A century of jazz: Flemish musicians eye chance on bigger stages


The 100th anniversary of jazz coincides with the rise of a talented and inventive generation of Flemish musicians

Jazzing it up

“Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band is not likely to blow you away with its sound. Still, widely acknowledged as the first-ever commercial jazz recording, the lively tune made its mark on history when it was released in 1917 on an record made of shellac.

As the name jass morphed into jazz, the musical genre that originated in the African American clubs of New Orleans in the late 19th century found a name. Or rather an attitude, as many musicians prefer to think of it.

Part of the reason why jazz has survived for so long is that it’s always reincarnating into something new. Today, the expansiveness of the genre is illustrated in Flanders by myriad bands, headed by Stuff., TaxiWars and De Beren Gieren.

But the local jazz scene is grounded in a global movement. When announcing that Brussels concert halls Flagey and Ancienne Belgique would collaborate on the genre’s centenary celebrations, the latter’s artistic director asked: “Is jazz entering a new Golden Age?”

In response to his own question, Kurt Overbergh said that the public began to take serious note of the emerging contemporary jazz scene when musicians began to mingle with the world of pop music – from the collaboration between saxophonist Kamasi Washington, rapper Kendrick Lamar and the experimental-music producer Flying Lotus, to David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which featured a jazz ensemble. “Even Lady Gaga has teamed up with the crooner Tony Bennett,” he said.

Crossing borders

The need to pass on the heritage of the late jazz giants to a new generation of music fans is a concern for those programming the centenary celebrations. According to Maarten Van Rousselt, the production and planning manager at Flagey, contemporary jazz in Flanders fuses elements of R&B, hip-hop and electronic music, making it more familiar to younger listeners.

“This openness and absence of borders is in fact one of the strengths of our local scene,” Van Rousselt says. “By promoting contemporary jazz artists, we hope that the music of the jazz icons of the past will also find its way to younger audiences.”

But hasn’t jazz always included elements from the entire musical landscape? “Indeed,” says Pieter Koten of Ostend arts centre Vrijstaat O. “Jazz has always been a very vivid style, easily adapting to the trends of the time.”

The new generation of jazz musicians can’t stand parochialism and are very difficult to pigeonhole

- Pieter Koten of Vrijstaat O

The biggest difference, he points out, is that the new generation of musicians presents itself differently. “They can’t stand parochialism and are very difficult to pigeonhole. For them, it’s all about cross-pollination. Sometimes, they consciously avoid the jazz label, and sometimes they want to vehemently stick to it.”

Take Lander Gyselinck (pictured), the jazz drummer who recently won the Flemish Culture Prize for Music. “On the new Stuff. album, which will be released in April, he will sound even more like Flying Lotus,” says Koten. But when collaborating with other bands and ensembles, including BeraadGeslagen, LABtrio and Kris Defoort Trio, “he can just as easily improvise or play jazz at chamber-music level.”

Another jazz chameleon is the saxophone player Robin Verheyen. “In TaxiWars, he collaborates with the rock singer Tom Barman, while his other projects are more jazz- or world-oriented. And he will soon present a classical Bach project in Bruges’ Concertgebouw.”

As a side note, both Verheyen and Gyselinck are based in New York. In the capital of jazz, says Koten, “you need to be open-minded to survive”.

All that jazz (and more)

The musical cross-over, typical of this new generation of musicians, often comes with an interdisciplinary approach. This month, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra play a New Year’s concert at deSingel arts centre in Antwerp with five Syrian refugees (pictured above).

At Flagey’s Brussels Jazz Festival, the orchestra will pair up with trumpeter and composer Bert Joris, while at KVS theatre, they will be joined on stage by four slam poets: Laryssa Kim, Joy Slam, Zed Soul’Art and FutureFantastic.

Koten has plenty of other examples. “After a more rock-based album, the band Nordmann, who won the Jong Talent competition in 2013, have been working on a film, while the Nightwatch project by the band Too Noisy Fish features two video screens and spoken word by the author Dimitri Verhulst.”

Drummer Teun Verbruggen, who’s behind the trio Too Noisy Fish, has also worked with Flemish writer Tom Lanoye and the Brussels-based street artist Vincent Glowinski, bringing poetry, live-drawing and jazz to the stage. “This approach requires a more enterprising attitude, one that looks at the bigger picture,” explains Koten.

Looking abroad

Verbruggen is also getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign for his Werkplaats Walter arts centre in the heart of Anderlecht. Officially scheduled to open in 2018, this former gym is being revamped into a cultural hotspot, housing furniture makers, artist workspaces, a concert attic and even a bicycle-repair shop.

“It’s wonderful to see musicians eager to follow original career paths,” says Koten, “rather than go for the obvious album release, followed by some concerts and then another album.”

Over the last decade, the impact of the small-scale management bureaus and booking agencies, such as Aubergine and Inside Jazz, he continues, has also transformed the local scene into a more professional industry. The major summer jazz festivals, meanwhile, have started featuring young and emerging talent.

Everything I encounter in life, I put into my music. Nothing equals that kind of freedom

- Pianist Fulco Ottervanger

“At first, the winners of the Gent Jazz’s annual competition were awarded with a spot on stage,” says Koten. “Now that spot is only part of a more structural support. We’re not only choosing who the audience will get to see. In this interactive world, we have become a sort of ambassador for the musicians, introducing them to the outside world.”

Then, there is the ubiquity of talent. “There’s so much out there! We haven’t even talked about SCHNTZL, Steiger or the Granvat collective,” exclaims Koten. “The next logical step to the local success story would be a follow-up on the international stage.”

Case in point: the widespread popularity of the Scandinavian jazz scene, or the rise of UK and Canadian groups, such as BadBadNotGood, GoGo Penguin and Portico.

What money can’t buy

Musician Fulco Ottervanger has just been appointed Ghent’s city composer. His band, De Beren Gieren have already enjoyed modest success in Europe and are working on a new album.

“We are more than ready for an international tour,” says the pianist. “Naturally, we’d like to play bigger venues, but it’s not that easy if you don’t have the backing of a major label. Or maybe the music of GoGo Penguin is just a bit simpler than ours. We need attentive listeners.”

A broad and idiosyncratic musical appetite does come with a few perks. Like many fellow jazz musicians of his generation, Ottervanger – who grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Chick Corea and Beethoven – sees being part of only one band as an artistic limitation.

At any given time, you can see him playing in a kid’s theatre, running the rock band Stadt or teaming up with drummer Gyselinck in the BeraadGeslagen improv band. “Everything I encounter in life, I put into my music,” he says. “Nothing equals that kind of freedom.”

“For a local venue like Vrijstraat O, such a broad musical spectrum is the biggest gift of all,” says Koten. “By being so open, this emerging scene exhales the real jazz attitude.”

And maybe, he adds, that’s more important than any international or mainstream acclaim.

A dozen jazz picks for 2017

  • Refugee New Year’s Concert by Brussels Jazz Orchestra  and Syrian Soloists  11 January 20:00, deSingel, Antwerp
  • Brussels Jazz Festival  12-21 January, Flagey, Brussels
  • Les Chronique de l’Inutile  14 January 20:00, Werkplaats Walter, Brussels
  • De Beren Gieren  17 January 19:00, Hot Club de Gand, Ghent
  • SCHNTZL  18 January, CC De Schakel, Waregem
  • Sarathy Korwar and BeraadGeslagen  23 January 20:00, Ancienne Belgique, Brussels
  • We Orchestrate Words featuring Brussels Jazz Orchestra and slam poets  28 January 20:30, KVS, Brussels
  • LABtrio  24-27 February, across Flanders & Brussels
  • TaxiWars  20 February 20:30, De Roma, Antwerp
  • Duo à l’encre  5 March 15:30, Kamermuziekzaal, Bruges
  • Nordmann plays Dementia  9-31 March, across Flanders
  • Stuff.  27 April to 12 May, across Flanders and Brussels

Photo top: Pieter Jan De Pue
Photo above courtesy Brussels Jazz Orchestra