A Lithuanian jazz story; from New Orleans to Vilnius

  • 2005-06-29
  • By Karina Juodelyte
VILNIUS - When it comes to live jazz in the Baltics, Lithuania is the place. From early summer to late autumn, international jazz festivals echo from the beaches of Klaipeda to the streets of downtown Vilnius. But how did a musical genre, with roots reaching as far away as New Orleans, dig its way so deeply into Lithuanian culture? It's an old story, one that begins - as so many in the Baltics do 's during the Soviet era.

The first notes of jazz were born in small towns across the Baltics - just loud enough for people to enjoy the music while not drawing too much Soviet attention. But this could only go on for so long. In 1967, an international jazz festival in Tallinn was closed, and this abrupt amputation gave birth to a whole new beginning.

Once the savory fruit of jazz had been tasted, the taste could never be forgotten. Before the state cancelled the Tallinn festival in '67, Lithuania's "Ganelin Jazz Trio" had already earned a name for Lithuania by winning the competitive event year after year. And it wasn't long before the group found itself in the Western media spotlight as well. Suddenly Lithuania had a new name in Europe, and they weren't going to let this go.

In 1968, a new festival, "Jaunyste 68," took place in Elektrenai, Lithuania. Hoping to rekindle a musical flame that the Soviet government was set on dousing, jazz lovers did all they could to find a forum for their passion. But the political winds were not favorable and it took nearly 12 years for jazz festivals to gain any strength.

Today jazz has a soul in Lithuania. For more than 20 years now, the deep music has marked the beginning of spring. Along with the singing birds and the blooming trees, the first sounds of jazz come alive after the long Baltic winter. People from all corners of the country pack their bags and travel to the small town of Birstonas, hidden in the forest on the banks of the Nemunas River.

This traditional spring greeting began in 1980 when the Birstonas Jazz Festival sounded its first melody. At a time when jazz was still forbidden by the state, the music brought a sense of freedom to its listeners.

"Only in a small town hidden within the forest, surrounded by a river, and far away from the eyes of politicians was it possible to organize such a festival," says Zigmas Vileikis, one of the festival's founders, adding that without youthful enthusiasm, nothing could have happened.

As Vileikis remembers, jazz music provided one of the few venues for Lithuanians to declare their international equality as citizens with an appreciation for world music.

Lithuanian musicologist Darius Uzkuraitis says that the roots of all national jazz festivals can be traced back to Birstonas. There is not one Lithuanian jazz musician, he notes, who hasn't played on stage in Birstonas. And since 70 percent of the concert's performers are Lithuanians themselves, there is no better place to hear both old and new Lithuanian jazz masters.

Tradition is alive not only on stage, but also in the audience. There are people who have been returning to their same seats for 20 years. What began as an expression of freedom during the Soviet times has developed into a musical symbol that spans generations. Many of those who first came to Birstonas as young people in 1980 now bring their children, hoping to pass on the meaning of both jazz and tradition and freedom.

And clearly, the jazz tradition has lived 's even flourished. Today, five international festivals and a handful of local ones occur each year in Lithuania. Musicologists and concert organizers agree that, with a population of 3 million, Lithuania's capacity for jazz still has room to grow. Finland, for example, has roughly 5 million inhabitants and hosts around 30 international festivals a year.

Despite the country's relatively unassuming international profile, it's five jazz festivals: Birstonas Jazz Festival, Vilnius Jazz, Kaunas Jazz, Klaipeda "Pilies" Jazz Festival, and Vilnius Mama Jazz, have managed to grab the attention of the world and are highlighted in famous international jazz magazines such as "Jazz Forum" and "Down Beat." Listeners from Japan, the United States and Europe make the long journey each year to hear what new sounds the Baltic state has to offer.

Just as much, if not more, than international fans, Lithuanians themselves cherish these annual concerts. For many, jazz has become a musical symbol inseparable from their national identity. Some find aspects of jazz in Lithuanian polyphonic songs, some remember the famous orchestras during the postwar period, and others have nostalgic feelings about popular jazz-cafes with music and discussions lasting until the wee hours of the morning. There is no question that Lithuanians share a close relationship to jazz, and that it plays an important part in their national history.

Each festival has its own particular flare. In May, Kaunas Jazz always has at least three international stars on their program. June's Klaipeda "Pilies" festival features many up-and-coming performers and is free of charge. World music, of course, is also guaranteed. When it comes to a modern sound, Vilnius Jazz devotes three days to expressive professional music beneath September's colorful autumn leaves. And then the season comes to a close in November with Vilnius Mama Jazz, until it all begins again with the coming of spring.

Even though festival organizers believe there should be more youth-focused concerts, today's five international events cover a wide variety of jazz styles. Spring through autumn, listeners can choose which festival to attend based on the style of jazz featured and the performers invited. Every year event organizers push the bar a bit higher, trying to attract the most professional and creative names in jazz.

Many still associate jazz with bohemian life, but Uzkuraitis emphasizes that the music is not only for an elitist group of intellectuals or artists with a special knowledge of the genre. And indeed, looking at festival audiences, his statement is clearly illustrated. The young dance alongside the old and the musically gifted sing arm in arm with the tone deaf. In fact, when jazz musicians from other countries come to Lithuania to perform, they marvel at how many people there are in the audience.

"There is jazz for the mind and jazz for the feet," Uzkuraitis says. Between the two, the music offers something for everyone.