CASPIAN JAZZ AND BLUES FESTIVAL?

These days many people (especially the younger generations) are unaware that Baku was one of the three main centres of jazz in the former Soviet Union. Bakuvian jazzmen displayed their talent in many places, picking up prizes in the process. The history of Azeri jazz is not, however, simply a matter of reciting a success story; it is littered with the obstacles erected by successive bureaucracies. One can only conclude that the official organs of government wanted to ban jazz altogether. However absurd this sounds now, the reason for this was the very popularity of the Soviet jazz movement, both within and beyond its borders. Strait-jacketed party functionaries saw jazz as a symbol of capitalism and Baku jazz was famous throughout the USSR. Indeed, at the end of the 1930s the 'Estrade' orchestra of Tofiq Quliyev and Maestro Niyazi was better known as a jazz band containing, as it did, three trombones, three trumpets, five saxophones, a piano, guitar and drums.
Nowadays, in another difficult period for true art in our capital, we again have real jazz virtuosos. Perhaps hearing them made John Ferguson, director of American Voices, decide to organise a Jazz and Blues Festival three years ago. Jazz fans were euphoric on hearing of the project. For the first time since 1988 someone had stepped forward to find sponsors and organise a jazz festival. It became clear later, however, that this was a festival in name only; in reality the Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival upset many people and was at the centre of heated arguments.



When journalists were shown the list of artistes invited to participate they asked why such Azeri musicians as Jamil Amirov, Vagif Gerai-zadeh and the famous Aziza Mustafa-zadeh had not been approached - cruel omissions. When asked why these and others had been left out, Mr Ferguson replied, with Olympic disdain, "The Festival's budget is not infinite, we can't invite everyone. Don't be upset, we are going to organise annual festivals; if some musicians don't appear this year, they will perform next year." If my writer colleagues had known then what future festivals had in store, they would surely have held their tongues and counted their blessings for breathing the same air as this Ferguson.
The second year was a repeat story except that even more local musicians were offended. The Fourth Estate leaped upon this opportunity to fan the flames of sensationalism and highly critical articles began to appear in the press a month before the 2003 Festival. We must note that musicians who played in 2002 but not in 2003 were among those complaining. It is clear that even those favoured in 2002, and promised a return invitation, had been 'forgotten'. Protesting his innocence, Mr Ferguson explained that local musicians had failed to apply in writing. A question arises from this: were Werner Englert and others, who appeared three years consecutively, also required to complete written applications?



Let's return to the question of Ferguson's good faith, that of a man who simply ignores the questions he doesn't like. He had declared that in 2003 the number of local and foreign musicians would be equal, as it was in the first festival. At Ferguson's invitation Azeri jazz was represented by Emin Mammadov and his trio, violinist Sabina Rakhcheyeva (who has lived in New York for some years) and the pride of Azeri jazz, Vagif Sadikhov and his quintet. The organisers were to choose a fourth local player after arriving in Baku. We don't know how this story would have ended if a sponsor hadn't decided to support local musicians, resulting in the addition to the programme of the 'Caspian Jazz Night'.
It is interesting to note that during the Jazz Festival in the Republican Palace the organisers were collecting signatures for a letter addressed to Aziza Mustafa-zadeh. They asked Aziza to take part in the following year's festival. Some of those present regarded this as a futile and insulting gesture. Ferguson swore that he'd been negotiating with her managers for two years and from their replies it was clear that she didn't want to perform in her native land. Finally Mr Ferguson said, "If you don't believe me, I can give you their contact numbers."
It is also pertinent to observe that the 2003 Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival concerts were held in a half-empty Republican Palace.
This puzzled some people, because invitations were distributed free - people could apply for a double ticket for one night of the festival. Vagif Sadikhov attributed this to the misplaced politics of the organising committee. To the surprise of many people, even the Caspian Jazz Night was held in a half-empty hall. Indeed, the closing performance by headline star Maynard Ferguson also had half an audience.

Toots Thielemans

But none of the musicians could ever have imagined that the Festival of 2004 would cause such distaste. Only John Ferguson's assistant, Liz Smailes, could have dreamed it up. Referring to the unfortunate experiences of previous festivals, she laid the blame entirely at the feet of local musicians. For this year's Festival, it was decided to invite all the famous local musicians with the same local sponsor as last year. The Festival's name was changed; from the 'Caspian' to the 'Baku' Jazz and Blues Festival. Why? No one knows. This time everything was changed: there were clear constraints. Just describing the scenery and effects will illustrate the result. The organisers used last year's backdrop, changing only the year and substituting 'Baku' for 'Caspian'; the latter word, though, remaining treacherously visible.
There was even worse to come. The second Festival had played to near-empty halls (audiences of around 200) thus the organisers decided to try to attract a younger audience using a very original idea. They invited the American 'Havikoro' group - a breakdance troop whose music has nothing whatsoever to do with the music people expected to hear, namely jazz. Oh, I nearly forgot, there was another foreign performer: Turkish jazzman Kerem Gorsev. These were the only new foreign stars.
The organisers' fantasies reached new heights, and caused some amusement, as they pronounced these artistes to be very famous representatives of the world of jazz. In previous years the festival brochure had featured famous jazzmen Toots Thielemans and Maynard Ferguson on the cover; this year, a breakdance group.
There was a disc of the festival which was so badly produced that people of a nervous disposition would be well-advised not to listen. And this is not the first example of such behaviour. Local musicians, at first dumb with joy at the prospect of featuring on a disc, were later to cry out in anger at the result, saying that even the cheapest studios in Baku achieve better quality and the discs should be buried to avoid further embarrassment. They were right: the discs were delivered in paper sleeves bearing the emblem of the first festival (the organisers evidently felt that plastic sleeves were an extravagance). The best that could be said of the sound quality is that it is not good. To give you an idea, it sounded as if it had been produced at home by some computer kid with technology that had fallen off the back of the Ark.
Surveying the experience of the three festivals one can only conclude that the organisation is deteriorating year by year (the last festival was only advertised a matter of days before it opened).
Maybe the organisers felt this was all we deserved?
We do have to note, however, that there were some plus points to the festivals. The programmes were quite varied. Each year, every evening saw jam sessions in the Jazz Club and Jazz Centre and musicians gave master classes for students of the Bul-Bul School of Music. These were good experiences for the upcoming generation of musicians. We were also given the chance to see jazz legends Toots Thielemans and Maynard Ferguson live on stage. It's impossible to forget German saxophonist Werner Englert's project to assemble a group, the Baku Big Band. In this project young saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists and keyboard players all took part.



Apart from all else, our jazzmen had opportunities both to perform and to listen to others, exchanging experience. (In truth, this should be the main purpose of a festival). I hope you would agree that the exchange of musical ideas is vital to this particular genre. It is impossible to predict what will happen in the next festival. We'll wait and see.

Seymur Zakaryayev