From Iceland — Reykjavík Jazz Festival: It May Smell Funny, But It Tastes Great!

Reykjavík Jazz Festival: It May Smell Funny, But It Tastes Great!

Published August 29, 2022

Reykjavík Jazz Festival: It May Smell Funny, But It Tastes Great!
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Reykjavík Jazz Festival

We all know that quote by Frank Zappa, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” I never understood why people think jazz is dead, or smells funny, but who am I to doubt Frank Zappa? As it turns out, I’m cheeky, so I decided to explore the Reykjavík Jazz Festival to figure out what jazz actually smells like (why did he never elaborate on that?).

Jazz was not welcome

Iceland doesn’t have the best history when it comes to welcoming jazz. It was racistly seen as ‘black music’ and that wasn’t welcome until somewhere in the 1960s (the genre originates from the late 19th century). It had everything to do with politics, nationalism, WWII, the Cold War, and Iceland’s strategic position in all of this; black soldiers weren’t welcome, either. But I’ll spare you the history lesson.

Thankfully times have changed, and the Reykjavík Jazz Festival is perfect proof of that. Celebrating its 32nd edition this year, around 11 venues and 200 musicians from all over the world participated in the seven day festival and treated the city to roughly 40 concerts. As it turns out it’s one of Iceland’s longest running music festivals.

Club for Five at Fríkirkjan. Credit: Reykjavík Jazz Festival

From assumption to reality

On my way to the festival’s opening at Skuggabaldur, a lovely jazz venue downtown, my dreams took over. I imagined the festival would turn Reykjavík into a Wes Anderson movie, or perhaps ‘Midnight in Paris’ by Woody Allen. Jazz would be everywhere, people would smoke pipes while having intellectual conversations, and I would bump into my future husband who’d be so lost reading T.S. Elliot’s ‘Prufrock’ that he wouldn’t see me and our worlds would collide. Instead, I almost collided with a lost seagull on the street, and back on earth I was.

Upon my arrival at Skuggabaldur, I was genuinely surprised it wasn’t packed to the brim. It turned out no other Icelandic media was present and when I asked one of the organisers about this later, he mentioned it was likely due to the fact that jazz musicians are too humble to promote themselves. “Maybe they smell funny?,” I mused.

Credit: Reykjavík Jazz Festival

Where have these people been hiding?

I got a good sense of how big the Icelandic jazz scene is when I got my hands on the programme booklet. Organisers Jón Ómar Árnason and Pétur Oddbergur put together an amazing line up featuring not only jazz as you may know it, but funk, blues, big band, and anything else that could possibly fit into that spectrum. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Copenhagen Jazz Funk Collective feat. Benjamin Koppel’ and Jakob’s Buchanan ‘Requiem.’ The latter took place in Hallgrímskirkja and had over 40 musicians on stage, making it into one of the biggest concerts Iceland has ever known.

The concerts I attended gave me a taste of everything. ‘Requiem’ by Buchanan was a long sit (don’t put an easily distracted mind on a wooden bench for too long), a bit too religious to my liking, but worth the experience. Other concerts were choral, followed up by big band, before a funk act took over and made me wonder why on earth it was a seated event.

'Requiem' by Buchanan

‘Requiem’ by Buchanan at Hallgrímskirkja. Credit: Reykjavík Jazz Festival

More diversity in crowd

I guess that’s the thing. Jazz is a genre that doesn’t seem to appeal to the younger generation, despite its unconventionalism and rebelliousness. Apart from an endearing young boy who was so into the music that he made my week, the audience seemed to be of older age (suddenly the chairs made sense) which became evident when most of the audience left mid-concert to head to bed. It was simply too late for a weekday. Maybe a change of venue with space to dance, lounge, or where the bar doesn’t close early would draw in a younger crowd during the evening.

So, did my Wes Anderson fantasy come true? Not exactly, but I did have my understanding of the genre positively messed with to the point where it almost triggered an existential crisis. And while no one read me ‘Prufrock’, I did learn a lot about the extremities of jazz and the place it holds in the Icelandic community. Jón and Pétur did an astounding job organising the festival and proved once again that jazz is very much alive. Sure, it may smell funny, but it certainly tastes great. Wake up, young ones!

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