Cool Jazz - Norway's Molde International Jazz Festival

Article excerpt

Dixieland meets bop meets postmodern sound effects in Norway's oldest jazz festival.

Jazz has been described by some as the preeminent indigenous American art form. In fact, it draws upon many musical idioms encountered in the American melting pot. Europe has contributed much to the instrumentation and melodic repertoire of jazz, and was an enthusiastic advocate of the genre almost from the start. As early as 1919, the Swiss conductor Ernst Alexandre Ansermet heard the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet in Paris and praised the "astonishing perfection, the superb taste, [and] irresistible force" of Bechet and his jazz band, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. In a widely quoted appraisal, Ansermet predicted that this revolutionary sound would perhaps be "the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow."

The originators of this new music were, of course, mostly American blacks, a fact that largely defined the terms of America's response to jazz as an art. That jazz migrated from New Orleans to locales as remote as the bracing fjords of Norway is not as startling as it may seem. American servicemen coming to Europe during World War I brought not only reinforcements to the Allied cause but the seeds of a new music that were planted across the Continent. The beginnings of jazz also coincided with the serendipe th of recording technology, which dispersed the new music to the four winds.

Molde, a city of forty-five th and on the west coast of Norway, is graced with wondrous natural beauty. From a vantage point above the city, 222 peaks can be counted around a fjord that threads inland before disappearing among distant mountains that descend into neighboring Sweden. A couple of ski jumps on the hill above the city declare the country's sports passion, while in town complementary statues of a jazz saxophone player and a girl offering roses gaze at each other from opposite ends of a public plaza. Molde is known as both the city of roses and the city of jazz, the former because of a greeting for cruise passengers to the city that became traditional; the latter for Norway's longest running jazz festival.

The Molde International Jazz Festival is one of seven jazz festivals that enliven the endless summer days in Norway, testifying to widespread interest not only in traditional jazz but in new and unproven music as well. Indeed, "The word jazz originally just meant everything new and crazy," says music historian Bjorn Stendahl, author of the three-volume Jazz in Norway and a frequent attendee at the Molde festival. "The first band in Norway, called the Jazzing Devils, was really just a novelty band. The first true jazz came by records in 1928, and in 1930 Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens [recordings] came over. They made a g impression. In the 1930s a lot of American musicians were coming to Europe, and it was taken seriously. That's when the first 'rhythm' clubs started appearing."

Petter Pettersson, one of the Molde festival board's founding members, recalls: "We had a jazz club, Storyland, that I joined in 1955. I was only sixteen. We had meetings and would sometimes arrange concerts with out-of-town bands. Then someone saw an article in a Swedish newspaper that asked, 'Which town will be the Newport [site of America's most prestigious jazz festival] of Scandinavia?' Well, the club decided it would be Molde.

"It was a joke. We had no airport, one hotel, and a budget of about 15 th and kroner. We billed it as the 'Molde International Jazz Festival.' We had one foreign player, as I remember, an American trumpeter living in Germany."

Since that 1961 event, Molde has hosted festivals every year, with a growing roster of internationally known jazz artists including Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and Dexter Gordon; rockers such as Eric Clapton; and crossover artists like this year's main attraction, Paul Simon. …