The Florentine Medicis began building a massive fortress in 1560 to protect Siena, which Florence had conquered a few years earlier. It is a formidable edifice (those words seem to have been invented to describe places like this). If you go there today you will hear the occasional trumpet, but the parade ground is mostly empty and the notes have a blue tinge. That’s because the fortezza is now home to the Siena Jazz Foundation and Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Italy’s first accredited jazz university. So while you ponder how long it must have taken to build this huge complex and what kind of egos must have been in play, you can sip a coffee and listen to the students practicing music of the moment in the summer air.
Spending several weeks in Italy this summer gave me a chance to think about why this American music has been embraced by Italians with such fervor. I put the question to Francesco Martinelli, Siena Jazz archivist and respected jazz historian. We batted around the Italian political winds of the 30s through the 70s chasing an elusive answer, or set of answers. The right liked swing; the left took to the 60s avant-garde. Above all, Italian jazz lovers were sympathetic to African American culture. Today there are jazz festivals from Perugia to Sicily, and Siena mounts a major event based on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in September. I don’t have firm conclusions and like anything else worth pondering, there is no easy answer as to why jazz seems to work well in Italy, but my students inadvertently helped me with a few ideas.
Almost all of them mentioned that life in Italy is slower. It isn’t just a matter of one’s internet connection. Meals last longer. Conversations do too. We walked everywhere we needed to go in Florence, and walked everywhere else we traveled (the exceptions being Rome’s subway and Venice’s vaporetto, of course). When the local markets in Florence’s historic center close at 7 p.m., you need to either be done shopping by then or wait until tomorrow. Speaking for myself, I rediscovered how refreshing it is to know that there are certain things you simply have to put off doing because they can’t be done at any time you wish. Being off the hook (and due to intermittent wi-fi signaling, off-line as well) was one of the major pleasures of being in Italy. We had time to think, to concentrate, to be in the present.
Just when we American visitors began to get impatient, mentally invoking the cult of efficiency to salve our nerves, Italy reminded us that some things are worth the wait. The longer the buildup for a meal, the more amazing the taste. Anticipating a cathedral somewhere around the next corner or two in Siena, the sudden appearance of the Duomo overwhelmed whatever anticipation had been allowed to build on a hot day on hilly streets. Just wait, Italy seemed to say. What you are waiting for will be much better than you could have guessed. The customer is always wrong in the best way possible.
Jazz is based on preparation, but it is delivered via choices made in the moment. Over and over again my students said that they were being forced to live in the here and now and that they actually had a chance to appreciate it. Given their usual freeway, fast-food, and three-job lives, this is a novelty from which a few of them may not recover. A sizeable contingent of them accompanied me to Perugia to hear opening night at Umbria Jazz, one of the world’s great jazz festivals. After taking in the city’s amazing views, signature chocolate, and the funk parade down the Corso, they were already having a good time when the opening concert at Arena Santa Giuliana began. Most were unclear just what was happening when pianists Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani took the stage and began an hour of high-level musical conversation. Corea and Bollani have stated that they agree on a set list but settle nothing else in advance.
Funk Off wraps up its street parade in Perugia. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.
This is the opposite of Disneyland. I mention this because Disneyland, with its foundation on utter predictability, safety, cleanliness, and absolute lack of soul, seems the antithesis of jazz and because my students not only grew up with Disneyland but several work or have worked there. I recently saw a piece on Orange County’s own Katy Perry that mentioned her absolute fidelity to choreography, musical and otherwise, in her shows. She is not alone in this by any means—you can’t do what major pop artists try to do visually while making it up as you go along—but my students have rarely been exposed to any kind of music that is made in the moment, and that is true whether they are listening to Puccini sung live as they did in Florence or Corea and Bollani conversing via pianos in Perugia.
Ralph Ellison considered black culture to contain the “the sudden turns, shocks and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is a mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing.” Corea and Bollani, the American composed and cool, the Italian writhing, pounding his own piano stool as a percussion instrument from his knees, were all about exploration. When Brazilian master mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda joined the pair onstage to close the first set, the rich rhythms played by musicians from three continents captured well the idea that jazz is more than anything else a way of thinking, even of being. No one owns it, and the way it fit with the Italy we were exploring seemed a little more evident. De Holanda and Bollani’s own lyrical set, in which the pianist pulled back to give the mandolin space, made me want to hear them work together on record. Their crowd-pleasing medley from the Morricones’ Cinema Paradiso score—a film my students would soon study—brought a few more strands together.
Ellison called jazz equipment for living. If you are going to ride the trains in Italy, improvisation can come in handy, as a few of my students discovered during a Tuscan rail strike. My wife and I learned that one should know which train station one needs, and as a result we improvised our way up more of Perugia’s mountain than anticipated on foot for my second taste of Umbria Jazz. But the payoff again was beyond expectation. This time she joined me on the second line to Funk Off’s march through the city, the Italians making another tradition their own. That evening featured Pat Metheny’s new Unity Band with Chris Potter, Ben Williams, and Antonio Sanchez, and they did not disappoint the large audience. It has now been seven years since Metheny convened his perennially popular Pat Metheny Group, but the reception he received in Perugia showed that the guitarist’s most fervent audience remains Italian.
The guitarist is justly proud of his new band, equipped as it is with three of the top younger musicians in jazz and a new tune stack that ranks with some of Metheny’s most evocative writing. Comparisons to Metheny’s classic 80/81 band with Michael Brecker are inevitable, but this band delivered on its own terms. Potter’s use of bass clarinet, flute, and soprano sax added colors and counterpoint to Metheny’s usual array of stringed instruments, and all four contributed to/interacted with Metheny’s orchestrion gadget, making music that seemed far more engaging than that found on Metheny’s recent solo recordings. Metheny featured duets with each of his three comrades—a nice touch highlighted by a fractured “All The Things You Are” with Potter—and closed the show with a two-tune encore before coming out for a quite rare second encore composed of a solo acoustic guitar medley of his most memorable tunes. By that time the crowd had moved forward to the stage, getting closer to perhaps the most popular jazz musician alive.
Metheny has long acknowledged Miles Davis as the artist who turned him on to jazz, and the guitarist’s experimentation with the orchestrion seems of a piece with Davis’s efforts to achieve a larger orchestral sound. The trumpeter’s key ally in this was, of course, the gifted arranger and composer Gil Evans. We were lucky enough to catch the final “round midnight” concert of a six-part series honoring Evans’s career by Ryan Truesdell and the Eastman Jazz Orchestra. The band worked through both Quiet Nights and Sketches of Spain plus encore material from Miles Ahead and Kind of Blue in a concert that no one wanted to end. Back in the day, the Davis-Evans collaborations were rarely heard live, and never in full, so Umbria Jazz provided a real treat here.Two Italian trumpeters, Fabrizio Bosso and Paolo Fresu, provided contrasting solo approaches. Bosso shrugged off the hall’s reverent air and blasted his way through the samba-based Quiet Nights material, while Fresu went for the full homage approach, right down to mimicing Davis’s famous profile posture made iconic on the Sketches of Spain album cover (See Chapter 3 of Blue Notes in Black and White for my take on Davis’s album cover images). Perugia’s lovely Teatro Morlacchi provided a setting both intimate and operatic.
We were done with Perugia, but not with jazz in Italy. A few nights later at Fiesole’s Teatro Romana, a two-thousand year-old Roman ampitheater above Florence, former Davis bassist Dave Holland introduced his new quartet featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks. Eubanks is a strong musical personality, expressed both in his new composition for the band “Evolution” and on rapid-note, Wes Montgomery-style soloing. At times Holland himself seemed to recede more than a bass-playing leader normally would, but his clean articulation and unmistakable sense of swing remain intact. Opening were the young Italian band Gaga Quartet led by bassist Giovanni Mancini. They seem to have listened to some of Holland’s 70s work on ECM, pushing a bit to the outside while incorporating updated rhythmic structures. Can you dance to 70s avant-jazz? The Italians gave it their best shot.
“This is a place with such history,” Holland said during his set. “We’re glad we can be part of it.” In Italy, jazz seems the perfect counterbalance to the weight of multiple histories. Just as we sat on a Roman construction built over Etruscan ruins and unearthed only in the 1870s in a newly united Italian state, the layers and meanings of history in Italy are everywhere evident. Jazz does not ignore history, but it revels in the moment. That mixture of the ancient and the now is deeply satisfying. And so the sounds of jazz floating out of a Renaissance fortress in Siena make perfect sense.