About Jazz in Flanders

Of Entrepreneurship and Yearning: Jazz in Flanders in 2005

By Didier Wijnants

It’s been twenty years since the late Mon Devoghelaere wrote the following in a Dutch annual survey about Belgian jazz: “A lot of young Flemish musicians gratefully use the infrastructure that the enterprising Walloons have created”. This was the mid-eighties and jazz was experiencing an international rebirth (occasionally taking on the aspect of restoration). It was also the hey-day of the Lundis d’Hortense, a cooperative of musicians that had succeeded in creating a full-fledged jazz scene in the French speaking part of the country. Superb stages, an organised circuit of concerts that, moreover, succeeded in attracting the necessary media attention, something which the Flemish could only dream of. The most important incentives for Flemish jazz musicians came from the public broadcasting company, which was then home to, not only, a jazz orchestra but also a big band. A great deal has changed since then.

The broadcasting company, which had not only been regionalized but also renamed VRT, scrapped the orchestras from its budget.

It initially looked like a painful affair for Belgian and Flemish jazz, but it was twisted into a masterstroke because certain plans were shaped at base level. Frank Vaganée, Serge Plume en Marc Godfroid set up the Brussels Jazz Orchestra in 1993. At that moment it looked like an over-ambitious and exceedingly expensive endeavour, but today it is a globally recognized orchestra that gave rise to collaborations with international celebrities such as Dave Liebman, Kenny Werner and Maria Schneider.

These audacious young musicians flocked together in Brussels, in the late eighties, at ‘De Kaai’, an informal venue that was a hotbed for adventurous vision. It was the fountainhead for groups like Aka Moon (officially categorized as Walloon jazz) and pianist/composer Kris Defoort’s KD’s Basement Party. That creative force later spawned Octurn, a partnership of about ten jazz musicians who tackled the stylish yet complicated compositions of Kris Defoort, in the Brussels’ club The Sounds around 1993. In the mid-nineties, Flanders therefore had two big bands of high standing, both products of ambitious business sense and (later) good management. The outcome didn’t go unnoticed and both orchestras soon received funding from the Flemish Community, which allowed for more ventures. The Flemish Community also honoured the JazzLab Series. JazzLab was set up by De Werf, arts centre and important record label for Belgian jazz. This meant that after so many years there was now also an established Flemish jazz scene, with first-class stages, a full agenda and media attention, exactly the breath of fresh air that Flemish jazz needed. Just like it needed a well-structured circuit of international jazz concerts. That has also grown in the past years and, moreover, the geographical distribution is better. Five years ago an annual jazz festival in Flanders wouldn’t have been viable, which is the reason that Jazz Middelheim in Antwerp is bi-annual. But then Jazz Brugge (with a fearless, but rather non-commercial programme), the Blue Note Festival in Ghent and the completely transformed Free Music Festival in Antwerp emerged. Three completely different enterprises, each of them with governmental funding, but that nevertheless sprang from a vigorous dose of commercial entrepreneurship, with consistent content and built on excellent management.

There are, however, a few other aspects that explain the present diversity and creative force behind Flemish and Belgian jazz. The whole jazz arena has become more mature and professional, but the last years have also seen the arrival of an ever-increasing number of professional jazz musicians. Jazz is now being taught at the conservatories and that results in well-rounded professionals. It is unusual to come across people who are purely self-taught these days, but there are those like Jozef Dumoulin who spent his early life tinkering and experimenting and thus acquired the appetite to put himself through the jazz conservatory. Someone like that isn’t interested in jazz because of a nostalgic swing ideal, but because of a healthy curiosity in sound, its workings and the astounding things that are produced in the heat of the interaction between musicians. There are those like Bart Maris who doesn’t let an opportunity pass him by to work with all kinds of imaginative musicians. You see him put his mark on soundtracks for TV-series, you see him shine with joy in a humoristic setting like that of Flat Earth Society and you see him astutely frolicking around with his Ornette Coleman-style free-form band, Les Poubelles.

The selection on this CD is not an anthology but a collage. The variations in style are surprisingly broad. No less than a decade ago you would frequently hear the remark that the teaching of jazz at conservatories lead to a kind of numbing, with overindulgence in acquired clichés. That is not the case in Flanders (or rather Belgium, the cultural divide is non-existent in music). The most traditional contribution is that of Bart Defoort and the most unpredictable can be heard in the works of Jozef Dumoulin, Mâäk’s Spirit and Octurn. Within that broad spectrum, however, each musician or group individually explores the limits of his art. Ben Sluijs has gone in search of more freedom in sound and form, after years of working in a traditional quartet setup. Jeroen Van Herzeele explores compositional possibilities with his group Greetings from Mercury. Robin Verheyen attempts to see how far he can take his soprano saxophone without faltering. Chris Joris lets his berimbau resonate against a backdrop of classical string instruments. Erik Vermeulen and Jef Neve explore space with their extensive range of piano chords. The diversity of the CD does not have to be read as a statement, but should rather be seen as a realistic moment in time of what is transpiring today in the life of a group of interesting jazz people. Music with profound roots that will undoubtedly deliver unexpected gems.