Norwegian Jazz - Something to do with Mountains?

If you come to Norway as a tourist in the first half of July and, from pure curiosity, start to leaf through a section of the larger Norwegian newspapers, you might erroneously believe you have landed in a nation of jazz-lovers.

For jazzfestival, a word that can hardly be misunderstood in any language, will catch your eye in title after title, article after article, interview after interview and review after review. You will find pictures of musicians with American names that you may recognise and Norwegian names that you probably will not, unless you belong to “the international jazz community” – this loosely-linked brotherhood of like-minded persons, these restless browsers in record stores, these subscribers to Down Beat, Cadence, Wire and Jazz Journal – in other words, people in the know. If you are one of them, you will also recognise names like Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Karin Krog, Jon Christensen and Sidsel Endresen, and perhaps even Totti Bergh, Knut Riisnæs, Laila Dalseth and Hot Club de Norvège, or Jon Balke, Brazz Bros, Audun Kleive, Bjørn Kjellemyr, Per Jørgensen, Tore Brunborg and Nils Petter Molvær. All of them contribute towards making Norwegian jazz good, and the following is an attempt to explain how and why this is so.

From 1920
Let us look back in time for a second: if we accept that the word “jazz” emerged from New Orleans’ red light districts and entered the international musical vocabulary around 1915-16, it became known in Norway a short time later. The first Norwegian jazz band was probably established in 1920, and the first jazz band from abroad visited Oslo at the beginning of 1921. In spite of a considerable amount of scepticism, often expressed in shockingly racist terms, jazz found a Norwegian public and Norwegian musicians who re-created “the American music” as authentically as possible. Right up to the 1970s, Norwegian jazz was attempting to echo American jazz through all its changing styles: Dixieland, swing, big band, bebop, and free jazz. The only exception of any significance was the 1930s gypsy jazz, primarily represented by Django Reinhard and the Quintet du Hot Club de France. To the extent Norwegian jazz had an international face at all prior to 1965, this was due to a small number of musicians, the best known being the Funny Boys quartet in the 1930s and trumpeter Rowland Greenberg and tenor saxophonist Bjarne Nerem after the Second World War. During this long period, Norwegian jazz remained a phenomenon that was recognised only in Norway, played either by Norwegian bands or Norwegian musicians accompanying touring American star soloists in the jazz clubs of the 50s and 60s. Norwegian record production during this period was limited and for the domestic market only.

Many things are different now, primarily the concept of “jazz” itself. If it is defined according to the repertoire of jazz festivals and the unprejudiced versatility of the young musicians, in addition to the traditional forms, “jazz” must also include jazz-based improvised music with clear ethnic tendencies, classical tendencies or elements of rock.

On the basis of this definition, Norwegian jazz has flourished since the beginning of the 80s. Never have so many good musicians played and sung jazz, and never has recruitment at the international level been more comprehensive or better qualified. Never have more Norwegian jazz musicians recorded discs and seen them widely distributed abroad. Never has Norway held more jazz festivals, never has jazz been better organised and never has it received more official funding. The fact that most Norwegian jazz musicians are experiencing hard times as a result of the depressed labour market and low fees has up to now been unable to mar the impression of qualitative improvement. All the same, it is clear that a lack of work and low pay will have consequences in the long run.

The nucleus:
So the question remains, “Why has Norwegian jazz become so good?” Let us return once more to the mid- and late 1960s.

At that time, a number of new young musicians began to turn up on the stages of Oslo's jazz clubs: singer Karin Krog, drummer Jon Christensen, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bass player Arild Andersen, guitarist Terje Rypdal. They were soon to become the nucleus of a new generation of Norwegian jazz musicians. During the 70s they gradually found their own voices, which proved to be good enough for international jazz-lovers too. These five, who in various ways become “international” and experienced considerable success, exercised influence at several levels, setting professional standards for future generations of Norwegian musicians and becoming sources of inspiration for those who dreamed that one day they would also play jazz with the best on stages all over the world.

Opening international markets to Norwegian musicians has always been complicated and seldom successful. But an event that in retrospect seems like an act of fate was to provide some Norwegians with a wonderful door opener to jazz enthusiasts all over the world: the ECM record company in Munich. In 1969, at a time when no Norwegian record company was willing to invest in Norwegian jazz, German bass player Manfred Eicher decided to start a record company devoted to contemporary jazz.

At a festival in Bologna the same year, he heard Jan Garbarek and other Norwegian musicians and established contact with this Norwegian saxophonist. In September 1970, Eicher came to Oslo and Afric Pepperbird was recorded in the Arne Bendiksen studios, rigged up in an abandoned biscuit factory, with Garbarek-Rypdal-Andersen-Christensen. This was to be the first of a long series of ECM releases featuring Norwegian musicians.

Today, 20 years later, it is clear that ECM's importance for Norwegian jazz can hardly be overestimated. Records are musicians' visiting cards for national and international concert and festival impresarios, and with its international stable of artists, world-wide renown and distribution network, ECM has made Norwegian musicians famous. And not only as leaders of their own groups: one of Eicher's specialities is to put together unique constellations of musicians at his recording studio, which have often resulted in concert and tour projects such as Jan Garbarek's co-operation with American Keith Jarrett, Indian L. Shankar and Brazilian Egberto Gismonti. Manfred Eicher has also contributed towards putting Oslo on the jazz world map by making the majority of ECM's recordings in the Norwegian capital, first at the Ame Bendiksen studio, then at the Talent Studio and finally at the Rainbow Studio. The common denominator was always sound technician Jan Erik Kongshaug who, after nearly 25 years of well-documented mastery for ECM, is much in demand at studios all over the world.

But Manfred Eicher nether could nor wanted to record all Norwegian musicians. Since Norwegian recording companies continued to ignore almost anything with any relevance to jazz, the Norwegian Jazz Federation established its own recording company, Odin, in 1981, with a musical profile that opened the company to all forms of jazz. Its biggest international success has undoubtedly been Fairytales, a duo recording from 1981, with pianist Steve Dobrogosz and singer Radka Toneff. The Gemini/Taurus companies, established by enthusiast Bjørn Petersen and devoted to mainstream jazz, and guitarist Jon Larsen’s Hot Club Records followed later in the 1980s. The latter has become Europe's leading company for so-called “string-swing”" music, also known as “gypsy jazz”. Odin, Gemini/ Taurus and Hot Club Records have all achieved wide distribution at home and sometimes abroad, and are regularly praised for their productions in international jazz magazines. Anyone wanting to get to know Norwegian jazz through CDs and records can safely concentrate on the catalogues of the recording companies mentioned above.

The Molde Festival was the first Norwegian jazz festival to be established, in 1961. The Kongsberg Jazz Festival came along in 1964, the first of Bergen's Nattjazz (Night jazz) festivals took place during the Bergen International Music Festival in 1973, and Vossajazz followed in 1974. Many other festivals have been established since then: Dølajazz in Lillehammer, the Varanger Festival far north of the Arctic Circle, the Sandvika Big Band Festival, Sildajazz in Haugesund, the Oslo jazz Festival and Maijazz (May jazz) in Stavanger.

Have these festivals contributed towards raising the standard of Norwegian jazz to the level it has reached today? As sources of inspiration, probably. For musicians, festival engagements have been prestigious challenges, providing the opportunity to compare themselves with colleagues from Norway and abroad. The fact that festivals have increasingly been based on Norwegian musicians, among other things in the form of special projects and commissions, have also contributed towards raising the standard of Norwegian jazz.

Records and cassettes bring jazz home to the public; the festivals bring the public to celebrations of live music. All the same, the jazz clubs are in many ways the real foundation of Norwegian jazz. They are the musicians’ place of work, and the public's place to meet and listen.

Jazz clubs flourished throughout the 50's and the beginning of the 60s. Then came a sudden decline, closures and little activity until a new club boom began in the med-70s. For a time, Oslo was a European jazz metropolis, but this wave also petered out and for most of the 80s and 90s, a varying number of Norwegian jazz clubs have kept going, most of them in the face of financial difficulties.

Today there seems to be a trend for many establishments to present live jazz with small ensembles a few evenings a week, while the big, unifying, pure jazz club that could have provided daily (nightly) work for Norwegian and foreign touring musicians and thereby a permanent jazz forum for the public, still doesn't exist.

There has been a steady flow of new recruits to Norwegian jazz for several years. The jazz department at the Music Conservatory of Trondheim has proved to be a particularly productive source of talent since it started as a trial project in 1979. Other educational institutions that appear to have made a positive contribution to the development of young jazz musicians at the pre-academy level include, in particular, the music stream at Foss Upper Secondary School in Oslo and Toneheim College in Hamar.

In spite of everything that can be said in favour of Norwegian jazz, it is notoriously bad business. With a small domestic market, hardly any form of music or art can survive in Norway on the basis of market forces alone. It needs financial support in order to exist, not to mention develop.

In 1993, NOK 6 638 110 (approximately USD 910 000) was allocated for jazz on the Ministry of Cultural Affairs' budget, and the internal distribution of funding shows the basic pattern of organisation of Norwegian jazz.

The Norwegian Jazz Federation, whose membership includes approximately 50 jazz clubs, 60 amateur big bands and 12 festivals, and which publishes Jazznytt magazine five times a year, received about $ 170 000.

The freelance musicians' organisation, the Association of Norwegian Jazz Musicians, which has 300 members, received $ 66 000, while The Norwegian Jazz Scene, a two-year-old innovation intended to give Norwegian musicians opportunities for work and exposure through tours and concert performances, received $ 277 000. Further, the Norwegian Jazz Archives received $ 68 000, while the Molde International Jazz Festival received
$ 137 000, the Kongsberg Festival and Vossajazz $ 82 000 each and Bergen Night jazz and the Varanger Festival $ 13 700 each (all approximate figures). Is $ 910 000 in government jazz subsidies a lot or a little? At first glance it might seem a lot, but as a percentage of total government allocations to music, where the group “classical” takes almost everything, the jazz allocation is minimal. It is certainly not in proportion to the praise that is heaped on Norwegian jazz when it is presented as an example of internationally competitive Norwegian culture, as an area where Norwegian artists have been making a good impression for almost a quarter of a century.

Norwegian jazz?
What is specifically Norwegian about Norwegian jazz? When record reviewers abroad write about contemporary Norwegian jazz, they seem to be exposed to a kind of initiation into the natural environment. The reviews often contain such descriptive musical words as “mountain”, “fjord”, “glacier”, “majestic”, “cool”, “lonely”, “dark” and “serious”, which must mean that they regard the music as a kind of audio tourist brochure.

Another answer may lie in the increasingly clear elements of folk music in the more recent work of certain Norwegian jazz musicians, while a third explanation may have to do with the attitudes of the musicians themselves. While American jazz musicians often refine a predictable exchange between ensemble and soloist, where the soloist's contribution is the most important element, Norwegian - and European - jazz musicians seem to prefer a more open and collective form, where the role of the soloist is toned down in favour of improvised co-ordination and a large degree of communications. Whether or not this reflects two different societies, one characterised by competition and a demand for self-realisation; the other more focused on co-operation and community, could be a fascinating theme for discussion in line with the mountain-fjord-glacier issue; whatever the case, jazz seems to he flourishing in Norway at the moment, however it may sound to the ears of the world at large.

But a nation of jazz-lovers? Never.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 1
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