Sunday, 24 May 2009

Scandinavia and All that Jazz

It all started by a lucky accident last January taking the ferry from Trondheim to Bergen, Norway. The NordKapp was the newest ship in the Coastal Ferry Fleet, a veritable wonder of nautical engineering garnished with some of the tastiest art I've ever seen outside of a museum. But for some reason its ship's radio couldn't trigger my son Michael's FAX in St. Paul.

So the purser advised me to get off the ship at the next stop, Molde, and cross the parking lot to the Hotel Alexandra where I could send a FAX. Bingo! "How much will that be?" I asked the clerk at the registration desk. "Nothing, sir. It's on the house." My, my, I thought to myself. These Norwegians are nice folk.

Then my eye caught sight of a folder advertising the 20th running of the Molde International Jazz Festival, opening on July l3. I vowed to myself to pay back their generosity by attending. (In my hurry to get back to the ship, however, I made the booboo of not writing down the date in my pocket calendar.) So come July I arrived in Molde (courtesy of an El Cheapo Scandinavian Air Pass via Paris-Copenhagen-Oslo-Molde) on the fourth, not the thirteenth, of July. When I checked into the Hotel Alexandra, needless to say they said "Huh?" The festival didn't start for ten days! GULP.

But I love Norway, so this was a minor frustration: it gave me ten days to research my book on what Americans could learn about democratic egalitarianism from the Scandiknaves. That night, for example, there was a concert of Russian sacred and folk music at a little church just outside of town. Their singing was a glory, the chorus being composed of some of the leading opera singers in Moscow.

But even more interesting was the young man in charge--he had given himself the assignment of encouraging better cultural relations between Russia and the Scandinavian countries. (He got his current best idea nearly freezing to death at the jazz festival he had organized in Novosibirsk: a series of jazz festivals in cities where the temperature never rises about zero degrees Centigrade in February.)

Then, wandering around the town of 23,000 to satisfy my passion for good architecture, right smack on the waterfront was a brand new soccer stadium seating 15,000 fans. 15,000 in a town of 23,000! I tracked down the architect Kjell Kosberg, and set up an appointment for Monday. But I had never been to a soccer game in my life.

So Sunday I sat in the press box and asked simple questions to the journalists covering the game. "Man, what those guys do with their feet!" I amazed. And what a story. The richest man in Norway left Molde at age seventeen with $1,500 borrowed from a plumber friend. His high school advisor warned him as he left he wouldn't amount to a damn. Ha. He made a fortune in Seattle fishing for pollock. This stadium was his gift to his home town. (That teacher slinks around town in a disguise these days.)

And being a Jugendstil fanatic, I heard that a nearby town, Alesund, nearly burned down in 1904 when a hurricane blew a blubber factory fire into a conflagration destroying 800 buildings in the center of town. Bright young architects from all over Europe flocked there to rebuild it in the then hip new style of Jugendstil--what we call Art Nouveau and the Spaniards call Modernismo.

As I settled into the ferry, I asked the deck hand if I had time to get off and buy a ice lolly. I thought he said,"Yup". As I ripped the paper off my orange Calippo, I saw an empty space where the ship had been. YIKES. Off it steamed in the far receding distance. With all of my worldly goods. Some quick shore to ship phone calls secured my luggage in the ship's kitchen, and I spent the next three hours checking out the art galleries and a ship training school in the harbor.

When I took the next ferry, I discovered that there was no connecting bus for three hours. Damn. I stuck out my thumb for the first time in 50 years and lucked out with a neat Swedish family in a van, who delivered me to the Atlantica Hotel after an hour of savoury ScanTalk and mutual photograph taking.

Alesund is a marvel, quite apart from its world class repertoire of Jugendstil builldings. It was celebrating it 150th anniversary as a town (70,000) by building three structures--a stadium for the hooligans, an art gallery for the boomers, and an aquarium for families with kids.

With dumb Irish luck, I stumbled across the Aquarium architect who took me under his wing, explaining why he did this and that, then drove me back into town to the restaurant/observatory on the highest viewpoint over the whole archipelago. What an introduction. Including pointing out the bunker the Nazis had ordered a local builder to construct on that high vantage point. He did build it--upside-down useless--to the understandable frustration of the German authorities. The builder also had the wit to disappear before they discovered his hoax.

I also trained down to Lillehammer where my best informant on Scandinavian trends is Oli Mathison, the Olympic reporter for the local daily. He took me up to the Olympic Museum which I had been too busy to see while covering the games in 1994.

Weary but happy as a clam I went back to Molde and began by watching Santana open the festival with an aural earthquake. Best on the bill were the Jazz Legends, led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. Meanwhile, there was no room for me in the Hotel Alexandra, which is booked up months in advance, so they put me up in a school dorm, a short walk from the center of town. Apart from their annual Rose Festival the jazz fest is their biggest deal and the whole town is wall to wall eating, drinking, and listening. I've never had so enjoyable a jazz festival in a lifetime of attending.

Then it was off to Copenhagen for several days. I stay there in a marvelous hotel called the CabInn, the hobby of a mechanical engineer who wanted to design the perfect small hotel. The festival center was a fifteen minute walk away, where there are non-stop free performances. I have never seen such diverse audiences--old people (I mean doddering old) and young whippersnappers, whole families, visitors from all over Europe.

Denmark is proud of its Radio Big Band which for twenty-five years has subsidized a group of local and international jazz artists with a good salary and three months off with pay to play with small groups to keep their muses on fire. And way out on the edge of town at the Park Hotel two guys in love with Stan Getz played his best hits with tender love. And Frank Timberi led the Woody Herman band in golden oldies at the Copenhagen Jazz Club. What a week.

Then it was off to Pori Finland for a week of joyous noise, using the Baltic Air Pass to make flying cheaper--Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Pori. I spent the first night at the HQ hotel, but had to bunk the rest of the festival at a B&B about fifteen minutes by bus from the waterfront where the festival is held. The serendipity in Pori was meeting the guru of the affair, Ken Christian, a black trumpet player from my home town of Philadelphia!

He was playing a club in Paris when two shy Finns came up to him during a break and asked him if he'd like to start a jazz festival in Pori. What is it? Where is it? You could say he liked it because he's just given his home in Jersey City to his daughter and has moved permanently with his kiddie lit book writing wife to the coast town on the Baltic.

I missed the festival in Oslo this year--I had to be back in Philly for my son Tim's birthday--but my girl and I did get to hear one of the country's leading piano players, 70 year old Ivar Eskilden at his night club. He started out as a cabin boy on Norwegian ships working New York, where he got into aural orbit visiting the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. Soon he graduated to playing piano on the steamships.

I also missed the Stockholm Jazz Festival because I was too busy covering it as the Cultural Capital of Europe. I did visit the most famous jazz club in Europe though--just behind the Central Train Station, the Fasching, where a fine quartet was playing. The piano playing leader had a Polish name as did his tenor player so I assumed the group was from Poland. No way. The piano player was from Chapel Hill, N.C.--married a Swede. The tenor man was from Boston. He too had married a Swede. Something about blondes that appeals to jazz performers, I guess.

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