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The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

Mark Sabbatini By

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When night lasts four months, staying up until 7 a.m. is nothing.
Polarjazz 2008
Longyearbyen, Norway
January 30-February 3, 2008

"This place is abandoned by God and ought to have been abandoned a long time ago by mankind as well" —Historical quote on mural at Longyearbyen's museum

This is where people will come after Doomsday: a town 600 miles from the North Pole whose idea of fun is hosting the world's northernmost jazz festival in the middle of winter.

A glacier-covered land where the sun doesn't shine from October 26 to February 15 and where carrying a gun almost everywhere is necessary to avoid being eaten by polar bears. Where a vault deep in one of the Arctic mountains will eventually store up to 4.5 million varieties of seeds for global catastrophes such as nuclear war. And where in late January, sub-zero winds blast through the windows of a four-star hotel to cool off standing room-only crowds at Polarjazz, a four-day showcase of local and national talent.

"It was a very good idea because previously it was just cold and dark and nothing happened," said Susanne Hansen, 28, a singer who was one of the opening-day highlights at this year's 11th annual festival.

Polarjazz (featured in this BBC Destination Music video) takes place in Longyearbyen, Norway, the largest town on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, several hundred miles directly north of the mainland. The average January temperature is what one travel guide calls "a toasty 3Ã'ºF" thanks to the moderating effect of being on the coast of the Greenland Sea. The industrial-looking rectangular metal buildings are strictly utilitarian, but there's a strong infrastructure because of heavy investment in coal mining and scientific research (the region has been called "ground zero in the climate debate"). Booking quality musicians might seem like a challenge, but the response is consistently enthusiastic.

"This is like Norway times a hundred," said Haavard Stuboe, an Oslo guitarist appearing for the first time along with his acoustic trio. "All the Norwegian musicians want to come here."

The festival does more than offer locals a diversion during the long polar night. It provides a boost to businesses and efforts to market winter tourism activities such dog sledding, snowmobiling and watching the northern lights. The event's original purpose, in fact, was fighting efforts to reduce by half the six weekly jet flights to and from the mainland during the dark months, according to a co-founder.

Total attendance is estimated at 1,000 (fewer actual listeners), about two-thirds of whom are locals. Norwegians from other parts of the country make up most of the rest, but a scattering of devout and curious foreigners usually show up.

"My interest in jazz has been rekindled and this place fascinates me," said Peter (he asked his last name not be used), a retired science worker from Melbourne, Australia, who visited a year and a half ago on an science research icebreaker offering passenger tours. "It was an excuse to see it in the winter."

"There are some people who come every year from England and Germany," said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year's festival director. "I say 'Why don't you spread the word?' They say 'We don't want to. We want to keep it for ourselves.'"

For some traveling far, the lure exceeds the norms of more cautious travelers. Not only did I come here with my ex-wife Kristan and her current flame, but I flew them here as a belated Christmas gift. All of us have worked in Antarctica and wanted to see what in many ways is its northern equivalent—from the same research in the same kind of buildings to the political neutrality that permits a large number of nations to work here relatively free of interference. Also, Joe knows a lot more about jazz than I do, they both take better photos and their insight was invaluable throughout.

Judy Ross, a New Jersey resident, said she and her friend Donna Fritzer, decided to come after plans to visit Kenya were canceled after ethnic violence broke out following a disputed election in late December. "Donna wanted to wear a mink coat, I wanted to hear music, so I said 'Let's go north."

They participated in most of the major tourist activities during their four days and were jovial during the shuttle bus ride to the airport despite tragic circumstances, as word came from home midway through the festival that Ross' father had died. The family advised her to stay in Longyearbyen and she said she has no regrets.

"It's OK," she said. "I took him to the top of the world."

Giving New Meaning To Accessible Jazz

Some jazz festivals worry about bringing in enough listeners. The founders of Polarjazz were trying to keep the community from being cut off from the outside world most of the winter. Braathens Airline wanted a decade ago to reduce by half their six 737 jet flights between Longyearbyen and the mainland because of reduced winter passenger traffic. But Stein-Arve Soerensen, the airline's cargo director at the time, said winter was when demand for cargo peaked.

"Every year I have a fight with the planning department in the company about capacity," said Soerensen, now managing director of Jetpak, a Scandinavian cargo company. "They want to turn down the flights in the winter period and I want to increase the activity." On one plane trip he met Leif Vigstad, who was making his first trip to Longyearbyen to start a new job,

"He was, like me, interested in music," Soerensen said. "I told him about my 'problem'" and they contacted hotel and other officials in Longyearbyen about starting a jazz festival... We have in Norway a jazz festival in Oslo every year and I have a lot of people in jazz alignment," he said. "I told them about Svalbard and they were interested in coming up...A lot of them didn't even get paid for it. It was enough just to give them plane tickets and rooms free of charge."

Attracting an audience was more challenging at first, said Haakcon Sandvik, 26, a bassist who has lived in Longyearbyen nearly all his life. "All the musicians went to see the other musicians, but other than that they didn't have many listeners," he said. "Now they go beyond jazz to get more people."

Jazz was scaled back more than usual this year because much of the planning occurred late, but still included traditional big band, small ensemble cool/post-bop, a cappella and neo-Scandinavian experimental. Among the "other"—and often better-attended concerts—were well-known Norwegian artists, modern folk and Klezmer performers, plus an opening night of local musicians and a finale at the town's one church pairing a local gospel children's choir with singer Randi Tytingvaeg's quartet.

"We can use an all-round artist for the first concerts for one night to get the people out of their homes and on the second concert an artist that nobody knows," said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year's festival director, "but we know that the audience will get a nice experience and listen to some music they never would have listened to if it wasn't for this."

Nobody organizing or working during Polarjazz is paid, Hansen said. "I drink champaign all the festival," he added. "That is all."

Plenty of those earning a living in Longyearbyen have reason to toast frequently as well, with the festival bringing in money during one of the slowest periods despite increased winter tourism marketing. Hotels normally closed during the winter open and some tour companies use it as a warmup for the beginning of tourist season in mid-February, including dogsled operators who get their canines in shape.

"For me as a tourist manager it is a dream," said Unni Myklevoll, manager of Svalbard Tourism, the official tourist board. The festival might not draw large numbers on its own, but does provide an extra and potentially decisive lure for those thinking about coming for other activities. Many winter visitors are from northern neighbors such as Sweden, Denmark and England, but the Chinese and Japanese are also becoming a strong presence.... They come for the northern lights," Myklevoll said. "Newly married couples, if they can see the northern lights their first years it is a blessing on their marriage and if they have a baby it will be a happy baby."

Venues and adequate sound gear in Longyearbyen aren't a problem, even though there isn't a proper recording studio. Sound gear has been brought in largely by those producing the numerous documentaries and other presentations about the Svalbard region. Most concerts take place at the Radisson SAS Polar Hotel, promoted as the farthest-north full-serve hotel in the world, including a sauna, conference facilities, room service ($20 for a burger, plus a $16 service charge) and stunningly fast wifi (thanks to an undersea communications cable built by NASA for polar research). But getting bands here on a limited flight schedule that's at the mercy of the elements means more work than buying tickets.

"The big challenge in planning was in the logistics side," Hansen said. "You can imagine if you fly up there in Boeing 737 with (an upright bass), drums and other instruments. We have to load it into the cabin. It was a big logistics operation."

The extreme cold and dry climate can cause mischief. Singer Unni Wilhelmsen had trouble with her guitar tuning and other members of the band seemed to have similar problems after arriving that same day, depriving the instruments a chance to recover from outdoor exposure. StuboeÃ'¸ said he's had cracks start to appear on his guitar soundboard in Arctic climates, so he's learned to take precautions. "You keep it in the bathroom, where it's humid," he said.

Most of the musicians stay for the entire festival and, even if they're only playing one show, take advantage of the opportunity to explore the area (snowmobile tours, often going to the east side of Svalbard to look for polar bears, seemed to be the most popular).

While the activities are unfamiliar to visitors, the music they bring with them is a novelty since jazz is essentially nonexistent the rest of the year. There's an active music scene in other genres. Rock bands play regular pub gigs and the annual Dark Season Blues festival at the onset of the polar winter is Longyearbyen's biggest music event. Other student and community groups like brass bands and church choirs are open to experienced musicians and newcomers. The town's mining-oriented history and high number of temporary residents mean there isn't the kind of ethnic presence such as the aboriginal Sumis at the northern tip of Norway's mainland. But Myklevoll, who plays trumpet in the community Storband, a little big band, said the modern population of students, scientists and others provides a cultural boost.

"Talents are good here because people are very well educated," she said. "It is in general a higher educational level and standard of living." Thriving in such a small and isolated town means being welcoming and free of inhibitions. Opportunities, for those seeking them, aren't hard to find. "It is easier to join things because it is not far to go," Myklevoll said.

Can't Get Enough Coal In That Stocking

"The streets in Longyearbyen have no names, they have numbers. Grown men do not build houses in streets that are named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard." -Peter Adams, 2005, quoted as part of the museum's mural

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