The 2005 Aarhus International Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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As the rest of the world reaches its exhaustion point for Danish jazz, Aarhus is just warming up.

About 200,000 people descend on Copenhagen for 10 days in July for more than 500 concerts during the city's world-famous festival. It's a nonstop barrage of everything from all-stars to "unplanned events that spill over into every nook and cranny, onto every square and plaza, even onto public busses," claims Denmark's government.

As the throngs drag their tired eardrums and bodies through the airport, few probably know or care about a train there taking a relative scarcity of music fans a few hours to the northwest.

In Denmark's second-largest city is the 17th annual Aarhus International Jazz Festival, 10 days of a more regional roster and community feel. Most shows are in small venues such as cafes, tent stages, bars and arts center foyers, and are - by European standards - within walking distance of each other. Visiting Americans get more than a musical indoctrination - those walking the U.S. average of 1.3 miles a week are likely to do more than that daily.

A handful of the estimated 160 performances are big-name acts. John Scofield, accompanied by sax wiz Chris Potter, played the opening weekend, Kurt Rosenwinkel a couple days later, and Dee Dee Bridgewater and Barbara Hendricks later during the week. But the meat of the festival featured names like Doc Houlind, Arosia, Don Kirk and Fat Tuesday.

The players and Aarhus don't lack jazz credentials. The city hosts one of Northern Europe's largest annual music gatherings, the Aarhus Festival in early September, a far- ranging event with a decent amount of jazz on the calendar. The city is seeking European Commission recognition as the European Cultural Capital in 2017, with a July news report noting "memories of runaway budgets and mismanagement during Copenhagen's reign as Cultural Capital in 1996" is not discouraging the committee promoting the bid.

Aarhus is also home to the Bent J, Scandinavia's oldest jazz bar. An intimate setting a few blocks from downtown's main squares, it's drawn a number of heavyweights at weekly shows over the years, plus conservancy and other young players for weekly jam session.

"There must be some kind of interest," said Bent J. Jensen, 73, who started his namesake club in 1973.

It seems safe assuming overall festival attendance is well into five-figure territory, as main acts draw sizable crowds and public squares are buzzing during numerous free evening shows. But it's tough getting the outside world to notice, especially being Copenhagen's encore act, said Rasmus Telling, the festival's manager. He estimates 70 percent of the audience is local and there's little non-Danish media coverage of the event.

"It's because Copenhagen is a bigger festival and when Aarhus has started they are tired and going on holiday," he said.

Still, Aarhus seems to be making a comeback on the jazz scene after a 10- to 20-year decline due to a lack of financial support and new music, Telling said. He and some friends started a small mobile jazz club two years ago, which books shows year-round at various locations.

"There was not so much modern jazz at the time." he said. "This year we are presenting 10 bands - 10 good bands."

The Roots

Aarhus is three-and-a-half hours from the Copenhagen airport by train, hardly unpleasant since Scandinavia's rank among the world's best. A $45 second-class ticket gets decent seats on a first-come basis, but there's also the possibility of standing in a passage with smokers. An extra $20 buys an assigned and cushy first-class seat, complete with table, power plugs, magazines, free coffee and snacks. As Travel And Leisure might put it, like duh.

The city of about 250,000 residents was founded more than 1,000 years ago as a Viking settlement at the mouth of the Aarhus Å river. Industrial development came around 1900 and the population has nearly doubled since 1935, according to Denmark's government. The Åarhus Domkirke is the largest church in Denmark, a mere 18 inches short of Northern Europe's tallest in Trondheim, Norway. Among the major tourist attractions is Den Gamle By (The Old Town), a collection of historic buildings brought in from around the country. Between May and October the city provides 250 free colorfully decorated bicycles for anyone's use at 30 stands (inserting a coin releases a bike from a locked rack, refunded when the bike is locked up again at any stand)

The government notes Aarhus "is a 'young' town due to the relatively large population of younger inhabitants. This follows naturally the location of many schools and educational institutions where young people from out-lying districts move into town to study. However, many of them move away once their studies are completed."

That youth and progressive spirit is reflected in the jazz festival's lineup, although there's also a heavy dose of artists representing artists like bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and saxophonist Ben Webster who helped Danish jazz break new frontiers during the 1950s and '60s. Telling, 25, said he tried to incorporate "a little bit more new jazz" this year, but since this is his first as the festival's director and he started the job in February, "it's tough to do anything new."

Telling said he'd like to book more big-name acts if funds existed. But the festival is largely depended on government support, which provides about $130,000 of the estimated $200,000 budget. Also, fees for U.S. artists can be 10 times as much in Europe due to music industry contracts (ironically, European artists often rely partially on government assistance when playing in the U.S.).

"That's the way it is," Telling said. "That's just the American industry."

Roughly a dozen executive committee and secretariat members are in charge of planning. About 10 volunteers assist with various duties, a miniscule number even by small festival standards, but Telling said many performances are at clubs and similar venues where staff handle the responsibilities.

The 17 venues generally feature certain types of music - Dixie, world, electronica/rock, straight-ahead and so on - and times are often a giveaway as well. Early afternoon shows were frequently heavy on chamber and world elements, with varying degrees of modernism. Traditional ragtime could be heard by those just getting off work, followed by generally upbeat mainstream and/or fusion street performances. Evening shows branch out considerably as voodoo Dixie, classic bebop, blues and avant-garde often are within shouting distance of each other, with a few premium and "beyond" acts a bit farther away.


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