copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin
Siena, Italy: The 33rd Siena Jazz Festival in late July and early August was sponsored by, among others, the town of Siena, the Province of Siena, the Region of Tuscany and the Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena bank, which was founded in 1472, before Columbus discovered bebop. And one hot afternoon, a student saxophonist on the ramparts of the 14th century Fortezza Medicea was practicing Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," which was written before Time magazine discovered Thelonious Monk. Tradition is alive and well in Italy.
The Siena festival - actually more of a seminar - presented evening concerts in medieval squares of this weathered city, in a lush garden with a spectacular view of the Torre del Mangia; and in the Enoteca, an old-brick inside-outside vintage-wine cellar in the Fortezza. There were also cute little concerts on discreet squares in picturesque neighboring villages such as Serre di Rapolano and Buonconvento.
Some 230 students - mostly Italian, all of whom passed auditions - performed in the evenings with and/or supervised by their Italian teachers. The teachers also performed with each other. The Siena Jazz Association maintains a 1000 square meter teaching facility comprised of 20 classrooms, a library and a modern, air-conditioned sound archive with over 20,000 discs and tapes and counting. Courses included the archive's scholarly curator Francesco Martinelli teaching the history of jazz, and instrumental and group workshops were conducted by masters such as Claudio Fasoli, Giancarlo Schiaffini and Marco Tamburini, who are well known in Italy.
Jazzistically speaking, the larger European countries are like weather maps in their own national newspapers. The soundings are artificially cut off by frontiers. Citizens are not thought to be interested in what happens next door. Germany, France and Britain, for example, each have their own fertile environment, but you are unlikely to hear, or even hear of, their fine players abroad. The peninsula of Italy is more obviously isolated by the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps.
For the past ten years or so, Italy has been arguably the strongest jazz nation in Europe. One continues to discover major players who are almost unknown anywhere else. Saxophonist Fabio Petretti from Bologna, for example, was particularly impressive in the lovely courtyard of the Azienda Agricola in the 18th century hamlet of Montestigliano.
Although jazz is certainly historically American, its most current developments are no longer any one nation's monopoly. (Due to faulty inter-continental communication, this may be read askance by some.) The respected veteran bassist and teacher Furio Di Castri has put it this way: "We absorbed jazz like a secret passion; from records and the radio but also from films by Sidney Lumet, Polanski and Cassavetes, or from books by Kerouac. In this way we formed a 'sound,' an idea of music which did not differentiate Coltrane from Franco D'Andrea, or Mingus from Nunzio Rotondo. Jazz was just one thing. It was 'the thing,' beyond styles, races or nations."
Nevertheless, it has also been said that the students in Siena bond more closely and learn more being instructed in their native language than in the workshop program offered in English by teachers from Boston's Berklee School of Music at the competing, much larger, Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia. Either way, Italy continues to produce many able young players in an assortment of styles who improvise with sensitivity and emotion as well as book knowledge and chops. It is particularly blessed with subtle, softly hard-swinging post-Jack DeJohnette drummers such as Massimo Manzi, Walter Paoli and Joao Antunes, a 23-year old student from Portugal.
According to Franco Caroni, President of the Siena Jazz Association: "It is not surprising that such persons, after having acquired over 20 years experience at the various courses of Siena, now occupy many of the 'School of Jazz' conservatory teaching posts in various Italian state musical institutes." However, unlike France, there is still no official jazz degree in Italian conservatories, although Martinelli is hopeful that the Siena Symposium will become "the first jazz part of the university system, like some existing colleges focus on social and economic sciences. This process has officially started with [the Symposium's] meeting with the Ministry of Education."
The audiences in Siena were small and knowledgeable; mostly scholars, musicians, students, friends and inquisitive natives. They were respectful, intelligent, enthusiastic listeners and it was a pleasure to be amongst them. Admission was free of charge and there were no policemen in sight, nor need for them. The beverage of choice was water. Delicious prosciutto sandwiches were passed around at midnight.
In general, Tuscan produce is in need of no promotion. The late jazz critic Paul Haines could have been talking about the music as well as the food when he wrote: "In Siena, be sure to save room for the appetizers."
Mike Zwerin first published this piece in the International Herald Tribune.
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