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Jazz Festivals in Europe – 1964 to 2013

May 12, Vicenza, Italy: The Gary Burton Quartet plays at Teatro Olympiad

May 12, Vicenza, Italy: The Gary Burton Quartet plays at Teatro Olympiad, the oldest indoor theatre in the world, opened in 1580, now a UNESCO Historic Site.

My first gig in Europe was in 1964, at the Comblain-la-Tour Jazz Festival in Belgium, while I was a member of the Stan Getz group. The festival was started by an American GI, who had been sheltered by the villagers in this small town during World War II. In appreciation, he created a jazz festival, which brings in a ton of people each year. It is still going, after 50 years! In some ways, playing jazz in Europe is much the same as it has always been, but in other ways, things have changed.

From its earliest days, jazz was always popular in Britain and Europe, but it became much more widely available after World War II, thanks to the large presence of American troops and American influence in general. In the ’50s, there also was an ex-patriot migration of a number of prominent American jazz musicians who moved their careers to various European capitals, many to Paris, but others to Copenhagen and several cities in Germany. African-American musicians, especially at that time, often felt more welcome in Europe than in the USA. Europeans treated musicians, of all kinds, with real respect, even as far back as the 40s and 50s.  Today, jazz musicians are usually considered to be important “artists,” but in mid-20th century America, jazzers were usually regarded as just entertainers in bars and clubs. Europe was ahead of the USA in this regard.

Until the mid-’60s, concerts by American jazz stars were still fairly rare in Europe and fans were very excited about seeing concerts by performers they usually only heard on recordings.  However, now all the name bands routinely tour throughout Britain and on the continent at least annually, so the rarity factor has diminished. In that respect, there is not as much difference between the European audiences and American audiences as there used to be.

Still there are some noticeable distinctions. Typically Europeans attend more concerts than do Americans; whether it is classical or jazz or other music; Europeans, generally, are frequent concertgoers. European society also makes a greater commitment to supporting the arts. Most performances are subsidized by city and state governments, and/or state broadcasting.

And, talk about jazz festivals! Wow, is the word that comes to mind. In the USA, we have a few big, long-established jazz festivals such as those at Newport, RI and Monterey, CA., and a number of smaller regional festivals that take place during the summer months.  But in Europe, it seems almost every town, every little region of the continent has their own jazz festival, literally hundreds of them. Some are large and known world-wide like Montreux Jazz in Switzerland, Umbria Jazz in Italy, and the biggest of them all, North Sea Jazz in Holland. But there are many, many small festivals, as well. The summer months eventually became overcrowded with competing festivals, so many towns now hold their festivals in the autumn or spring seasons, making jazz fests almost a year round phenomenon.

Consequently, a typical European tour schedule includes a number of festival dates. My current Europe tour, from May 5 to 25, includes festival dates in England, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal.  And it isn’t even summertime yet!

Gary Burton and friends

Gary Burton Quartet meets up with bassist Steve Swallow and tenor man Dave Liebman before Vicenza Jazz Festival, May 12.

One of the fun aspects of touring the festivals in Europe is that you get to see a lot of musician friends. A hundred or more musicians are touring around the continent at the same time, each band on their own schedule as we go from festival to festival.  You never know who you are going to run into at the next stop, who might be on the same show as you, or who you might cross paths with in an airport or a hotel lobby.

And that brings me to a final point. For quite a few American jazz musicians, it can often seem that they are more appreciated in Europe than they are at home.  While some musicians achieve fairly wide-spread success, and draw ample audiences wherever they go, others, whose music may be more esoteric or simply less established with fans, may well find more sympathetic listeners among the European fans.  Many musicians will tell you this has been their experience.  Perhaps because jazz is America’s national music, we tend to take it for granted at home. Not so for international audiences (particularly in Europe and Japan, the two biggest jazz markets besides the USA).  And personally speaking, I always enjoy visiting the great cities of Europe, even if I am on a tight schedule and working most of the time. There’s nothing like a spring day in Paris, visiting a historic cathedral in Barcelona, or taking a break at a sidewalk café in Rome; just a little job perk for us traveling musicians.


Gary Burton

Piacenza, Italy


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  2. John Simon

    August 14, 2013 (03:12) Reply

    It sound like an enjoyable festival for Jazz music lovers and I am also one of them. I have been some of the cities in Europe and attended various festivals as well. But never get chance to attend any Jazz music festival.

    Thanks for informative content I will definitely try to attend Jazz fest in my next trip to Europe.

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