mica focus Jazz East-West – Common Approaches, History and Visions

On the 14th of December 2011, mica music austria and the jazz club Porgy & Bess organized a mica focus panel discussion to represent and analyze the current situation of different presentation forms and co-operations between Austria and the countries of the former East.

Panel leader:

  • Virgil Mihaiu (author, jazz critic), Romania

Panel Participants:

  • Anna Moser (Polish Cultural Institute Vienna), Poland
  • Vilem Spilka (curator of Jazz Festival Brno), Czech Republic
  • Peter Pallai (curator of the jazz program at the Hungarian Cultural Institute in London), Hungary
  • Sándor Kozlow (curator of My City Festival), Hungary
  • Peter Lipa (jazz singer, founder of Bratislava Jazz Days), Slovakia

In his opening statement, Virgil Mihaiu pointed out that shortly after the Second World War  it was enormously important in the Eastern cities to express themselves with jazz. Each country had its own central figure representing the movement. Mihaiu initiated the first round of introductions with the question of today’s relevance of jazz and a request for a brief personal statement.

The Role of Jazz

In Peter Pallai‘s opinion, jazz has lost a lot of its relevance since the collapse of communism. During the communist regime, jazz always stood for freedom. Subsequently, however, it lost this role and became highly intellectual and thus lost its young followers. The youth has been particularly neglected in the past two decades. Bepop as a kind of “Esperanto of Jazz” was shown the cold shoulder and the media neglected the audience with a very posh language. In addition, there were economic problems.

Vilem Spilka indicated that two years ago he founded the first jazz college in Brno and founded a second jazz college in Prague a year ago. The fact that there are now several specialized educational institutes in the Czech Republic keeps him optimistic. Since he himself is only 36 years old, he knows little to nothing about the communist era. Today, however, he has to register a decline in subsidies of 25% for the coming year. Nevertheless, due to the good local scene and the numerous people coming to the concerts, he generally stays optimistic. Despite difficult times, he foresees a bright future.

Peter Lipa stands like no other for Jazz in Slovakia. According to the singer and organizer, the situation is however fundamentally different to the previously described situation in the Czech Republic. It is quite the contrary. There are no jazz clubs in Slovakia, no schools and no information centers. Nevertheless, there is a lively scene with talented musicians. He himself leads the Bratislava Jazz Festival. He mentioned that in the future, there has to be a lot more done to make room for the music.

Anna Moser has always tried to build bridges. In her job as a curator, she  always understood festivals and concerts as places of encounters.

Mihaiu said that in his experience, people who like jazz have a similar mentality, no matter in what cities they live. The music and interests are therefore inherently national and supranational. And even under the most repressive regime there were festivals that offered a lot of freedom for musicians and audiences. There were also large differences in the intensity of the persecution of the various art forms. Literature was the most persecuted form under Stalin. In Romania, however, dance and choreography were persecuted worse than music. At late hours, as Mihaiu stated, one would often see spies sleeping in the audience of jazz clubs.

Sándor Kozlow said that in Hungary there are not a lot of existing clubs. For this reason, festivals are all the more important. He would classify the current situation as dramatic. The prestigious festival in Györ is dying. Historically, jazz is unfortunately still haunted by a somewhat elitist aura, because it was the music held on an elite level, especially under the Russian repression.  According to Kozlow, it is important to support the big events, but also the small and very small venues in order to achieve a wide range that allows as much as possible.

Jazz in the Mass Media

Discussion leader Mihaiu reminded in the beginning of the second discussion round that the Bossa Nova proved it is also possible in Portuguese. The language barriers played no role in the victory. In the wake of this “discovery”, there is an existing independent jazz scene in Poland, Vietnam, the Baltics, etc., which has its audience. Different approaches generate different audiences. In the second round, Mihaiu requested opinions on today’s  role of jazz in the mass media.

According to Peter Pallai, the Hungarian radios do not broadcast jazz music – apart from a late-night program and one radio station that is devoted to commercial light jazz. In the 1940s many jazz musicians attempted to make money with commercial jazz and to invest the earned money in more experimental projects. This tradition still exists today. Maybe this mix and range is necessary to escape from the misery of the lacking media attention.

Spilka recalled the tradition of the second federal broadcasting station in the Czech Republic, which once used to  broadcast full concerts, but has not done this for quite some time. Today’s broadcasts primarily feature people like Brian Blade, and this is in a more pop context, and commercial acts a la Bobby McFerrin.

Lipa referred to the former strength of the Austrian television, which once had a pioneering role in terms of jazz broadcasts and served in Slovakia as kind of a window to the Western musical world.

mentioned that television is particularly important for the sponsors. It has always been a strong argument for financial contributions. As a festival organizer you need television. However, today you have to pay to be on TV, in the past it used to be quite the opposite and you were paid for the respective coverage.

Television no longer really cares about jazz concerts. TV stations can now buy all the music it wants. Not even commercial music is featured any more. In Kozlow‘s opinion the future lies in internet radio. This statement was approved by the other panellists.

Anna Moser stated that in terms of media attention,  the situation in Poland is a little bit better. They have their own cultural channel, which at least show excerpts of the respective festival programs. In addition, there are several radio night lines.  She herself constantly seeks cooperations in this context, although this is not always easy.

Peter Pallai explained that the Hungarian TV has a portrait series of Hungarians living abroad and that is about it. Even more dramatic is the lack of good websites or blogs that deal with Hungarian jazz.

Sándor Kozlow spoke about the applications coming from young bands for the festival he curates. The interesting thing here is that 80% of the applicants have nothing to do with jazz, which means an overwhelming majority of bands do not play jazz. A major problem is therefore the very definition of jazz. In Russia, jazz on the radio has always taken a very elitist position.

In Romania, Mihailu experienced televised debates of the sort, which would not even have been possible in the motherland of jazz, but principally there is reason to complain about a lack of documentation in the field of motion pictures. Although there is an incredible number of magazines, which lies in the Romanian fetish for the written word, a lot of masterpieces and masterful concerts have been lost due to a lack of recording practice. Thus, the conclusion: a lot of written paper, but only a few recordings. It is also a shame that initiatives, such as those Mathias Ruegg once created, have fizzled out. The cultural institutions themselves rarely have a budget to fund concerts and exchange programs. Another experience has taught him that free concerts are not appreciated by the audience. On the other hand there are talents that would probably be world famous if they had an accent and came from the U.S.

All panelists agreed that the exchange should be strengthened between the clubs.

Spilka explained that the surrounding countries are always considered at the festival in Brno. Austria is just as well represented as a Russian concert line.

Peter Lipa pointed out that a lot depended on who is sitting in the cultural institutions. As a festival organizer he always sought to collaborate with the cultural institutions – even those who do not have an office in Bratislava. Basically it is not his specific mission to promote Slovak music, but he enjoys doing it. He claimed there is a glaring deficit in musical life, which requires a platform providing information. It would also be desirable to have a better cooperation between the individual countries.

In Pallai‘s opinion, there has to be a significant impulse for such a platform. The information source has to start on a national level and then crosslink in a second step.

Anna Moser said that she is indeed not Nokia, but she has always tried to bring people, clubs and musicians together, which, given the fact that she is a woman, hasn’t always been that easy. In the realm of cooperations, cities or clubs primarily want to have the well-known names. You have to sneak in the unknown, promising talents with the big names. Festivals are a great opportunity to create constellations which allow varied acts  to perform next to each other. Clubs such as the Porgy & Bess in Vienna have always had the role of crossing borders, said Moser.

Kozlow however has a very critical point of view towards cultural institutions and their role of mediation and promotion of jazz. He has worked in such institutions and they are often run by politicians who do not know how to organize an event. Most institutions that he knows have a budget of 25,000 €, with the director getting 3500 per month. How is that supposed to work out? Although these institutions are equipped with apartments and the like, their preservation is expensive, so there is no money to spend on specific programs. Koslow added it basically depends on the budget and the responsible people in charge. It always depends on whether the respective director sees jazz as important or not.

Joint Projects

Subsequently, the discussion was opened to the public. On the level of cultural institutions, it is also difficult to organize something on a transnational basis, because they are just so differently funded. In Lipa‘s opinion, it depends on individual protagonists who have experience with European funding. To draw money from the EU for a joint project, the massive bureaucracy can only be handled with a lot of experience.

All agreed that the European Jazz Network could serve as a basis. Christoph Huber (curator and organizer of the Porgy & Bess program) also said it is time to launch a project to intensify and professionalize the already existing musical exchange.

It was also agreed that there should be a greater solidarity between the former Eastern countries. Helge Hinteregger (mica – music austria’s jazz expert) recalled a bilateral exchange program from 1995, which could be revived or relaunched as  a multilateral program.

It only needs a spark to ignite the rocket. Peter Pallai suggested to start this project on an Austro-Hungarian basis and then expand to other states in a second step. It could actually work, he said.