(Cover photo: Hank O’Neal, George Wein, Wynton Marsalis and Hans Zurbrügg at the Jazz & Blues Art Box NYC Premiere. Photo by Ian Clifford.)
The roots of jazz — according to sources such as scholars, musicians and jazz aficionados — derive from a “union of African and European music.” Connecting the American origins of the birth of jazz music dates back to New Orleans about 100 years ago — and its most important originator Louis Armstrong. Fast forward to the present and we have a rich history of musicianship that has driven this particularly American-based genre of sound. And before jazz, we have the blues — an origin historically accepted as evolving from “African spirituals, chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns and country dance music.”
But in the modern age of the 20th century, particularly post WWII, the live performance of both jazz and blues was the way to reach greater audiences and truly let the music and musicians express themselves via means like improvisation. We know the big names for premier festivals in the U.S. — the Newport Jazz Festival, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival, etc. But how about the International Jazz Festival Bern, Switzerland? With 40 plus years of “hard swinging,” founder and producer Hans Zurbrügg has been delivering a commitment to a purist form of jazz shared by icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Sonny Rollins — as well as contemporary legends Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Christian McBride and Diana Krall. Now, picture a collection of 20 years of impeccably recorded and on-stage filming (by Swiss Television) of seminal performances by these jazz greats followed up with off-stage interviews — where these pioneers share thoughts about their life, their music and the expression of jazz music itself.
Enter The Jazz & Blues Art Box — a fully functional and accessible 3 drawer cabinet that includes a total of 230 DVDs, yearbooks and an art book. Onboard with enthusiasm and helping to promote the uniqueness of this collection are other legendary members of the jazz community including George Wein (founder and artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival), Wynton Marsalis (trumpeter, composer, and artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center) and Hank O’Neal (photographer, author and music producer). From 1983 to 2002, the International Jazz Festival Bern was televised and broadcast by Swiss Television, resulting in this unique visual and auditory record — archiving what Hank O’Neal calls the “most remarkable collection of jazz and blues performances on video ever assembled.”
Zurbrügg’s commitment as a musician (trumpeter), promoter, and entrepreneur would take his jazz festival along the steps — from a fledgling beginning in the 1960s to what would become “one of Europe’s great jazz festivals.” Reflecting on his early days in Bern, Wynton Marsalis recalls, “This festival stood out as one of the few that embraced the integrity of Jazz when many others proudly and successfully expanded their festival audience by selling a watered down roster of non-jazz.” By 1976, Zurbrügg would be the founder and producer of the Bern Festival, creating a line-up year after year that would include the seminal names in jazz on stage — including Oscar Peterson, The Modern Quartet, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, and Gerry Mulligan. This is just a taste of the full line-up of filmed recordings in this collection of stellar musicians at the height of their creative abilities — caught live for all future listeners and historians to enjoy and to serve as an educational history for this unique genre of music.
As any jazz archivist can attest, filming records in smoky nightclubs with dimly lit stages (where many jazz & blues musicians performed) were sometimes all that history had as a record. Zurbrügg took this to heart and pursued an agreement with Swiss Television to record every performance at his festival. Most importantly, he ensured a standard excellence and caliber of recording, “It was determined that the concerts would be filmed with full production values, with the highest quality technological standards of the era.” As many of these legendary musicians have not only long since left the stage, but also have passed into history, “The Jazz & Blues Art Box” now remains a very critical record of their famed performances as well as interviews.
At the world premiere of “The Jazz & Blues Art Box” in New York City (June 8, 2017), in just one example, I listened to Art Blakey (of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) tell his story about his beginnings in an interview — how he was un-ceremoniously told to vacate the piano seat and accept his next job as drummer in a Chicago club operated (by his own admission) by the “mob.” This, again, is a candid moment that would likely be lost without this vital collection. Blakey, of course, would go on to be an extraordinary performer and contributor as bandleader and mentor for many upcoming jazz leaders like Wynton Marsalis. It is this type of storytelling that brings alive the behind-the-scenes aspects of jazz history. In fact, there are 96 individual un-released interviews in this collection. As stated by Marsalis, “Hans Zurbrügg went a step further and convinced Swiss Television to record and broadcast interviews… The most important jazz legends provide an in-depth insight into the life and musical heritage of jazz & blues culture.”
Housed in a modular three-drawer cabinet on caster wheels — designed exclusively by Swiss manufacturer USM — are 400 hours of music, 96 exclusive interviews, 20 yearbooks and a large format book. Touches of modern art effects are finished off by legendary graphic artist Roger Pfund. This small footprint reveals a treasure of recordings, which Hans Zurbrügg refers to as a “collection of historical value.” At the Jazz & Blues Art Box NYC world premiere, all attendees were given a numbered ticket that coincided with one of the enclosed DVDs. As I approached to receive mine, I felt — as did almost everyone else in the audience that night — that it was a lottery ticket where every selection was a winner. ∎