from Sandy Needham

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Copenhagen Jazz Fest Dispatch

I find jazz a meditation. I don't wish to sound overblown about this; all arts are a meditation. When a group of musicians are tuned in to each other and playing with complete focus, their playing and their LISTENING are meditations. How more awake can one be than when composing an improvisation in that instant or backing up the improv with daring, delicate tonic hints at the melody?

I was so starved for the real thing when the annual Jazz Festival started in Copenhagen that I managed from time to time to join in those moments with all my cells; to reside in that rare groove that existed only then and there.

Our first home exchange of five in Europe began when the extraordinary couple, Merethe and John, met us at the Copenhagen airport and took us out to dinner. When they delivered us to our flat we would occupy for the next twelve days, they had chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne waiting! Their apartment is beautiful, well-designed - as would be expected of the Danish - and comfortable. We loved relaxing there. Returning home always felt so cozy in the wee hours after jazz, the cool evening temperatures and sometimes, rain.

The Jazz Festival didn't start for almost a week, so we began with tourist rounds. A bus two blocks away solved our transportation into the center of Copenhagen, as our flat was in the Frederiksberg neighborhood, about 20 minutes away. Merethe and John had left their bicycles for our use, but even with the seat in the lowest position of Merethe's tall person's bike, I felt like I was teetering above the earth, not riding a bicycle! The bicycle culture and infrastructure is very advanced, so one needs to feel confident joining those rapid riders rounding the bends. Newton used John's bike for local errands.

The weather switched to summer suddenly in a repeat of Belgium's dramatic summer arrival exactly one week before! Happy people were out everywhere soaking up sun. We ventured to Paper Island, where an old warehouse by the waterway now houses many street food vendors. The place offered a great variety of choices and the perfect setting for welcoming summer. I had my semi-annual hamburger, which I bought from a young man from Nigeria. While he was cooking it, I told him the story of the Nigerian fishermen who lost power, washed ashore in Brazil near our beach in 2009, and became our friends. When I mentioned Fela Kuti, he immediately put on the iconic Nigerian musician and danced while cooking!

Christiana Freetown, or as Merethe had described it, 'the area where they don't pay taxes,' was nearby. This was an abandoned Navy yard that squatters transformed into a community most famous for trafficking in weed. After a certain point in the road, no photos are allowed for this reason. It seems the lives of these "free" squatters are mostly on display non-stop for tourists. Our favorite sight was a sophisticated young mother pushing a baby carriage and smoking a doobie with a diameter of about 3/4 of an inch!

Walking the city and observing the tall, attractive Danes, the bike culture that results in a quieter, cleaner city, as in Belgium, and catching constant glimpses of extraordinary Nordic design are reasons enough to visit. We loved seeing entire families out on bicycles, with a couple of kids or great aunts installed in the front bins with which so many bikes are outfitted. The bicycle lanes are elaborately laid-out, often between streets and sidewalks, so after a couple of near-misses clueless tourists as ourselves learn our proper slot!

Danish lighting store

Bicycle lane in front of the train station

We wound ourselves up the rising ramp of the Round Tower (Rundetårn), an astronomical observatory built in 1637, for panoramic views of the city. 

On Hans Christian Andersen Street

Everything relating to Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th century Danish story-teller, delights me no end. When I was young, I not only loved his stories, but the biographical movie, as well, with Danny Kaye in the title role. I always loved Danny Kaye, so I still conflate the two. The film is a musical with songs by Frank Loesser. For some reason he thought "CopenHĀgen was pronounced "CopenHAHgen," but many natives of Copenhagen love his song, "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen," despite the vowel adjustment. My older sisters played the music from the film on the piano, so I grew up singing "Thumbelina" and "Inch-Worm," as well.

Apparently, Hans Christian Andersen was a social outcast by the high society of his day, so he was the "Ugly Duckling" and they were the "Emperor" with no clothes. He is, we must acknowledge, better known to this day than any of his detractors! His legacy also includes "The Little Mermaid," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Princess and the Pea," and "The Snow Queen," among many other stories.

            Here is a favorite Copenhagen sight, as you know:

Waiting area, Danish Design Center
We made not one, but three special efforts to arrive at the Danish Design Center so I could binge on the twentieth century Danish contributions to furnishings and architecture that I studied in both my Interior Design class and for my Art History degree while in college. As it turned out, the first attempt took us not to a museum, but to a fabulous old complex built around green spaces that is now a community of designers and architects working at drafting tables! We felt like intruders, but it was inspiring to see. The second quest bore no fruit again, as the location had changed to a place far away. At last we made it to the Designmuseum Danmark, where there was, indeed, a feast of design history before me.

The collections of Modern and Post-Modern design are glorious. I love the philosophy of simplicity, beauty, functionality, and the application of new 20th century industrial methods to the creation of human-oriented pieces. There is much credit due the Shakers, Thonet's bent wood, tubular steel, and the American, Charles Eames' moulded plywood. Arne Jacobsen took up the torch in Denmark with the "Ant Chair," Denmark's first industrially-produced chair, which in both its original and adapted forms is as popular and ubiquitous today as it was in the mid-twentieth century. What an exciting moment when I came upon our own Peacock Chair by Hans Wegner at the museum!...still in storage in New York. 

Legos were invented in Denmark by a carpenter in the '30's, originally in wood.

Tivoli Gardens - the famous tree-studded, classy amusement park - made for a fun afternoon and evening. Newton bought the entry that included rides, and I was much happier people-watching from the height of a park bench than circling with dangling legs hundreds of feet in the air or getting torque-whipped upside down on the "Daemone" roller coaster. I couldn't even watch that one!

We took the double-decker tour bus around the city, getting off to study sites and gleaning info and fun tidbits from the beautifully written, recorded commentary. Here are some additional prime spots:   

Rosenborg Castle

City Hall

City Hall Entrance...anticipating modern Danish textile design

University of Copenhagen Library

New library, called the "Black Diamond"

We visited the enchanting 'Blue Planet' aquarium, a prime example of Danish most-modern design:

Once the Jazz Festival began, we felt like we started at the top with our first jazz performance. The venue was a popular jazz club called "Mojo," just the small, intimate space one would desire for hearing great jazz. The "Jacob Fischer Trio" was sublime. As we were entering, an older man told us he considers Jacob Fischer the best guitarist in the country. The man certainly could have been right.

The second tune was Jobim's "Wave," my Brazilian favorite since my Manhattan years living near Gregory's Jazz Club, where they often played it for me. BUT, I did not fly across the world to hear Brazilian music at this festival; I actually fear Bossa Nova burn-out. Alas, Fischer made "Wave" so original and fresh, he played hide-and-seek with the melody in such an artful way, that I relieved to finally get a true jazz fix. The entire set was so fine, I was 100% with this trio, every note!

Exiting that dark club into the brightness of the long summer evening was a shock! The trio was a hard act to follow, but we wandered into a plaza with free, fun New Orleans jazz by some old geezers, plus a young couple doing a great jitterbug routine.
The Festival had 1,200 events in 100 venues, featuring stars like Chick Corea, Herby Hancock, Doctor John, Gilberto Gil and Caetano from Brazil, playing in theaters for high ticket prices that were sold out before our arrival; also, clubs and restaurants/bars for more affordable prices or for free, plus many free open air venues. Here are the performances we attended over the five days that followed:

>The 'Kansas City Stompers' at Krøgers Biergarten, a local group with a vocalist.

>Some really ordinary Bossa Nova - OH NO!! - BUT with a bad sound system, so the happy people in the bright evening sun at the Kayak Bar, under a bridge by a canal, could take this opportunity to talk together while drinking the Carlsberg and Tuborg drafts. We loved conversing with them!

>The late jam session at Jazzhus Montmartre, which featured a sensitive young Danish guitarist with a bombastic old egomaniac from New Jersey doing his best to keep the upstart youngster in his place by drowning him out with endless, ear-splitting percussion. Then a blustery, arrogant saxophonist invaded the stage and ignored everyone else playing. It was rough till the very end when 17 and 18-year-olds played together surprisingly well.

>A talented young trio, 'Twang,' again at Mojo. Their American roots music repertoire reminded me of the Belgian bluegrass group who play so very beautifully in the 2014 film, "Broken Circle Breakdown." Twang was inspired, they told me, by this film. Realizing how this very American music has come to be valued overseas instills a new appreciation.

>The 'BastArt Quartet' at the Argentine Tango and Wine bar - owned by Bulgarians! - was another festival favorite of ours. Anders Bast plays a velvety, penetrating tenor sax and sings with a Mel Tormé velvety voice, backed by an outstanding pianist. We loved talking with him during the break and after the set. He studied jazz at the Boston Conservatory. The two CD's we bought are stunning.

>Nabo Jazz' at the Kayak Bar; we could not resist returning to the summer evening scene there, and once again got to converse with Danes, Germans and Italians: still a bad sound system!

>The 'Hans Knudsen Quartet' back at Mojo, a honky-tonk group.

>The 'Daniel Franck Trio' outside Sofie's jazz club by the canal, playing traditional jazz.
>The 'Christina von Bülow Quartet' at the Drop Inn; more traditional jazz with an accomplished female sax player.

>The 'Kraglund-Fischer Quartet' in an outdoors bar in front of a make-shift the rain; another chance to see the great guitarist, Jacob Fischer.


>'Vendredi Soir Swing' at Huset; a stirring young Gypsy Jazz quartet from Switzerland.

>On our last night: the 'Mads Mathias Quartet' at Café Den Blå Hund; another festival favorite of ours. Mads caught our attention immediately from our seats at the back of the room when we looked up and exclaimed, "Tyrion sings!" He writes his own repertoire in a true standard jazz song tradition from the '40's and '50's, performing them with a Harry Connick, Jr. smoothness. He loved the Tyrion story during the break...up close he actually doesn't look like Tyrion!...and loved that somebody in the crowd knew who Harry Connick, Jr. is. 

Mads and his friend invited us to go to the jam session after the set at the famous La Fontaine jazz club. The friend got us in there after everyone waited in the rain for 20 minutes while the previous gig attendees filed out. Mads had stayed behind to hobnob, so we listened to a Swedish quartet for awhile and decided to head home at 2:00 am without seeing him again. Imagine our surprise the next day when we read that none other than Lady Gaga, who performed at Tivoli Gardens that evening with Tony Bennett, showed up later with her musicians to jam! Damn!

This is what the sky looks like at 2:00am on a summer night in Copenhagen:

The festival went on for four more days after we left. We were thrilled to have seen so much great jazz. I witnessed all manner of egos, bluster, exhaustion and insensitivity among these international jazz musicians, but when the artful groove happened, that was church.

Danes are known for being reserved, though we found them always joking and friendly. I believe "modest" is a better interpretation of their reserve, with which Merethe and John agreed. They simply do not draw too much attention to themselves. We adored their attractiveness, helpfulness, efficiency, taste, and their Wonderful Copenhagen!

We took Merethe and John to lunch before they drove us to the airport. We only wish we could see them when they come to stay at our house, but we will be away. Thanks to a great couple with a great home.

Some additional famous Danes with whom I was familiar: beleaguered Prince Hamlet; philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and physicist Niels Bohr.

Off we flew to our second home exchange in Paris!



  1. Let's sing it! "Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing...Thumbelina dance, Thumbelina sing. Thumbelina, it doesn't matter if you're very small; when your heart is full of love, you're nine feet tall!" Hugs and besos to my favorite singing partner. What a wonderful trip you are having! I'm living vicariously through every picture and post. -- Lenna

  2. Copenhagen, one of my favorite European cities and you have seen more of it in this one trip than I saw in my many business trip. Thanks for expanding.



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