Globe Unity Orchestra
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
Copenhagen was known in the 1960s and 1970s for its hospitality and the abundance of work available for such American Jazzmen as Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Kenny Drew during low points in Jazz appreciation. Today, the Danish capital maintains its reputation as a place that welcomes musicians who play all flavors of jazz and improvised music from mainstream to the most exploratory. Now that Jazz has evolved beyond its fascination with American roots and jazz stars, what has the scene become?
As in most major cities, the number of gigs and musicians seems evenly matched. The question of how many jazz musicians are playing a type of improvised music is a thorny one. Added to the situation is that unlike in North America, government funding is available to promote jazz and jazz festivals. Plus, like many other areas over the past three decades, Danish jazz festivals have become larger and less purist. More cooperation is evident in Denmark than many other places.
“We now deal with jazz as a value more than a specific sound and history,” explains Bjarke Svendsen, artistic director and manager of Jazzhouse, which has become Copenhagen’s major jazz venue since it opened in 2001. A two-floor operation, Jazzhouse’s main room seats 300, and a small stage has room for about 100. Presenting about 275 concerts a year, it’s the club where larger groups like Globe Unity Orchestra and major jazz names play in the city. “Jazz to us is about curiosity, exploring new sonic territories, asking questions rather than delivering answers,” he says. “These are qualities that are present in a lot of jazz music but are not at all exclusive to jazz. So besides presenting a lot of jazz we also present modern composition, noise, folk music etc. As long as it’s curious music it’s jazz to us.”
Similarly, the city’s major jazz festivals – the mammoth Copenhagen Jazz Festival (CJF), which presents many performances during a multi-week period in the summer, and VinterJazz (VJ), which does the same on a slightly smaller scale early in the year – operate with the same sort of philosophy. “A really important feature of both CJF and VJ is the way the festival organisation collaborates with the participating venues,” says Simon Christensen, who is head of communications for both festivals. The parent organizations usually book only about 10 per cent of the programs. “That special structure creates the ‘magnitude’ and the extreme diversity that is the core of the festivals,” he adds. “Here, at both festivals, there truly is something for everyone, even though the so-called anarchy can make it hard to navigate the program.”
What about smaller venues and local musicians? Pianist Søren Gemmer, who moved from Aalborg to the capital seven years ago, is one of the musicians who helps animate the smaller neighborhood Nørrebro Jazz Club, which has been in existence for about five years and presents about one dozen shows a year. An audience of 35-50 dedicated jazz fans is satisfying to him. “So far, I think we’ve managed to build a solid following of people, who trust our selection, however diverse it might be,” he notes. “We have an outspoken ambition of reaching out to the different milieus/subgenre within the Copenhagen jazz scene, seeing ourselves as a provider of music with nerve and refinement in a neighborhood with a need for an infusion of music and art. Also, we try to strike the tricky balance of presenting musicians that deserve more recognition while still being able to draw a crowd.” A winter triple bill, for example, featuring multi-reedist Torben Snekkestad, drew a maximum crowd during a VinterJazz Fest gig in February 2016.
Jazzhouse does its part in developing new bands and artists as well. Svendsen points out. “There’s about a 50/50 breakdown between gigs with international and national acts, with a bit more Danish than international. Still, he also says: “Jazzhouse is a negotiation room of where music is heading rather than being a venue where you’re re guaranteed that what’s on stage in inarguably Jazz. Jazzhouse is not a comfort zone, it’s a venue for the curious who embrace doubt.”
One person uniquely equipped to compare the Copenhagen scene to others, especially the one in New York, is guitarist Mark Solborg, who was born in the city and continues to live there, except for two semesters he spent at New York’s New School 1999 to 2000. Starting as a budding jazz musician around 1989 he frequented many of Copenhagen’s venues and festivals. “Looking back it seems everybody was very much into playing ‘right’ or ‘tight’,” he recalls. “Nobody was talking spirituality and aesthetics. It was all very focused on playing what was on the records and less on inventing your own stuff. Even so I was part of a couple of groups that made up their own repertoire.
“I studied at The New School as an exchange-part of my education at The Rhythmic Conservatory, Copenhagen. The trip was a major game-changer. I never heard so much live-music in such short span of time. It took me a year or more to digest it once back in Denmark. Saxophonist Anders Banke and I took part in the scene. We had a regular weekly three-set gig for more than six months at a small café called The Anyway. Not much … but somehow formative and important in the work to come.”
At the point he found the American scene more open to diversity, while in Demark “people in general seemed to want to conserve and explain jazz in a fairly aggressive way rather than explore and develop it.” Still New York, he decided “hardly provides any kind of living-off-music-platform. You might say that it strengthens the players the hard way, but in the long run it also takes professionalism out of the scene.”
It soon became clear that working in Copenhagen was best for Solborg, both musically and personally. “Copenhagen musicians really are at a level that compares with New York,” he opines. But this is mostly related to recording and concert promoting collective such as ILK – of which the guitarist is a member – and Barefoot, which younger musicians have organized over the past few years.
“I’m pretty convinced that the DIY approach has been hugely important in shaping the Jazz and improv scene in Copenhagen,” declares Nørrebro’s Gemmer. “The grassroots or bottom-up nature of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival has been a crucial factor in this, as I see it. Anyone with a physical location and a tiny budget is encouraged to take part, and that way from year to year you suddenly see a new venue boasting anywhere from 10 to 30 concerts. Most importantly this dynamic influences how people think in the community. They figure they should ‘put on the gloves’ and make a venue, if gigs are hard to come by in the established places.”
Despite this new go-getting attitude, guarding against complacency is still one construct of the scene. Says Solborg: “The challenge in Copenhagen is to stay on your toes – in New York that comes easily. One natural and necessary way for me to stay in contact with the world outside is when I started to invite people from outside Denmark to join different projects here and in return they invited me to their countries. In the meantime, a lot of new faces and amazing talent has emerged in Copenhagen, a lot of them students of the ILKs and the open-minded creative scene.”
Not all is rosy, as Gemmer notes: “Financially, the average jazz musician is probably worse off than let’s say 20 years ago, but taking into account that there are many more musicians around – the conservatories in Denmark has been sprouting jazz musicians since the mid-1980s or so – and greater artistic diversity, I’d claim that the scene has never been a better space to exist in. I mean, so many more people get to think of themselves as and feel like being, jazz musicians.
Adds Solborg: “Maintaining a high, or maybe even higher, degree of artistic integrity and quality but with slightly less volume and quantity of concerts is difficult. Some things will concentrate or distill into really strong musical statements. Others might fade or morph into different forms with other audiences. But these days I sense the need for new things to happen. And I think they will. Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be interesting to watch and take part in.”