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Vojislav Pantić, Artistic Director Of The Belgrade Jazz Festival

50 Years of the Jazz Flame in Belgrade

While visitor numbers are falling at many festivals and audiences aren’t getting any younger, in Belgrade the halls are always over 80% full and the majority of audience members are in their early thirties. With a hunger for good music that’s in short supply throughout the year, they explode with emotion at the festival

The aim is to devise a programme of the highest artistic value, uncompromising and bold, representing both the mainstream and the avant-garde, alongside interesting jazz fusions with some branches of popular music ~ Vojislav Pantić

This year, under the slogan “Jazz Flame”, the Belgrade Jazz Festival is celebrating the 50th year since it was founded. Which moments would you single out as being the most important in the festival’s history?

First and foremost is the amazing start. Thanks to collaboration with Impresario George Wein, under the title of the Newport Jazz Festival in Belgrade, as early as 1971 we hosted some of the greatest icons of jazz (Duke, Dizzy, Monk, Ornette, Miles), which contributed to the festival attracting great public attention immediately. The abandoning of the Newport salon concept just three years later confirmed the swift maturing of the Dom Omladine team when it came to independently engaging in festival organisation and selection, seeking authenticity on the map of European jazz.

The return of the festival after a long break was implemented in a revolutionary way: the 2005 slogan ‘Tradition and Futurism’ illustrated the new team’s ambition to present the jazz of contemporary and future times, but also with great respect for the festival’s glorious past. Finally, with the 2007 declaring of the festival as an event of special interest, the City of Belgrade not only secured stable funding for the festival, but also prompted numerous of other institutions to join this high-quality project.

Or it can be stated like this… The shock caused by Miles Davis in 1971, who performed Bitches Brew funk to an audience that was expecting bebop. Jam sessions at the Dom Omladine Dance Hall by Freddie Hubbard (1977, 1979), Tony Scott (1984) and Chet Baker (1985) – to the burek pie at the bakery across the street and the first morning buses. The opening of the 1980 BJF in front of several thousand people at Pionir Hall, featuring the most important fusion band of all time, Weather Report. The Modern Jazz Quartet in 1989 – the most poetic performance that Belgrade has ever witnessed. Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra in 1990 – the largest gathering of jazz stars in one place. The BJF’s 2005 renewal – a bubbling atmosphere in Dom Omladine’s Great Hall, which was heated at the opening by Dave Holland.

Art Blakey, 1988, photo Laslo Dorman

Encounters with the pioneers of the European jazz path: Duško Gojković (eight times), the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (2006), Tomasz Stańko (2009), Enrico Rava (2010, 2018), Joachim Kühn (2011), Tord Gustavsen (2016), Henri Texier (2019). All three Charles Lloyd concerts: the sublime spirit of Go Down Moses (2011), the energy of the Wild Man Dance Suite (2014) and the lyrical encore of La Llorona (2019).

What forms the festival’s artistic concept?

The aim is to devise a programme of the highest artistic value, uncompromising and bold, representing both the mainstream and the avant-garde, alongside interesting jazz fusions with some branches of popular music. Unlike the first editions, when the majority of participants came from the homeland of jazz, today there is a greater emphasis on European artists – from Scandinavia to Italy, and from Portugal to Russia, creating an encounter with the classical tradition or folklore of their home countries, or the cultural environment that surrounds them. We care about always adding to the list some hero of the genre who’s never previously participated in our festival, but also for us to courageously present new forces. We are particularly excited about our local performers coming face to face with the grandmasters of world jazz: the festival always opens with an original production by an established local artist, while in the Serbian Showcase programme we offer premiere performances of the promising projects of younger ensembles.

The Belgrade Jazz Festival is the only event of its kind from Serbia to have been invited to become a member of the Europe Jazz Network. It is regularly attended by foreign guests, and not only as audience members, but rather also around 50 prominent journalists, promoters and managers… What is it that makes the BJF so interesting in international circles?

That was wonderfully described by renowned American critic Thomas Conrad: “Belgrade’s bookings reflect an awareness of the players now operating on the leading edge of the jazz art form, famous or not, from the United States and elsewhere. Unlike so many jazz festivals these days, Belgrade does not offer any rock or pop (…) Every act in the programme has a reason to be there.”

Another reason is the atmosphere. While visitor numbers are falling at many festivals and audiences aren’t getting any younger, in Belgrade the halls are always over 80% full and the majority of audience members are in their early thirties. With a hunger for good music that’s in short supply throughout the year, they explode with emotion at the festival.

Maria Schneider, photo Joke Schot

Apart from that, the people are agreeable and communicative, always ready to share their opinions on music with foreign guests during breaks, or to chat about other topics. And it is also interesting that – “around the festival” – the food, as we know, is exceptional, and the prices are affordable, providing gastronomic enjoyment during the afternoons.

The Belgrade Youth Centre, Dom Omladine Beograd, as the executive producer of the event, fosters good cooperation with numerous foreign cultural centres and embassies. To what extent does this contribute to your continuous presenting of performers from important individual jazz scenes?

Institutional assistance is essential to maintaining a high-quality programme, with low ticket prices that are appropriate for the budgets of the Serbian public. If that support was lacking, we would be forced to choose only artists who are famous enough to “pay for themselves”, and that would no longer be a festival in the form with which we’re familiar. A record 15 institutions from 13 countries supported 2019’s 35th edition. It seems to us that, in a way, we brought a large family of domestic and foreign partners together around the idea of the BJF, who exert joint efforts in order to contribute to creating the best product. It is important to stress that foreign institutions have full respect for our artistic choices. The Coronavirus pandemic led to that assistance falling by half this year, which we actually expected, but the partnerships that have been realised (with Germany, Portugal, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Austria and Poland) enabled us to again assemble a courageous programme, with an emphasis on younger artists.

Charles Mingus, 1972, photo Laslo Dorman

The programme of the 37th edition will include the performances of 25 bands, with over 100 musicians from 18 countries on three continents. Which of the concerts will be “must-sees”?

All of them. I say that from the perspective of a jazz enthusiast, who to this day, at some other European destination, wakes up at the crack of dawn to watch the first morning performances and only heads to bed when the last jazz sounds fall silent after midnight. Another reason is that we constantly strive to invite new participants, so there isn’t a great chance that you’ll see some of the guest performers in our area again soon. And the most important thing is that we value every performance equally, whether that’s an affirmed name or someone “up and coming”.

If I were to add a small dose of the personal to all of this… It would, first and foremost, a recommendation to attend the unique concert to be held at Kombank Hall by Maria Schneider and Cologne’s Subway Jazz Orchestra. Specifically, it isn’t only that she’s been the world’s leading jazz composer and arranger for a quarter of a century, having won seven Grammys and dozens of other awards, but that the production is also original. Namely, we “agreed” with the artist for the programme to consist of masterpieces from her entire career in a premiere performance of one of the most promising European ensembles. The second exclusive is represented by Seifert Night: The Best of Polish Jazz.

The Seifert Foundation recently launched a project to promote Polish jazz worldwide, and Belgrade has the honour of being the world’s first city to host three prestigious Polish ensembles, with Joe Lovano as a special guest from the U.S. Lovers of avant-garde jazz are awaited by a series of encounters with the freest European artists in the dark of America, led by energetic French artists Thomas de Pourquery and Supersonic. And, finally, the DOB Great Hall will host an intimate bonus concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio, the leading contemporary jazz piano ensemble. Welcome to our 50th birthday party!

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