RIGA - In 1981, decades after rock n' roll, let alone jazz, had stopped being dangerous in America, Estonia's Soviet administrators were still wary of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and that new subversive art form that had been around at that point for about 60 years.
That was the year in which Tartu staged its first Student Jazz Festival. Among the first organizers, was a young man high up in a Soviet youth group. By helping control the information that came in and went out of the University of Tartu, he was able to provide an environment where the festival could take place outside the prying eyes of deeply un-cool communists.
At the time, under communism, "jazz musicians were banned and didn't get a chance to perform because they were thought of as being freethinkers," says Regio Ahvern, a 23-year-old drummer who is coordinating this year's 23rd Student Jazz Festival (Tudengijazz). (Yes, there were a few years between 1981 and 2006 that the festival just didn't happen.)
But with the festival, "everyone could come out and play original pieces and do whatever they wanted."
The festival was never really political, even in its early days when it could have served as protest music. "The bands weren't anti-Soviet," Ahvern says. "It was nothing really glorious or fancy. It was just about people performing for free and for the sake of being with listeners, of finding a way out for young people."
This year, from Feb. 14 to Feb. 18, the festival will stage performances in Tartu, Tallinn and Viljandi.
The word "student" in the festival's title may be misleading. The majority of musicians playing will be from 18 to 27, some will be pre-adolescents and one will be in his forties. The definition of "student" is a loose one here.
"We have students from high school, from college, from the academy," he says. "Student artists stands for the will of learning."
"If you find something interesting to say," he says, the festival gives you a platform where you can say it with your music.
There are some things that haven't changed through the years. The festival is still free, but relies on business sponsorship for support. Sokos Hotel Viru will be putting up out-of-town musicians in Tartu.
Following its American roots, most jazz music, outside of Latin America, tends to be sung in English. Estonian musicians tend not to be an exception, except for one band, Breeze, which fuses very modern jazz tunes with the Estonian language.
Like most jazz musicians in the world, the Estonians first looked to Americans to learn their form. "Oscar Peterson, Thad Jones, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis: we have had them here almost always," he says.
Though the Estonian jazz tradition is not as strong as in other European countries, notably Poland, they have produced plenty of geniuses. "Valter Ojakoor, Raimond Valgre, Kustas Kikerpuu, Uno Naissoo. They are giants. They transcribed a lot of music. They translated lyrics. They brought jazz closer to the people."