jazz in italy

In Italy jazz is an object of serious study and practice, aspiration and envy, emulation and celebration, creativity and commercial draw. So I found last week at the Siena Jazz Summer Workshop and Tuscia in Jazz fest in Soriano nel Cimino. 

At both sites there were top-notch players of several generations from the US teaching young acolytes, offering life lessons a step or two beyond the fundamental mastery of instruments. Specially convened ensembles mixing players of diverse experience from multiple countries caught the attentions of all-ages audiences at free performances held in medieval courtyards and town squares. Posters on the ancient walls of hilltop villages such as Montalcino, producer of some of Italy’s finest wines, heralded jazz concert series I’d missed, featuring local as well as international headliners.
There’s something happenin’ here, no doubt about it. The harvesting of interests planted decades (centuries?) ago in the creation and appreciation of a world-wide vernacular music emphasizing melodic improvisation and rhythmic engagement? The emergence of a sophisticated but not elitist or exclusionary audience? Cultural evolution proceeding in the context of traditions dating back to pre-Renaissance? All of the above, fine cuisine and sweeping belvederes, too? A long report follows.

Invited by Francesco Martinelli, Siena’s distinguished Jazz Archives curator and history professor (as well as a jazz journalist and festival organizer) to present topics from my book Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz as the first lecture to a class of some 50 young people in for a two-week intensive, I met, dined with and heard performances by faculty including alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, drummer John Riley, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, pianist Aaron Goldberg, guitarists Peter Bernstein and Ben Monder, pianist John Taylor, tenorist Joel Frahm, saxophonist-composer Claudio Fasoli, bassist Paolino Dalla Porta and French writer Thierry Quenum

Thierry lectured on “European Jazz After 1960,” making the interesting point that the burgeoning capitols of the European Union may now be comparable to New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York in the 1920s for generating their own regional scenes and substyles which give rise to distinct individualists who are also coming into productive collaborations with each other. He believes there is a new “European” way of playing that’s come into being, though he won’t typify it by any particular characteristics, other than that EU musicians no longer feeling any need to imitate the ways Americans play. I don’t know about that; If I could discern any EU music-making direction, it struck me as consistent with long-standing clichés about UK and Continental jazz: that there’s less interest in hard-driving swing or intense blues derivations, more tendency towards lyricism, abstraction and/or serenity than explosive excitement, conflict or competition. But I went to Italy to explore, not pontificate, and I did encounter exceptions to those clichés.
“My students are confused,” one Siena prof said in conversation, “because they’re constantly being told to be themselves, and they say they want to be great jazz musicians but they’re not black Americans and all the great jazz musicians are.” Showing clips of Miles, Ornette and Cecil in action, I suggested that the three have set high standards for what greatness in jazz can encompass — but that they each abjure dictums about what the content of great jazz must be. To uncover one’s originality and stick with it is hard work, as all three demonstrated, but that’s the price of genuine contribution to any art form, and art rich enough to endure requires wisdom gained outside academe’s ivy towers. An interactive performance medium such as jazz gets good after its participants commit nights upon nights to working in front of all kinds of audiences on all sorts of platforms.
That said, the Siena education program is impressive, held in schoolrooms in a 14th century fortress abuzz with 21st century energy. I arrived in time to hear the concluding concert of a class of young Italian jazz up’n’comers who had traveled to Siena once a month for two years, gaining intimate instruction from rotating teams of excellent pro players. A big band playing Mingus fight songs . . .Bobby Watson, barefoot, blew saucily on “Jeannine” . . . Bernstein and Frahm jammed with Goldberg plus his trio-mates drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers . . 
(And beyond the jazz, I can recommend the wild boar-sauced pasta at Osteria la Piana, people-watching and pizza at Ristorante Alla Speranza on the clamshell-shaped square in the center of town, a (free) walk through the little-heralded Orto de Pecci medieval garden, as viewed below . .)  

Back to “jazz”: in Montalcino, where my dear traveling companion and I sampled fine Tuscan reds at the Enoteca Bacchus (an engaging bottle of Brunello 2004 starts at about 28 Euros), wine-meets-jazz events before we arrived had starred trombonist Robin Eubanks with electric bassist Pippo Matino‘s Quartet, and singer Roberta Gambarini. We didn’t feel too bad, having an appointment in Soriano, where the 9th annual jazz workshop and 15-day Tuscia in Jazz festival had begun. 
Workshops in this 14th century town (heavily damaged by Allied bombers in 1944) were led by saxophonist Rick Margitza, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Eddie Gomez and pianist Dado Moroni, among others, at La Bastia hotel, where we were graciously hosted by Fest producer Italo Leali. Concerts each evening were held for free in the town’s square (stage set up in front of the orange building, center, next to the main church on the right, facing the castle from which point the shot below is taken). The square accommodates some 500 to 700 listeners.

Soriano nel Cimino Square

After-concert jam sessions featuring fest favorites including Hammond b-3 organist Tony Monaco took place in a cellar around the corner, across the street from the Taverna where all the town’s visitors ate, drank and socialized (in a Youtube clip of 2009’s teachers letting their hair down at that restaurant after hours, swinging vocalist Shawnn Monteiro, daughter of the late Ellington basist Jimmy Woode who is taken as a patron saint of Tuscia in Jazz, is sitting next to pianist Kenny Barron, with Bobby Watson, Rosenwinkel, Ray Mantilla, et al). 
The Tuscia fest occurs year-round in several cities, according to 40-year-old Leali, as hands-on a jazz producer/promoter as exists. Besides scheduling and supervising all workshops, public interviews, concert and jam session operations, he served as on-stage master of ceremonies, poured drinks, made table arrangements and was away available to handle immediate crises with his iPhone.
“In Italy they think jazz is an elite music, like classical,” he explained sitting over a lunchtime espresso while 15 members of a local Hammond Organ Club celebrating its 10th anniversary clambered around the instrument that’s a great local favorite, “but my mission is to prove that it’s not. It’s goodtime music, party music, music for everybody!”
On the festive “white night” we witnessed, during which most of the town’s stores stayed opened for business until midnight at least, older residents of Soriano eased into folding chairs to give an ear to discoveries like 19-year-old organist Leonardo Corradi, mixing it up with full-bore trumpeter Flavio Boltro, backed by Pat Metheny’s drummer Antonio Sanchez and Bolognese guitarist Lucio Ferrara. Down the main thoroughfare slightly outside mainstage hearing range, a middle-aged balladeer sang sentimentally and played electric guitar backed by rhythm tracks to a large circle of older Italians, and further along, by a gelato-beer garden, a couple competing gangs of townies were energized by flashing disco lights and recorded pop hits. Jazz wasn’t everyone’s first choice soundtrack, but it had a presence and participants come from Rome, Berlin and, surprisingly enough, Oklahoma.
Leali has labored successfully to attract a young (but not only young) regional audience, to manage and record newly emerging Italian talents (of Soriano’s 15 jazz days, he says eight are devoted to rising musicians sitting in with American veterans), to exhibit works by a coterie of jazz photographers (he complains his activities have otherwise been ignored by Italy’s jazz journalists) and to develop local sponsors. He has enlisted a beer company and grappa bottler, and the Apple store in Vitebo, closest big city to Soriano. All performances are free, Tuscia in Jazz receiving some funds from the central Italian government but more from town councils in the fest’s locations. Leali says all the towns prosper from the tourists who come to listen.
Surely Italy has other attractions besides jazz, but it should be instructive to would-be jazz promoters anywhere that hot ‘n’ cool music of the moment stirs up interest to complement the Etruscan tombs, well-preserved frescoes and picturesque architecture of the past. Jazz in Italy doesn’t fight with the laid-back atmosphere so much as enrich it. The music has real roots there now, and they’ve existed quite a while — Francesco Martinelli reported there is a vase from centuries B.C. depicting an African pygmy blowing a trumpet-like horn. Better yet, jazz in Italy because of programs like Soriano’s and Siena’s will have a future (Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director of programming Antonio Ciacca was in Soriano, performing on piano but also taking notes on who to present) which, naturally, everyone will want to hear.

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  1. tom says

    Sounds like it was a great trip! It’s very gratifying to know that jazz is so alive in Italy. Interesting comments on a ‘European’ approach – the various cultures have a lot to contribute. I’m not surprised that they take jazz seriously though – Italy did give us Opera.

  2. says

    The combination of jazz, location and food so beguiling. Based on what we hear regularly at the Vortex (in London) and on my own travels around Europe, I would agree about musicians finding their own voices. And this confidence is helping cross-border collaborations, as well as transatlantic, where the Europeans are not overawed. It’s East to West as much as West to East.
    But I want to pick up on a small phrase though. I was intrigued that you talk about “UK and Continental jazz” and not just “European”. Why separately?
    HM: Although there are indeed cross-boundary, mix-nation collaborations, and I met English pianist John Taylor in Siena, there seemed to be in the discussions I was privy to a distinction implied by the musicians between the jazz of the continental countries and what’s popular/prevalent in Britain. The interest in British singers — Jamie Cullum, Stacy Kent, etc. — was one hugely non-transferable item. The activities of Courtney Pine and the Anglo-Caribbean (is that an ok term?) musicians seemed to be considered in another lace entirely than what I heard critics and musicians discussing of French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian and German jazz scenes. I don’t know, maybe I exaggerated this apparent divide, but I was struck by it. Similarly, several years ago when I was a guest at the Leeds jazz school and festival, there was no discussion of music from the countries on the continent other than Stuart Nicholson’s assertion that innovative bands from Norway and Sweden had overtaken American jazz as the driving force of creativity (a view I regard as ridiculous).