originated black people were leading the field of popular culture in music and dance so they had to find a way to accommodate this with their racist terms and their condescension. This was part of their ideological system.

AAJ: The book chronicles pretty much all the jazz media that existed, from very early on the nature of jazz media and the access to information on jazz, jazz musicians, recordings etc etc has changed enormously since the advent of the internet in the last twenty something years; do you think this represents one of the most significant changes in jazz -how it is disseminated, documented, analysed and critiqued?

FM: Absolutely. Certainly there has been a total sea change in how the music is distributed and discussed, especially the role of the record labels. It's not something completely new, however, because many of the musicians in the 1960s had to establish their own labels even back then because there was no financial backing for the music that they wanted to play.

Some of the problems that musicians face today are quite similar. On the one hand it's difficult to get backing and distribution, but on the other hand I see for our students it's much easier to find international contacts. Organizing a tour for a group established by students in Siena is much easier today. First of all because you meet many people from different countries when you are a student through Erasmus for example, where you spend six months in Amsterdam and six months in Madrid. In many cases the group is already European.

AAJ: I imagine the challenges were many in constructing this book; what were the biggest obstacles to overcome?

FM: The first big challenge was to find qualified people for each of the chapters, which was difficult. I knew some of them, of course, but not all of them, so I have to thank the Europe Jazz Network whose members were very helpful in finding the right people. The biggest challenge for me was not to impose but to ask the contributors to follow a similar path with the chapters. It's a book with many different voices but we tried to make it as homogeneous as possible. It was difficult but also a great learning curve because we were dealing with a wide range of people from different cultures, languages and personal approaches.

Finally, the challenge that we all encountered was the documentation of the history of jazz is widely different from country to country. The Netherland chapter by Bert Vuijsje, for example, is a brilliant chapter because Bert is a great story-teller but also because he could draw from the work that was done before him and the work done by the Dutch Jazz Archive. On the contrary, the chapters on the ex-Yugoslavian countries, well there you had the war until twenty two years ago, so archival documents were much more difficult to find and even the production of recordings was very small. The inequality of the basic condition from country to country was a great challenge. I hope this book will have an effect on that because many places are discussing establishing jazz music archives.

AAJ: This archiving, the documenting of jazz is an area of growing interest among academic researchers, isn't it? An area of growing importance...

FM: At the European Jazz Conference in Lisbon in the meeting of the research group one of the most important things was the realization that all the material related to jazz festivals -programmes, leaflets, posters -everything on paper used for propagating festivals quickly disappears. There are no good practises to archive and catalogue such material to make them available to researchers.

This challenge will be even bigger in the digital age when most of the communication will be virtual, so you need someone who is organized enough to save all the communications, the webpages, the PDFs and the images circulated to promote the music, to make them available to researchers years from now. There is a conference in Dublin in January whose title is Documenting Jazz, where I will present the challenges we had during the preparation of the book with the aim of proposing a series of good practises.

AAJ: What has been the response to the book so far?

FM: When you make something you are the first person to see the defects. Many times I have picked up the book and thought this or that could have been done better, but on the other hand the reviews have been enthusiastic and the comments from the readers have been enthusiastic. Everybody who picks it up has immediately the feeling of the quality of the work. It's the weight, not just the physical weight, but the weight of the amount of information, the amount of work and the distillation of such a huge amount of scholarship, which is really unprecedented. And it shows.

It shows in the way it has been curated by Alyn Shipton, by Equinox Publishing and by Dean Bargh. It shows in the way all the chapters are full of quality information, of listening guides, of bibliographies that you can follow. It shows in the quality of the pictures. It's seriously made like an academic book but it's highly visual and pleasant to read. So I am very happy.

AAJ: It will be interesting to see how American jazz fans, historians and researchers respond to this history of European jazz in the coming years, in relation to their own reading of jazz history. It will be a fascinating process to observe.

FM: We will see. We will see if there is a discussion, not only of the facts in themselves, but how a book like this can change a little bit the perspective of how we look at the history of jazz. The aim of the book is not that polemic. It's not designed to open an argument but certainly it is hopefully possible to broaden the perspective.

AAJ: You yourself have run and curated jazz festivals, and for many people around the world today the jazz festival is the face of jazz; do you think that the confusion that surrounds the identity of jazz is maybe because jazz festivals have changed so much over the years, becoming much more inclusive of other musics?

FM: It's a two-way process. Festivals have changed but they had to change in the face of a changing market. About the borders of genre -I think a lot of genres of music are much more difficult to define than they used to be. The genres are more liquid, the markets are more liquid and musicians have different spheres of influences.

This word jazz carries such a variety of meanings that you can define it only by proximity. So, is Björk a jazz artist? Maybe she is not but then jazz is such an important part of her background and jazz musicians are listening to her and also playing her songs, so in a way musicians like that are also incorporated in the process of jazz change. That is also one of the beauties of the music, because being a music that came from a group of people didn't have any tradition anymore because they were cut off from their original tradition, they had to make do with what was in front of them and that is the spirit that brought jazz where it is now.

AAJ: In another twenty years-time, when the updated version of the book takes jazz history up to 2040, what do you think the major changes during that time-span will be?

FM: One of the reasons why I limited the temporal scope of the book to the year 2000, even if I did not enforce the limitation very strictly, was that I do not think that I, or anybody else for that matter, understands yet what happened to the industry in the past twenty years, much less what will happen in another twenty years.

On the other hand, basic values have changed little. Significant music will be made by musicians that stick to their artistic integrity. Their music will survive and speak to newer generations, like the music of Henry Threadgill or Robert Wyatt does to the young musicians today. It will probably survive as niche or underground music -it's its weakness but also its strength, because it creates a small but dedicated global audience that uses electronic media to connect and share.

Some visionary artists like Jason Moran or Bjork will give greater visibility to avant-garde experiments, and some people will discover Jaki Byard or Meredith Monk through them. Others will enjoy returning to the timeless values of music for dancing, and through them people will go back listening to James Brown and Sun Ra. In Europe old masters like Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann mesmerize young listeners daily—not in stadium, but in smaller venues with people in the hundreds. My limited experience in NYC in venues like The Stone and Roulette is similar.

I guess more musicians will protect their music keeping at least a part of it in the analog domain creating integral visual-sonic artworks to distribute on vinyl or cassette; the live circuit will keep music alive, even if not in the classic "jazz club" format. Fresh talents and ideas have certainly not disappeared; if anything they're more abundant today than before, and I trust that they will find a way to reach their audience.

Photo: Armin Brutus, courtesy of Sarajevo Jazz Festival

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