Euro-Crash: A city fit for kittens

Euro-Crash: A city fit for kittensA city fit for kittens
by Struan Douglas

‘Why does the chicken cross the road?’ we used to joke as irritating children. But, why indeed does the Copenhagen cross the road I thought as a bevy of patently exact people huddled with silent irritation on a deserted road. No car for ten miles, perhaps a car never crossed that road, however they dare not walk. Surely not. There focus is not on destination, it is on process and instruction. They cross the road because the green robot tells them so!

As instructive a society Copenhagen is, it is astoundingly beautiful, boasting one of the few architectural landscapes never destroyed in the war, surrounded by a delightfully clear canal. Jobs are good, money is abundant, virtues are solid and the suicide rate is the highest in the world.

And that has got nothing to do with the jazz tradition in Copenhagen. In fact for a place so developed, culture has not suffered – jazz music is everywhere. It is not really an authentic culture, but a tradition developed from the great American players of the Sixties, like Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster who took refuge in Copenhagen and created that environment. And their souls live on through a lot of the people.

Jazz clubs and tents scatter the tiny city, massive collections of bicycles mark the spot and bars bloat with an abundance of beer on tap. Bebop, straight ahead and avant-garde: there may not be much dancing, but there’s a lot of head-nodding. Cycling between events, collecting friends, watching mid-day heat disappear into late night sun, drinking beer, socialising generously, hugging, listening to jazz and drinking beer to the morbid arrival of the morning sun – the Copenhagen jazz festival is a lot of fun and festivity: slightly more sophisticated than a university piss-up, and a little less than a clubbers’ debauchery – and that’s where the music sits as well, rather precious and too precise.

“In Copenhagen we have excellent session musicians, but beyond that there is very little,” said one of the top Danish musicians to me in honest but derogatory private. The standard of jazz is extraordinary – the guys are playing – some are really building on what they have learnt, pushing the sound in a vivid avant-garde and Nordic direction, like Jacob Dineson, Jonas Johannsen and Hans Ulrik. But generally it is all too clever, all to forced, a little self-indulged and quite bland.

This is partly to do with Copenhagen’s broadband equality and the states generous involvement in uplifting the music scene, distorting that baseline ambition that drives jazz – but I believe it is mainly to do with the real educative approach to jazz music. They all go to college, they all master their instrument. “And some people don’t get beyond that,” says songstress Susi Hyldgaard, “leave the tradition and get their own sound”, as Jacob Dineson says, “they just get very good at the skill of playing.”

I began to feel quite numbed by this restrictive world, so the next morning I risked everything and took a walk into the centre of town. I marched past Copenhagen’s dangerously touristy Disneyland called Tivoli, I jay-walked despite ceaseless abuse from fellow pedestrians and taxi-drivers. I waved at Copenhagen’s most authentic tradition – hot-dog stands, I talked briefly to the cities greatest tourist attraction – a homeless man with a drum and I arrived at a little book store where outside a mannequins legs stuck vertically from a pile of books.

It was ten in the morning and a suitably peculiar site to make an entrance on. The owner was a marvellously charismatic looking fellow – with those wild Carlo Mombelli-ish good looks – and in a rough, rasping, Danish and descriptive voice he asked, “is it too early for a beer?” Having quit only a few hours before I duly accepted and we began to talk.

“I don’t listen to European jazz, when I do, I find it boring so I just forget about it,” he said as he pointed out his unique collection of books all titled by the letters of the alphabet. His name was Lars Rassmussan – a man, who lived and laughed by the philosophy of life – “there are two things in life – beers and books.”

“It all started with Abdullah Ibrahim in 1972,” he continued. “I went to a concert here at the old Jazzhouse. They played so well – there is such a tension, such an anger in the music. I am not really into jazz, but I was fascinated.”

So fascinated was he that he published two books on South African Jazz – on Abdullah and Sathima Bea Benjamin – and has launched a series, commencing around Christmas with a book on Johnny Dyani.

“The youth should know where their music comes from, it shouldn’t be like here where they think Michael Jackson invented music. And that is the story about South African jazz music,” he says. “It hasn’t been written yet.”

As we listened to some classic unreleased South African jazz recordings that Lars had, and chuckled at his immersion and dedication to a music scene he had hardly visited – I began to realise the striking contrast this rough and vivid sound created against the perfectly enjoyable European experience that had just passed before me, something Lars had been so exposed to and had realised many years before.

for helping make this ‘Euro-crash’ initiative possible.
Check out the site for those great contemporary Danish recordings spoken about or Lars’s books.

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