(Note: This is part of an ongoing series about jazz from lesser-known events and places around the world. Although the North Sea Jazz Festival hardly qualifies, this article focuses on performers getting the "small print" treatment - and sometimes not even that - at the bottom of the schedule. Big-name acts were deliberately avoided - with one exception noted at the end - they are mentioned only in passing.)
It's like Disneyland for jazz fans.
The doors to the world's largest indoor festival open and 70,000 people stampede to the most popular attractions, where long lines and frequent denial of entry await. The skilled and lucky can hear a who's-who's smorgasbord of commercial and artistic all-stars, but the experience is about as intimate as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
It's a good bet almost none of them came to the Netherlands to see the Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble.
Those flocking in vain to the David Sanborn concert on the already-full roof terrace likely never noticed passing impromptu jam sessions in the hallway, some featuring tourists sitting in on a whim. Throngs watching Jamie Cullum in the massive Statenhal arena were a few steps from a smallish tent where three finalists of a Dutch Jazz Competition put on a youthful modernistic battle for the prize of a recording contract and a promotional tour.
Most of the more than 1,200 artists at the three-day 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague performed in small rooms with seating often ranging from nearly empty to half full. An atmosphere and informality more like a nightclub or small- town festival were common, which for a handful of ticket buyers more than made up for skipping headline acts.
"I can see the big names in London," said Andy Wilson, a retired London software engineer who helped design the record-size Airbus 380 plane, attending his 14th festival. "If you go to North Sea you can see lots of things you'd otherwise never hear."
It wasn't just students and unknowns; perhaps 30 people attended a session by Grammy- nominee Don Byron where the racial politics of jazz were discussed as much as his woodwind playing. A similar gathering attended a session featuring pianist Randy Weston playing and explaining his more noteworthy compositions, perhaps because the official program listed it only as a "workshop" with no name attached. Vibraphonist Mattias Lupri, whose group burned up the stage as a headline act at the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival in Canada the previous week, was relegated to the last spot on the last night as part of a series of small-stage "Introducing" concerts.
The following is a sampling of the festival's student, workshop and "obscure" performances (even limited to this, there's no way to hit them all) before audiences ranging in size and enthusiasm from large to nearly nonexistent. Making an exclusive diet of them is hardly recommended for North Sea festival-goers - there's too much world- famous talent worth braving the crowds for - but plenty of memorable moments both musically and otherwise can be discovered with a few stops where most never tread.
Saxophonist Matt Cashdollar's first professional jazz gig was an opener for the ages.
He and three fellow Iowa college students kicked off the festival for a captive audience of thousands in front of the Netherlands Congress Centre on Friday, June 8. Nearly all were crushed around a row of doors that didn't open until an hour later, but a few dozen gathered loosely around the stage just to the left of the doors and others lounged on the grass across the vallet driveway - able to pretty much able to walk into the center 10 minutes after the doors opened.
Cashdollar's group, The Madcap Four, played originals and pieces like John Coltrane's "Ole" with all-out raw energy, the saxophonist evolving licks into the extreme upper registers and trumpeter Ben Syversen using longer deliberative notes in related-but- different-each-time phrases. The backing from drummer Jesse Nolan and Jesse Wittman on bass not only drove the intensity further forward, but the visual cues the band exchanged made it was clear they were locked into the moment.
The power didn't impress everyone; a pre-teen girl jammed her hands over her ears walking by the stage, but standing among those focusing on the music was like being at a club during the third set when only the dedicated listeners are still awake. In most such crowds there's usually a couple of devotees with funky hats or odd clothing constantly in motion to the music; here the ratio was simply a bit higher as most of the "normal" people studied performance schedules and held places in line while companions bought the mandatory "munten" tokens for the food and drink booths.
The group paid their way (raising $3,000 of the $5,000 cost back home), missed two flights, stayed at a hostel instead of the center's swanky hotel housing the stars and Nolan noted "my cymbals are floating somewhere around the world." But they said being on stage before an enormous crowd - most of whom presumably paid at least some attention - wiped out the jet lag and other issues.
"We didn't know the doors were going to be closed and thousands of people would be standing here," Wittman said. "So that was an adrenaline rush."
Cashdollar applied to perform in the festival by sending a demo disc featuring the band playing compositions by John Zorn's Masada - but said they could hardly do that at the festival since the Zorn himself and the acoustic version of the ensemble were among the headline acts. So part of the band's work was coming up with originals for the opening gig and a Saturday night concert on a stage devoted to student bands inside the center.
"I hope this isn't the last gig for these guys," Cashdollar said. "Right now it is because we all just graduated."
The International Association of Jazz Education selected about a dozen bands for this year's festival from 20 or so applicants - few are able to meet the requirement of paying their own way, said Gregory Carroll, the association's director of education. He said acceptance is based on talent, without seeking to fill certain genres, and for him the result is some of most intriguing music of the three-day event.
"I want to see where the future of the music is," he said. As for students, sparse come- and-go crowds can be hard for some, but at the same time "it's great to see how they interact with the big names."
One of the best examples of that potential came just inside the entry hall as the doors opened Friday and Saturday, with the New Generations Of Dutch Jazz ensembles playing the first shows. There was some mixing-and-matching of the Netherlands students studying at conservatories and other institutions, but among some consistent standouts throughout was pianist Sjors Segaas, who constantly drew the loudest applause from a come-and-go lobby crowd usually numbering in the hundreds. Segaas' playing was a nonstop assault of heavy chords and two-handed runs, always fast and utilizing a variety of colorful and complex themes that, according to my notes, "resolved themselves with frightening precision." One can come away from a lot of "name" shows hearing less.
Another standout performer was saxophonist Floriaan Wempe, whose complex barrage of far-reaching notes might draw comparisons to Michael Brecker's better pure jazz work. Also boding well for the group was the discipline: Saxophonist Florien Westendorp displayed a strong tone and the intelligence of "playing within one's abilities" on "Mr. P.C.," starting with sparse phrasing and building tension by evolving into a run that matched the energy of the ensemble without trying to emulate Coltrane's complexity.
Again not everyone was into it - one women held a hand over her ear in obvious frustration as she answered occasional calls on her cell phone. And most of the crowd gave little or passing notice as they disbursed through the center, with the humanity seeming elbows-room only in every major space.
Entering the Escherzaal room, devoted the festival's student performances, was like an alternate universe.
The small theater, with maybe 200 chairs, was nearly empty as the MYSO Combo took the stage. The setting was more like a jazz club on a weeknight than a major festival, and the introduction by the emcee made it clear the rules were different as well.
"The public is not supposed to take pictures, but in this case I think the band has requested pictures be taken," he said.
The quartet, playing works by the likes of Corea, Hancock and Monk, was clean and one could hear shades of the composers, but what failed to emerge was a true identity. This was evident on a slow rendition of "All Blues," which has great potential if enough ideas are ingested into the empty space, but not enough were put forward. Variations of the phrase "decent, not special" showed up a lot in my notes.
At times performances in the theater featured standing-room crowds, at least as they opened. Among those crammed in to see the Dos Pueblos High School Choir was Thera Bykerk, an Amsterdam resident who's attended 29 of the 30 festivals. She said she was curious about the group because she sings in two choirs and the main acts didn't appeal.
"I don't know the names any more," she said. Earlier she went to the "Trumpets For Benny Bailey" concert, but "I didn't know he'd died." While the tribute to him by her countrymen was OK, "Dutch guys I can hear anytime."
The choir performance was a lesson in a good conductor elevating a student group. The harmonization backing up short scat solos on the opening and upbeat "Dizzy's Itch" was outstanding as various portions of the ensemble dropped in and out, with their coordination with soloists on complex passages spot-on as well. The subtle opening of "Spain" exposed weaknesses among some in the group that louder and more lively passages could mask. Capturing the highs and lows was their arrangement of "Minuano," set to lyrics. At its best it reminded me of Pat Metheny's collaboration with Polish vocalist Anna Maria Jopeka at the festival a few years ago, but lower moments like an overpowering and too-sharp male soloist served as a reminder this was a student performance.
Some of the greatest learning opportunities at any jazz festival are the artist workshops, but not necessarily because they're immaculately prepared.
"I didn't know what to expect," said trumpeter Jerry Gonzales. "When I got here I forgot I had to do it."
His guitarist, more preoccupied with the sound check on the roof stage where they were playing that night, skipped the session in front of an initial audience of about 20 people. Gonazles spent much of the session holding his trumpet as he swayed and talked in his gravel-like voice about his career, sometimes looking downward and sometimes seeming to focus on a single audience member. The trumpet was more than window dressing - it was a lesson he learned long ago while meeting his idol, Freddie Hubbard
"He said, 'Yeah I know you. You're a double threat - you play congas and trumpet. You got your horn? No? You got your own mouthpiece?" Gonzales said. "My hero was inviting me to play with him and I didn't have my equipment."