I couldn’t come to Perugia for this year’s 43rd edition of the Umbria International Jazz Festival, but I can compensate by posting this piece, which I reported for Downbeat while on-site in 2013, tracing the festival’s history and meaning in the context of Italian jazz from the perspective of various protagonists.
At noon on June’s first Friday, Carlo Pagnotta, the Artistic Director of the Umbria Jazz Festival, sipped tea in the restaurant of Manhattan’s InterContinental Hotel, across 44th Street from Birdland, where Umbria Jazz and Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were co-sponsoring a week of two-nighters by three of Italy’s most visible jazz musicians. On the previous evening, pianist Stefano Bollani’s Danish trio—bassist Jesper Bodilesen and drummer Morten Lund, who play on his recent ECM recording Stone in the Water—played both their sets before a packed house, following two days of extemporaneous duos by Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and American pianist Uri Caine, and setting up a Saturday-Sunday appearance by Enrico Rava and his quintet, comprised of Italian musicians young enough to be the 73-year-old trumpeter’s grandchildren.
“I couldn’t find a table, so I had my food at the bar,” Pagnotta said, shaking his head with an incredulous expression. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you could speak about just a few Italian artists. Now we have artists at the international level.”
It wasn’t apparent from Pagnotta’s demeanor, but a crisis was afoot. Sonny Rollins, booked for a special concert with Fresu and Rava in Perugia’s 5,000-seat Santa Giuliana Arena in honor of the festival’s fortieth anniversary, had just announced the cancellation of his entire summer schedule. It was imperative to find, quickly, an available artist with an equivalent Q-rating. Still, Pagnotta expressed confidence that he and long-time aide de camp, Annika Larsson, working the phones in the Perugia office, would satisfactorily resolve the problem.
During his 40-year reign, Pagnotta had dealt with worse. “We stopped the festival in 1977,” he remembered. “We had too many problems. We tried again in 1978, but the political situation was too difficult.” Umbrian politics were then dominated by the Italian Communist Party, which received Pagnotta recalls, 70% of the popular vote in contemporaneous regional and municipal elections. Furthermore, as bassist Giovanni Tommaso noted the following month in Perugia, “Italy had a strong delayed reaction” to the late ‘60s student rebellions in the United States and France. In jazz circles, Red Records founder Sergio Veschi writes in his web biography, these developments correlated to “the promotion and diffusion of music mainly addressed to young people and workers,” specifically by such radical African-American avatars as Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Sam Rivers. They were part of a mid-‘70s roster that also embraced Keith Jarrett (whose first Umbria Jazz appearance was a pre-Köln Concert solo performance in 1974), Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Sarah Vaughan, all emblematic of a lineage more closely connected to Pagnotta’s taste.
“During those days, the Left said, ‘This is old jazz; you have to play different,’” said pianist Danilo Rea, 55, whose career began in the mid-‘70s in a trio with bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and drummer Roberto Gatto, both fellow Romans. “Italy was completely divided in two. They didn’t care about the way you played. You had to have a project.”
On the one hand, the cultural milieu that produced the Red Brigades facilitated some of the strongest recordings of the decade on Italian labels like Black Saint/Soul Note, Horo, and Red, and allowed world-class experimentally oriented improvisers like Gianluigi Trovesi and Antonello Salis to find space in which to gestate their singular musical worlds. On the other, as 54-year-old Gatto said in a separate conversation, “many concerts at Umbria were interrupted by people going to the stage, and making a disaster.” Genoese pianist Dado Moroni, now 51, spoke of a cohort stoning the Count Basie band bus after a 1975 performance for “representing America’s Republican Party.”
“A little paper wrote that Basie was a ‘fascist,’” Pagnotta contextualized. “In those days we spread the festival into different towns in Umbria, and one night in Gubbio in 1976, we had to stop Sarah Vaughan’s concert, because a guy pulled down his trousers just in front of her. She didn’t want to come back to Perugia. They booed Chet Baker and called him ‘a slave of the system,’ and they booed Stan Getz.”
Still, Pagnotta said, although “there were critics in the Communist Party who were against the Festival because it was too much classic, not enough avant-garde, they realized that it was popular, bringing in people, and good for Umbria.” Tommaso attributed the sizable turnout for the one-day 1973 debut to the cancellation of a “huge festival in the north of Italy that had lots of ‘progressive’ bands, as they called folk singers and rock bands then,” whose audience “all came south to Perugia.” Contemporaneous photos show prone figures surreally blanketing the old city’s Piazza IV Novembre and Corso Vannucci. “These kids had never been exposed to a real jazz festival,” Tommaso added. “They loved it, and came back every year, for years, with their sleeping bags.”
In 1982, when Umbria Jazz resumed operations from the back office of Pagnotta’s Sir Charles men’s store, which specialized in Burberry outerwear, Church shoes, and cashmere sweaters, the audience had matured and Italy’s politics were trending centrist, mirroring the evolving aesthetics of many Italian jazz musicians. “At a certain point, the so-called ‘free music’ in Italy began to feel routine, less interesting than the bebop cliche,” Rava explained in 2011. “It started to get ridiculous, like Dadaism forty years too late. I felt that you should also be free to play melodies, harmonies and rhythms.”
For the remainder of the decade, Pagnotta booked “mainstream”: Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and several generations of their prominent alumni and contemporaries. He augmented the festival’s soundtrack with gospel bands and rootsy New Orleans-flavored units, and, in 1985, launched an ongoing relationship with Berklee School of Music. In 1992, he launched the more intimate Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, 90 kilometers west of Perugia. Brazil and Cuba gradually became prominent in the mix, as did international jazz-tinged pop, represented by a Sting-Gil Evans Orchestra-Branford Marsalis collaboration in 1987 and a Carlos Santana-Wayne Shorter project in 1988. For 2013, Pagnotta mixed veteran international stars like Jarrett, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock in duo, Diana Krall, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Jan Garbarek, with up-and-comers like Robert Glasper and Hiromi, pop stars John Legend and Italian singer Pino Danielle, and a healthy proportion of Italian jazzfolk, including Bollani, who filled the arena for a classical-to-jazz Gershwin-Leonard Bernstein program with Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra.
Fresu packed the 750-seat Morlacchi Theater, a five-tiered gem from 1780, for a ritualistic, programmatic duo with Omar Sosa. Also at the Morlacchi, a sizable crowd heard Rea’s scratch-improvised encounter with octogenarian pianist Renato Sellani on songs by film composer Armando Trovajoli, a Teddy Wilson-influenced pianist who played with Charlie Parker in Paris in 1949. Rea abundantly displayed his skills with Tommaso’s quartet in which 24-year-old alto saxophonist Mattiu Cigalini and drummer Francesco Sotgiu deftly followed Tommaso’s predisposition to contrast “inside” and “outside” approaches in his compositions. Playing a drumkit augmented with multiple percussion and electronics, Gatto cued his “Perfect Trio,” with pianist Alfonso Santimone and bassist Pierpaolo Ranieri, through a 90-minute triologue on an orchestral array of timbre and rhythms drawn from Africa, India, Brazil, and American Swing and Funk.
Representing the younger generation, pianist Enrico Zanesi, 24, offered a set of originals with his trio that showcased his finely calibrated touch, right-left interdependence, and sense of melodic development, alternating between notey, odd-meter pieces influenced by Brad Mehldau’s example and legato ballads with classical connotations. And, although he did not perform at this year’s festival, Giovanni Guidi, 27, recently signed to ECM (City of Broken Dreams) and Rava’s pianist-of-choice for the last four years, curated a six-day “Young Jazz” sub-festival in the courtyard of the Palazzo della Penna, a 16th century villa, presently utilized as a “contemporary cultural center,” highlighted by a duo by drummer Jeff Ballard and guitarist Lionel Loueke, but also projects by, among others, saxophonist Dan Kinzelman, drummer João Lobo and percussionist Michele Rabbia, all Guidi collaborators in other groups.
Asked whether the pan-generational cast of characters at Umbria 2013, who hail from Italy’s various regions, projected a collective aesthetic that could be construed in any way as “Italian,” Guidi emailed that, although “probably some of us pay stronger attention to the melodic side of things,” he did not think so. “Today’s young musicians are highly trained in all areas, and play with countless different approaches but often lack spontaneity,” he added. “Perhaps things that are more interesting are still overwhelmed. The purpose of ‘Young Jazz’ is to discover the underground rivers that deviate from the main stream.”
“There’s a difference between an Italian jazz player and a player of Italian jazz,” clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi elaborated. “Italian jazz is not a community. We don’t debate what we are, where we’re going to bring this music. When I was younger, I was one among a group of people who was ideologically into trying to do something of our own. I did things with accordions, arrangements of Italian traditional folk songs, and so on. But I failed.”
Himself a native Perugian, Mirabassi, 47, observed that Italy became a nation only 150 years ago. “There are hills everywhere, and on top of each hill is an ancient town completely surrounded by walls, from which they will throw boiling oil on the heads of visitors,” he said. “From Perugia, you can see Assisi. We had maybe 50 years of blood wars with Assisi. We speak different accents. We have different gastronomic customs. We have a phrase, campanilismo. Campanile is the tower bell. Each tower bell symbolizes a town which protects itself from the next tower bell.”
In Fresu’s view, this trope of independence and individuality—the notion that “in Italian jazz, everyone is an island unto themself,” as Bollani once remarked—“is fantastic, because you can try to mix all these experiences: people who play the new bebop music, or play jazz with the music of Naples, or with opera, or with the chanson, or with Mediterranean music.”
Both the aforementioned represent that sensibility, as does Rea, who has refracted his own influence tree—Neapolitan melodies, Puccini, classical music, ‘70s prog rock, and hardcore jazz learned on trial-by-fire gigs with American masters like Lee Konitz and Chet Baker—into a distinctive, pan-Mediterranean style. “I want to improvise on the repertoire I grew up with,” Rea stated matter-of-factly, explaining his inclusive stance. “There is nothing ideological. It’s playing my emotions. At the beginning, we were imitating the Americans, obviously, and then we tried to mix. Sometimes we made big mistakes, but from these big mistakes sometimes something happened. It’s a kind of Italian approach.”
After the Second World War, European aspirants could experience master-apprentice relationships with American avatars in different countries—Kenny Clarke, Johnny Griffin, and Arthur Taylor in France; Don Byas in France and the Netherlands; Ben Webster in the Netherlands and Denmark; Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew in Denmark; Art Farmer in Austria. In Italy, Chet Baker served that function.
“Chet was the James Dean of jazz,” says Tommaso, a native of Lucca, who spent 1959-1960 in New York, where, on down time from a cruise ship gig, he heard and personally approached Charlie Haden with Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans, and Paul Chambers with Miles Davis, among others. Soon after Tommaso returned, Baker—just leaving a Lucca prison after serving 16 months for heroin possession—took him on the road for six months. “Chet was good-looking, a singer and trumpet player, and a junkie—a perfect combination of elements to be popular with the Italian audience.”
“People of my generation met him personally,” Mirabassi added. “He was the giant, the real American, the real jazz player we had at our disposal. It was very difficult not to cry when he was singing the ballads, so delicate and profound. For us, this was jazz as an alternative to classical or pop. It was the place where you really express the drama of living, which we Italians are sensitive to.”
Tommaso cited the 1999 CD, La Dolce Vita [CamJazz], on which his quartet with Rava, Bollani and Gatto interpreted a suite of Italian soundtrack music, as the progenitor of a series of similarly sourced “Italian identity” projects. “If you put into jazz some of your background, your roots, your deep and sincere approach, those elements that are authentic may give your music a specific flavor,” he said. “But it isn’t like, ‘take a little popular Italian folk from the south, and place a groove underneath, a little of this and a bit of that, like a gravy for pasta. This is not art.
“Jazz fought a battle all these years to become a universal music. Some people are trying to kick back this goal that we achieved. Italian jazz, Norwegian jazz, Swiss jazz, French jazz—this is bullshit. We grew up with a passion. When you’re young, one day you’re exposed to jazz music and you say, ‘This is what I love.’ I call it folgorazione—an explosion, like lightning. That moment led me all my life.”
Carlo Pagnotta’s bebop conversion experience occurred in 1949, when he heard Charlie Parker over the radio from the Salle Pleyel theater in Paris. The son of a hotelier who also operated the first restaurant in Perugia to earn a Michelin Star, he was then an engineering student in Bologna. He would enter jazz production in 1956 with Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker concerts under the auspices of Perugia’s Hot Club. He lived in London for nine months in 1957, and another 10 months in 1959, when he worked as a waiter in the high-end Café Royal. He returned to Perugia, reentered the game, and, as the ‘60s progressed, traveled to jazz events in Europe, made pilgrimages to Newport, and developed a close working relationship with George Wein’s Italian representative, Alberto Alberti, who began a small-scale festival in Bologna in 1969.
“I presented the idea of the festival to the regione in 1972, as the President of Jazz Club Perugia,” Pagnotta said. “I was lucky to find the right people—political people, because without public money it is impossible, and big sponsors, like Heineken, which worked with us for many years. This is one of the few big events in Italy where you can say one-third of the budget comes from private money, one-third from public money, and one-third from ticket sales. The cultural ministry in Rome gives peanuts to jazz, spends a fortune for opera or classical music. Nothing against opera, but they still don’t realize that jazz is the classical music of the 20th century.”
Although Pagnotta didn’t say so, the Umbria Festival itself functioned as an avatar, or, in Fresu’s words, as “the bridge between Italian jazz and American jazz.” “From 1982 until 1990, it was my jazz school,” Mirabassi added. “The major masters of the music were here, very accessible. When I was 11, my parents took me to the center of town, and the Buddy Rich Big Band was playing in the main square. It was a shocking experience.”
Gatto recalled his Umbria Jazz debut, in 1978 with Gianni Basso, a big-toned veteran tenor saxophonist with an affinity for Zoot Sims and Richie Kamuca. “Carlo is more into the tradition, and as artistic director he brought the festival in that direction for years,” he said. “But you could listen to great musicians who came from another thing, too. I was once with him in the lobby of the New York Hilton hotel during an IAJE convention. After a while, Joe Zawinul came by our table. ‘So Carlo, what do you want to do this summer?’ Carlo said, ‘I give you this carte blanche, but you have to get the trio with Trilok Gurta.’ ‘But I never played with Trilok Gurta.’ ‘Ok, you have to do it this year.’ That’s it—they sign a contract. After Zawinul, John Scofield came and sat at the table. Carlo put together the festival like this.”
Enzo Capua, Pagnotta’s New York representative since 2003, cautions that these freewheeling trappings are deceptive. “Carlo takes care of every detail,” he says. “He can explode if something is wrong. His policy is that everyone who works here must speak English; second, they can’t have the lousy Italian attitude. Annika Larsson is Swedish, and a former Miss Sweden named Erica used to work for him as well. One night George Wein saw these two tall blondes with Carlo, and called him ‘the Hugh Hefner of jazz.’”
Perhaps an apter analogy is to compare Pagnotta’s modus operandi to an aristocratic connoisseur in a pre-unification city-state putting together a pageant, matching sounds and personalities to spaces. There is an element of noblesse oblige and also civic pride: Like his Board of Directors, Pagnotta receives no salary, remunerated only for transportation, accommodations, and meals when traveling on festival business.
“Because of my age, I’ve seen Perugia change a lot,” the octogenarian impresario said. “My first year in college, the professor asked, ‘Where are you from?’‘Perugia.’ ‘Ah, Perugia. Near Assisi.’ I’m sorry—it’s Assisi that’s near Perugia. Before 1973, Umbria was known only for Saint Francis in Assisi. Now we can also say Umbria Jazz.”