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Ray Gelato plays at the jazz club Jamboree
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Photo by Yan Pekar
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Photo by Yan Pekar
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Photo by Yan Pekar
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Photo by Yan Pekar
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If you ask someone who is visiting Barcelona (or any other part of Spain) what their plans are for the evening, they might say they’re looking to catch a little live music. Most of them would probably say they want to see flamenco. A few might say that they’re looking for jazz. Barcelona has a deep history of jazz music that has cyclically thrived and faded over the course of the past century.
Jazz started creeping into Barcelona’s public consciousness at the beginning of the Twenties. Local groups with colourful names like “Chocolate Jackson” and “Harry Fleming and His Blue Bird’s Symphonic Jazz Orchestra” were some of the first on the scene. In the early Thirties, black musicians from the USA, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic started touring through Barcelona regularly, sometimes backed by Barcelona-based bands like Demon’s Jazz and the Orquestra del Hot Club.
In the ensuing decades, the same dance crazes that were popular in the States—such as the Charleston, foxtrot, or cakewalk—found their way overseas, as did some of the most influential international artists of the time: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, and others. Then, in the post-Civil War years, there was an explosion of local jazz ensembles that made their mark on the local scene with the help of a few passionate promoters and journalists.
One of these was Alfredo Papo, an Italian immigrant who ran one of the first and most famous rooms in Barcelona history: The Hot Club of the Forties and Fifties. He was also a respected journalist who was frequently published in jazz newsletters and magazines around Europe. Other influential figures include Enric Vázquez, who ran the influential RNE radio programme “Jazz Selection” from 1958 to 1965, and was the editor of the journal Jazz Quártica, among other claims to fame. (He would later go on to be a professor at the renowned Taller de Musics, founded in 1969.)
In the Fifties, the city began to see the influence of Latin jazz, followed by a generation known as modern jazz players in the late Fifties and early Sixties—including Tete Montoliu, a pianist who is often cited as the greatest Barcelona-born jazz musician in history.
From the Sixties until the Eighties, other now-famous Barcelona jazz venues and organisations were established, such as Club Jamboree in Plaça Reial, followed by professional organisations such as the Association of Jazz and Modern Music of Cataunya (AMJM) in 1989. The school Tallers de Músics opened their own club, JazzSí, in 1992, and after having fallen into disuse, Jamboree was reopened in 1993 by the music promotion company Mas i Mas, which has since proved itself to be a prominent force on the live music scene of the city.
This may make for interesting reading about the musical and cultural history of the city, but where is Barcelona’s jazz world at today?
Joaquin Marin, who has booked the concerts at JazzSí since the day the club first opened, has seen much of the city’s jazz history as it was written. “I've been in Barcelona my whole life, and I’ve been here (booking shows at JazzSí) for 18 years,” Marin says. “And the school has been around for over 30 years. We’re an institution.”
The club is an open door that welcomes all musicians. The idea was to give the students from the music school, Taller de Músics, a place to perform, but it became so popular that they started booking talented local and touring acts with different levels of experience and recognition.
Marin adds in his gravelly voice, “I'm only in charge of the club, mind you, but the multiple facets of the Taller de Músics organisation has been a massive help to the jazz community here in Barcelona.” He says that it all feeds back into the system. “Having a school, a club, a foundation, even a record label, all help both the students who attend the school, by providing them with opportunities, and the music community at large in the city.”
Marin says that the world of jazz in Barcelona has changed a great deal in the last few decades, and musically it’s mostly for the better. There are many more musicians these days than in the past and, thanks to schools like Taller de Músics, ESMUC (L'Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya), and the Liceu, they have a higher level of quality and professionalism than ever before.
“These young people have studied long and hard with some of the greats of the past, and have benefitted from their knowledge and experience—and from the support of the club. And it shows,” Marin says, justifiably sounding like a proud father.
Another heavyweight talent booker for a still legendary club is Pere Pons. Pons has been the talent buyer for club Jamboree since 2010, and the organiser of the Mas i Mas Music Festival since 2012. He has been a journalist, radio host (currently on “L'Home de Jazz” and “Planeta Omega” on Radio 4), and music lover in the jazz world for decades.
As one of the other movers and shakers in an increasingly shrinking circuit, he agrees with Marin that the current situation in Barcelona is bright, musically, but says that economically and culturally it is dark. “It’s a terrible paradox. We have the best-trained musicians in the history of the local scene, but there are so few spaces where they can perform.” He says that he accepted the job as booker and festival organiser without thinking twice; he felt he could make a change in the music scene. “Between the economic crisis and the ever more restrictive laws, everything is completely f***ed in the increasingly precarious world of culture. But some of us out here in the trenches refuse to lose heart. We believe in the magic of live music.”
A prolific local musician who has played frequently at Jamboree (and nearly every other jazz club on the local circuit) is trumpet player and bandleader Dani Alonso, known for leading the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra and other ensembles. He remembers hearing about the beginnings of jazz in Barcelona from his teachers and from older players that came before him.
“The old Cova del Drac (also a club by Mas i Mas) was a legendary room for decades, they supported local artists and brought in great international players. Though they’ve stopped doing concerts now,” he muses. “There was the Hot Club of Barcelona, which is even older than the historic club of the same name in Paris.” He wistfully remembers hearing stories about Alfredo Pato bringing in Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie for weeklong residencies. “Now,” he says, “there are fewer places to play. Most of the live music rooms that do exist in Barcelona today are booked by guys with their eye on the cash register, not by jazz aficionados.” Though he says there are a few exceptions to this rule—such as JazzSí and Jamboree—in general the musicians of Barcelona are left scrambling to make a living, and supplement their income teaching or doing other kinds of work.
“You figure it out,” he says with a shrug. “You love playing the music, and you do what you have to do to keep it going.”
In spite of the seemingly dire circumstances, there are a few professional institutions that provide support for the city’s musical community. The AMJM is one example: A cultural organisation and trade union, created with the official mission statement to “defend the interests of the professional musician, be the legitimate liaison between the institutions and the musician, and disseminate the music of our members.” They push for social reforms, give legal advice and publish a comprehensive newsletter with a list of local resources. Dick Them has been a member of the board since 2004 and chairman since 2012. He applied for the post of chairman because he “saw a place for improvements in the world of jazz in Catalunya and wanted to be a part of it.”
He laments that jazz, politically, is still perceived as a marginal phenomenon, and the aid received from the government sector is residual at best. He says it doesn’t help that the public is accustomed to more commercial forms of music consumption.
Pere Pons puts it more bluntly. “Education, education, education! It remains a structural deficit here.” He says that the politicians suffer from a lack of understanding of the importance of live music to the culture of the city and the country. “The government is deaf, foolish and ignorant. The public audience is held captive by the rules they put in place. How are they supposed to support jazz or any kind of music when their government doesn’t?”
Dani Alonso says that 15 years ago, you could hear great jazz played on the streets—in Plaça del Pi, on the Rambla. “But not anymore. They don’t issue enough permits,” he says angrily. “Look at Paris, look at New Orleans. There are many more clubs, many more street musicians. Why not here? There is so much history here, and so many good players today. It’s senseless.”
What that means is that the role of organisations like the AMJM is more critical than ever. They support initiatives such as ‘No Retalleu Cultura’, which was created to protest against the Generalitat’s budget cuts in their Culture department.
“We are the voice of our 300 members and partner organisations,” Them states. “Jazz is an important part of the cultural life of the city and the country. When we detect any irregularity in the way things are being done in Barcelona or Catalunya, we get in touch with the cultural authorities to try to remedy it.”
Pons, Marin and the few remaining music-conscious local talent buyers do their part in holding up the roof of a shaky culture. Marin says, “There are some nights when we make money, and some nights when we lose money—like when there’s a Barça game on,” he laughs. “My job is to keep the club at an equilibrium, regardless. On those days, when you find yourself thinking ‘why do I do this?,’ you remember that it’s for respect. Respect for the music, for the musicians, and for the fans who would rather hear jazz than watch football. For that reason, we don’t let anyone stop us.”
“That these musicians know they will have difficulty paying bills or filling the fridge, but still choose to make jazz their profession, still choose to share their music with the world—that is what keeps the genre alive,” says Pons.
And it seems that against the odds, the genre lives on here in Barcelona, carried by the passion and talent of the musicians and the seasoned professionals who guide them, even if the authorities are singing to a different tune.
BARCELONA JAZZ HIGHLIGHTS
Dani Alonso and the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra present “Swing in Sala Apolo” on March 22nd and April 26th. There are jazz concerts at Jazz Si on Mondays and jazz jams on Wednesdays. Jamboree hosts regular Monday night WTF Jam Sessions, and frequent jazz concerts. The AMJM website (www.amjm.org) provides information regarding the local jazz and Modern Music scenes.
Nou de la Rambla 113. Tel. 93 441 40 01. Metro: Parallel (L3)
Pl. Reial 17. Tel. 93 319 17 89. Metro: Liceu (L3)
Requesens 2. Tel. 93 329 00 20. Metro: Sant Antoni (L2)
Ronda Universitat 35. Tel. 93 112 71 50. Metro: Plaça Catalunya (L1, L3)
Comtessa de Sobradiel 8. Tel. 93 310 07 55. Metro: Jaume I (L4)
Roger de Flor 238. Tel. 667 618 593. Metro: Verdaguer (L4, L5)
Botella 7. Tel. 93 443 28 13. Metro: Sant Antoni (L2)
Riera de Sant Miquel 59. Tel. 93 164 80 28
Muntaner 83C. Tel. 93 454 90 48. Metro: Diagonal (L3, L5), Fontana (L3)
Mallorca 204. Tel. 93 451 50 43. Metro: Diagonal (L3, L5)
El Cafe Vienes Thursday Jazz Nights @ Casa Fuster Hotel
Pg. de Gràcia 132. Tel. 90 220 23 45. Metro: Diagonal (L3, L5)
Requesens 3-5. Tel. 93 329 56 67
Bruc 110. Tel. 93 458 43 03
Rambla dels Caputxins, 63. Tel. 93 304 11 16
Padilla 155 (L’Auditori). Tel. 933 523 011
Numancia 111-113, Bajos. Tel. 93 315 87 10 or 609 531 277
August 2015: San Miguel Mas i Mas Festival
October-November 2015: Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz
July 2015: Festival Blues Barcelona