Why Copenhagen is becoming the jazz capital of the world


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Copenhagen Jazz Festival ends this weekend in Denmark’s capital. The organizers claim it’s the world’s biggest such event, and that Denmark has now become the epicenter of global jazz.

Some of the American musicians there express envy that this quintessential American music now thrives abroad, thanks to Danish government investment.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant is based in Copenhagen and he brings us all that Danish jazz.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The streets and squares are alive to the sound of improvisation, as the city stages 1,400 concerts in 10 days, leading to claims that Copenhagen is now the jazz capital of the world.

JORGEN FJELSTRUP, Scandinavian Old Stars: It’s a kind of music you can make swing. We like the swing feeling,, so that’s how we perform it.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Drummer Jorgen Fjelstrup fears that, like Viennese waltzes, traditional jazz will soon be consigned to history.

JORGEN FJELSTRUP: Everything has its time. I think 5 percent of the people knows or likes this kind of jazz, mainly my age I think, so it will die with us.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But in Copenhagen’s meat-packing district, the boundaries of jazz are being expanded in a way that’s attracting international attention.

Drummer Emil De Waal.

EMIL DE WAAL, Drummer, Kalaha: To me, jazz is a very open genre. To me, jazz is a very alive genre. And what we’re trying to do here is to make jazz work together with electronic music. I can’t see a world without improvisational music. So, I’m really optimistic.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Grammy-winning drummer Victor Jones has joined a distinguished list of American musicians who’ve moved to Denmark because of its rich jazz culture.

VICTOR JONES, Drummer: They have an audience that understands the music, which in America, it’s pretty difficult to find an audience like that. What’s good about here is that they also teach it in school. In America, they just don’t have it in school and they just don’t have it on TV, so here I am.

(LAUGHTER)

MALCOLM BRABANT: Six times’ Grammy-winning saxophonist David Sanborn laments a lack of investment in a culture that America invented.

DAVID SANBORN, Saxophonist: You have a different dynamic over here. And in Europe in general, the arts are funded by the governments, which you don’t get in America and even less so now. So I think that there’s a certain institutional respect for what this music means to the world. Consequently, it fosters great Danish jazz musicians.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Such as pianist Niels Lan Doky. He learned his craft among legends in New York, and now runs a successful jazz club in Copenhagen.

NIELS LAN DOKY, Standard Jazz Club Musical Director: In New York and America in general, it’s difficult to experiment and develop new products, because the pressure to be profitable is so high, so bottom-line-oriented, that they need to play it safe, established names, and you don’t see the kind of experimentation and diversity that we have here.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In Denmark, the jazz gene pool is being revitalized. Lan Doky’s protege, 19-year-old Amanda Thomsen, has chosen jazz over other genres.

AMANDA THOMSEN, Singer: Jazz surprises because, yes, you can do what you want in jazz and improvise. You can create all the time, so every song is new every day.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Jazz may be thriving here, but the common perception that jazz is incapable of standing on its own two feet financially also applies here.

Festival organizers say that subsidies from central and local government, as well as private foundations, are essential, because, without them, this festival wouldn’t be on such a grand scale.

Curtis Stigers says that jazz will always struggle because its art takes precedence over commerce.

CURTIS STIGERS, Singer/Saxophonist: I’m very, very, very lucky. I make a living playing jazz music. I have to come to Europe to do it.

We are the red headed stepchild of the music business. We are a niche market. But the people that love jazz, they’re willing to pay, they’re willing to suffer a little bit to hear this music and to support it. And I’m grateful for that.

Charlie Parker played pop songs. He just turned them into jazz tunes. And that’s what we have to do, as opposed to just listening to Miles Davis and saying, that’s jazz.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Here’s another dimension, liturgical jazz.

Anders Gadegaard is the dean of Copenhagen Cathedral.

ANDERS GADEGAARD, Dean, Copenhagen Cathedral: When you add this jazz tone, it becomes much more vital for people, and it becomes easier for us to proclaim the gospel, so to speak.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The jazz mass was written by bassist Chris Minh Doky, brother of the pianist.

CHRIS MINH DOKY, Bassist: If you take an old song from the Danish song tradition that’s 300 years old, there’s a reason why it lasted 300 years, because the melody is really good.

If you just take the melody and set it free and don’t constrain it in any boxed-in way and just present it as is, with a contemporary harmonization and presentation, you will hear that this melody is universal. It’s basically the same as hearing a pop song from the ’50s that turns into a jazz standard.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The claim that Denmark is the epicenter of global jazz may be disputed, but this congregation proves beyond doubt that the spirit is strong.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.

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