Norwegian Jazz - Glowing in the Ice

Few flowers produce such an intense sensation of colour as the glacier crowfoot, defying the forces of nature as it glows at the edge of the glacier. It is tempting to draw a parallel with Norwegian jazz.

In spite of the fact that the natural prerequisites for growth and sparkle appear to be lacking (in many ways there is more than an ocean between New Orleans/New York and Norway), Norwegian jazz musicians have really managed to make their mark, not only in Europe but even in the birthplace of jazz. If you are to achieve a position like that from a country at the edge of a glacier, you have to have maximum sparkle. For example, when Billy Cobham, one of the best drummers in the world, last year chose the three Norwegian musicians Tore Brunborg, Bugge Wesseltoft and Terje Gewelt as partners in the launch of his Nordic project it must have had something to do with a special intensity.

You sense the same intensity in a Swiss newspaper review from the orid-1930s, written after the Funny Boys quartet, Norway's very first jazz export, played at a dance in Zurich:

“Some blond Norwegians, the four Funny Boys, played for the dancing. They have such rhythm that master mixer Hans Jung's cocktail shaker begins to rattle in time, the saxophones sound as clear and pure as human voices, tender arpeggios ripple from the grand piano like the sound of muted harps. These Funny Boys are four wizards, they conjure swing and joyous enthusiasm from their comprehensive array of instruments.”

Not a bad testimonial for Messrs. Kalle Engstrøm, flute, clarinet and saxophones, Finn Westbye, guitar, banjo and tenor sax, Gunnar Sønstevold, piano and trombone, and Svein Øvergaard, drums, piano, alto sax and double bass. Incidentally, the used the name Bobby because being called “Schwein” was rather a liability in German-speaking countries.

The Funny Boys did four tours of Central Europe. Not only did they inspire their audiences, they were themselves inspired by American musicians who had settled more or less permanently in Europe, a continent where black Americans were generally spared the racial discrimination they suffered at home and were even treated like heroes.

So the four Norwegians sat at the Villa d'Este in Paris and listened to Freddie Taylor's Swing Men from Harlem in extrovert exuberance, and in Zurich they lived next door to the great Coleman Hawkins, the musician who revolutionised the tenor saxophone and made it sound like something more than the howling of wolves on a cold winter's night. Would it be surprising if the four Norwegians listened - and learned - when the master was practising? Hawkins also had a month's contract at the Bristol Hotel in Oslo in 1935, where this innovative saxophonist fascinated a considerable number of young Norwegian musicians who had been saving for weeks for something approaching a good night out. One of the members of the band was Robert Levin, who regrettably died recently. Later to become one of Norway's leading classical pianists, this master of the keyboard never disguised the fact that he appreciated jazz.

Many foreign musicians eventually found their way to Norway. From the USA came Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Jimmie Lunceford, and from France came that very special guitar stylist, Django Reinhardt. He was not renowned for his friendly temperament, and praise from him for other musicians was more unusual than patent shoes on the North Pole. Nevertheless when the Belgian heard a young Norwegian play at the Old Masonic Lodge, he did not conceal his enthusiasm. “I don't know why you bring me up to Norway when you already have a .... Robert Normann!” exclaimed Django.

Robert Normann could undoubtedly have been a star outside Norway's border's as well. Perhaps the war limited his ambition, or maybe there were very personal reasons why his career never quite took off - he seemed content to be number one in the provinces rather than number two in Rome.

Much of Robert Normann's music has been preserved and recorded on a series of CD’s. Unfortunately they do not include two recordings with black American trumpeter Jack Butler as leading soloist, made in February 1940 less than two months before the German invasion of Norway.

Butler, who had made Norway his new home, was a constant source of inspiration, not least for 20-year-old trumpeter Rowland Greenberg. Born in Norway with an English father, Rowland had been in England as a teenager and thought he had found his ideal in Nat Gonella. Butler quickly persuaded young Rowland to change his mind. The young Norwegian trumpeter made his recording debut with Butler on this record, and also managed to record two fascinating tracks under his own name in 1942 before the occupying power forced jazz underground.

Immediately after the end of the war Rowland set off for Sweden, where his brilliant trumpet playing was popular from the first note. In 1949, he also went to the Paris jazz Festival, where he met trumpeter Roy Eldridge and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. At one jam session, Rowland borrowed Swedish Roffe Ericsson's horn and played well enough to impress Charlie Parker himself. And when Bird was going to tour Sweden in 1950, the American was in no doubt about which trumpeter he wanted to go with him: Rowland Greenberg.

According to Miles Davis, jazz history can be written in four words: LOUIS ARMSTRONG CHARLIE PARKER. Rowland was to meet the older half of jazz history when his trumpet welcomed Satchmo to a highly informal jam session at a small inn deep in the forest north of Oslo. Armstrong was also impressed by his Norwegian colleague, and the meeting resulted in Satchmo sending Rowland a copy of his mouthpiece.

Thanks not least to his involvement with Charlie Parker, Greenberg was to become the first Norwegian on a list of favourites in the prestigious American Down Beat magazine. There were to be many more.

Karin Krog was the first of the next generation of musicians to make her mark. Norwegian and foreign musicians who come into contact with her regard Karin as an artist who is constantly searching and renewing her style.

“Norway's best export article, along with Løiten aquavit,” was how the Swedish newspaper Expressen described Karin a couple of years ago. Undoubtedly well-meant, but rather misguided. For Karin intoxicates you in an entirely different way than Norwegian firewater - her voice is mild, almost shy, in strong contrast to the sharp, spicy aquavit.

With musicians like Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, Karin went abroad to learn more at an early age. It did not take long for foreign musicians to become aware of her potential, and in 1967 she got her first contract in the USA, with Don Ellis. After a tour of Japan in 1970 with an orchestra called “The European All Stars”, Karin became enormously popular and went to the top of the Japanese hit lists.

She has performed with innumerable leading musicians, on stage as well as in the recording studio. The double CD Jubilee, released by Verve in 1994 to mark Karin's thirtieth anniversary as a recording artist, gives an idea of her development and range.

The musicians she sings with on this CD include trumpeters Don Ellis and Palle Mikkelborg, tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp, Jan Garbarek and Warne Marsh, pianists Roger Kellaway and Kenny Drew, bass players Red Mitchell, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Arild Andersen, drummers Jon Christensen and Alex Riel, and the versatile British instrumentalist John Surman.

A quintet formed in the early 80s was also to prove an important export article. Two generations of Norwegian jazz musicians formed a group named after an Indian tribe, Masqualero. Veterans Arild Andersen, bass, and Jon Christensen, drums - both with a solid international following - joined forces with a rather younger pianist, Jon Balke, and two very young wind players, Nils Petter Molvær, trumpet, and Tore Brunborg, saxophones. Not content with reaching the top of the Norwegian charts, the quintet also targeted American jazz audiences. And they succeeded, both in New York and on the west coast. The critics were full of superlatives.

Husband and wife team Laila Dalseth, vocals, and Totti Bergh, tenor sax (described as Norway's answer to Billie Holiday and Lester Young), have also been the subject of much critical acclaim for their performances at jazz festivals on the cruise ship “S.S. Norway” (events that cannot be recommended highly enough) and jazz festivals abroad, from Scandinavia to the USA. In connection with the Oslo jazz Festival, which takes place each year at the beginning of August, the couple has also had the chance of making several recordings with American jazz musicians
We must not forget singer Radka Toneff, who unfortunately died young but made a strong impression, and whose sound is copied by several younger vocalists in many countries today. A concert she gave in Hamburg in 1981 with the international trio Steve Dobrogosz, piano, Arild Andersen, bass and Alex Riel, drums, is in every way a live example of what Radka stood for.

And Norwegian jazz continues to impress people abroad. Last November, many Norwegian groups, totalling more than sixty Norwegian musicians, were invited to a jazz festival in London which also resulted in a great deal of critical acclaim.

There is therefore little doubt that Norwegian jazz will live on into the 21st century.

The Big Chief craze:
In 1997 it is natural to concentrate on contemporary jazz as practised by new generations of Norwegian musicians, often in co-operation with foreign stars. But the picture of Norwegian jazz is incomplete unless we include the Big Chief craze and the traces it was to leave on Norwegian jazz history.

Strangely enough, the original form of jazz, the New Orleans style, came late to Norway - interest focused on string swing, clover jazz and bop. But when interest in traditional jazz first arrived, it arrived in earnest.

The band that got the snowball rolling was the Big Chief Jazzband, founded in 1952 and still going strong, although only trumpeter Eivind H. Solberg and bass player Bjørn Pedersen remain of the original group. Their 78 disc with the tunes Tishomingo Blues and When the Saints Go Marching In was a sensation when it was released in 1953. Only two years later, the band was joined by clarinettist Albert Nicholas from New Orleans, one of the most prominent performers of this style from the 1930s onwards. Four sides were recorded with Nicholas in the Oslo University Aula; two with the band and two with a quartet consisting of pianist Alfred Janson and Big Chief musicians Bjørn Pedersen and Øistein Lund, in addition to the veteran on the clarinet.
So the trad jazz enthusiasts had also made their mark. There was to be more, for these enthusiasts were not satisfied with playing, they were also responsible for the establishment of several jazz clubs in the 1950s and 60s.

It started with a club for teenagers on the west side of Oslo where Norway's present Queen Sonja was one of the keenest members (later, as Crown Princess and Queen, she has called Eivind Solberg when a ball was to be arranged at the Palace - the Queen's old friends from Big Chief have therefore also become Royal Suppliers of live music). Big Chiefs jazz club activities culminated in the Metropol Jazz Center. This was also to become a very special meeting place which soon put Norway's capital on the jazz map of the world. At the Metropol they didn't only play traditional jazz - the club was open for all styles and was to become an extremely valuable source of inspiration for young Norwegian musicians.

Jazz was played here six nights a week from January 1960 onwards, and during this period the club was probably unparalleled in Europe. Many of the foremost jazz musicians played here: to name just a few, Stan Getz, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon - with trombone player J. C. Higginbotham from Armstrong's 1929 band and avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor probably representing the stylistic extremes. These international musicians were often soloists with Norwegian groups and obviously sowed many seeds.

In the 50s and 60s, the Big Chief movement arranged a Norwegian championship for amateur jazz bands, with prizes for the best soloists. On the list of prize-winners we find names that were to influence Norwegian jazz in the years to come - trumpeters Bernt Steen and Ditlef Eckhoff, trombonist Frode Thingnæs and drummer Ole Jacob Hansen. Two of the names are as well known abroad today as they are in Norway - drummer Jon Christensen, who won second prize as a soloist in 1960, and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who won twice in 1962 when he was awarded first prize as both soloist and leader of his own quartet.

Projects like these naturally stimulated interest in jazz enormously, among both musicians and audiences, and were undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Norwegian jazz was in such a strong position that it survived the 60s “crash” when the Beatles and rock become serious competitors in the field of popular music.

An unbelievable number of trad jazz bands were formed in the wake of the Big Chief Jazzband. In the 1970s, the time had also come to export Norwegian New Orleans-inspired jazz to its cradle by Old Man River's delta.
Incredibly, the first to go was a group from a windswept island off the north-west Norwegian coast - Ytre Suløens Jassensemble. Founded only a couple of years before, they managed to impress the organisers of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with a cassette recording - and in April 1976 they were there in the alleged birthplace of jazz.

In the world of sport they say good goalkeepers are lucky - and so was this Norwegian band. At Fairgrounds - a trotting track just outside New Orleans - many bands were in action both outdoors and indoors. YSJE had been allocated one of the larger tents, and only a couple of minutes before the band was due to start playing, the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents, with the result that the number of people in the tent increased from a couple of dozen to several hundred. And it seemed the cheering woud never stop when the MC told them that the six musicians came “from an island in the middle of the Atlantic with only 50 inhabitants”! (I know - I was there.)

Several Norwegian bands followed in their footsteps in the 70s and 80s and achieved a high degree of popularity. Many of them, including the Caledonia and Magnolia Jazzbands, also made valuable contacts in the Crescent City and have had soloists from New Orleans visiting Norway - which has resulted in several exciting concerts and studio recordings.

A major scandal occurred at the Bristol Hotel in autumn 1928 when a British jazz band committed the incredibly tactless sin of jazzing up the Norwegian national anthem for an enthusiastically dancing audience. The guests in the traditional restaurant, the Moorish Hall, reacted with a spontaneous fusillade of whistles, and tempers didn’t cool until the band played the melody properly. The audience then stood to rigid attention and sang the national anthem loud and clear in the wee small hours. I hardly think composer Rikard Nordraak would have minded that performance. The “scandal” was not limited to the Moorish Hall, since the event was broadcast live to those members of the Norwegian public who owned a radio at the time.

Half a century was to pass before anyone tried to jazz up the Norwegian national anthem again. In 1978, a Swedish group, led by alto saxophonist Arne Domnerus and pianist Bengt Hallberg with Norwegian drummer Egil Johansen as “expert”, suffered a ban on sales of their double LP in Norway because one of the tracks contained a very unusual arrangement of the national anthem by Hallberg. No-one has ever tried to jazz it up since.

The music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg inspired both Swedish and American jazz musicians at an early stage, particularly the music from the Peer Gynt suite, which was strongly influenced by folk music. Swedish pianist Charlie Norman played a boogie-woogie based on Anitra’s Dance which Norwegians had to turn to Swedish radio to hear - it was totally prohibited in Norway. A parallel variation on the same melody could also be heard in Danny Kaye's 1948 film A Song is Born, which was actually permitted in Norwegian cinemas - possibly because none of the professional protesters saw the film in time. Nor did anyone protest when American pianist and musical clown Fats Waller produced a highly humorous version of The Hall of the Mountain King. But that was because Fats stole the theme and re-christened the tune Viper 's Drag- and simultaneously attributed to the Mountain King certain bad habits as regards what he smoked!

It was worse for Duke Ellington, who will probably be regarded by history as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Of course, Ellington's mistake was to play with open cards; this gentleman of jazz wanted to give due credit to the composer. The Grieg Foundation intervened and ensured that this LP was also immediately banned from Norwegian shops. However, the attempt to ban it on international markets was unsuccessful. The Foundation lost the lawsuit ignominiously.

A quarter of a century was to pass before Ellington's arrangements of Grieg's Peer Gynt music would be openly performed in Norway. Then the National Theatre itself provided the venue. At about the same time, Arne Domnerus' quartet was permitted to play its interpretations of Grieg's music at Troldhaugen, the composer's home outside Bergen. Blåtoner fra Troldhaugen (Blue Notes from Troldhaugen) was released in 1986. Just a small example of the fact that we can also be progressive in our part of the world.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 1
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