Exchange and participation: the living space of jazz

The gradual shift from city venues to large arenas marks a marked change in the way audiences participate in various jazz-like events.

Having exhausted the idealistic wave of rock as a music of denunciation and breaking with past institutional taboos, in the second half of the 1970s the interest of the new generation of listeners was polarized by the avant-garde, jazz-rock and progressive-rock; in essence, by those hybrids outside the formal molds dictated by a free and unconventional expressiveness.

In the wake of this trend borrowed from the highly politicized anti-consumerist philosophy underlying the American counterculture, Italy is witnessing the increasing spread of mass gatherings in which new jazz expressions are finding an ever-increasing following among the public. The case of the Umbria Jazz Festival, born in the summer of 1973 on the initiative of Carlo Pagnotta and Alberto Alberti, is emblematic: a large number of young people who left from different parts of Italy, in the wake of the Woodstock mega rally, invaded the streets of the Umbrian towns, Perugia, Terni and Gubbio, to participate in the free, traveling festival, causing public order problems.

A growing, as much as unexpected, interest in jazz, until then the prerogative of a small number of city jazz club regulars, is making its way among the new audience of music lovers. This was due to multiple factors: an exponential increase in record production in the sector, including reissues of past recordings; an increase in the number of record stores in Italian cities, where one could buy the musician’s latest record work just heard live; and editorial initiatives aimed at publishing series, monographs, biographies and collections of interviews dedicated to important figures in the jazz scene.

Fabbri Editori and Curcio Publishing House, for example, put out an encyclopedia (or dictionary) of the history of jazz, complete with an accompanying microglass; the initiative proved a success, with numerous copies sold at newsstands.

In addition, there is a significant increase in enrollment in the newly founded music schools in several Italian cities, with jazz courses at reduced prices. In Rome alone, eight can be counted, including, the Scuola Popolare di Musica di Testaccio, the Saint Louis Center, the Scuola Popolare di Musica “Il Politeama” and Scuola di Mentana.

City jazz clubs had served as trailblazers for the spread of jazz in Italy, while triggering a low-dispersion mode of social and artistic exchange dictated by direct contact between audience and musicians on stage.

In Rome there were several, Music Inn by Pepito Pignatelli, Murales, opened by a cooperative of boys, Mississippi by the Toth brothers, Saint Louis run by Mario CiampĂ , Ziegfield, founded by a group of boys who were Blues enthusiasts.

Paradoxically, with the gradual growth of public interest in jazz offerings comes the intensification of critical issues related to the management of city jazz clubs; in order not to lose clientele, club owners are faced with the challenge of balancing low ticket prices with rising cachets of foreign bands or soloists due to increased demand in the market. Contributing largely to the initiation of this change of pace in the organization of concert events is the entry of well-known commercial brands into the sponsorship of jazz festivals, in order to make up for inveterate institutional shortcomings in funding for these types of performances.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the profile of the attendee of the various jazz festivals and reviews in Italy gradually changed: demanding, culturally prepared, curious, keen to delve deeper in order to “know,” and willing to pay for a ticket.

Today this last aspect might seem blatantly obvious, but it takes on an entirely different relevance if one takes into account the pressing and sometimes violent demand for the right to “free music” for all brought forward in the 1970s by the antagonistic fringe of the youth audience linked to the extra-parliamentary left and the Autonomia Operaia movement. Their initiatives are characterized by violent clashes with police, the throwing of objects, not infrequently Molotov cocktails, and break-ins perpetrated against venues designated for the live performance of Italian and foreign musicians, sports arenas, marquee theaters but also jazz clubs.

No less important aspect, in the years that followed, the dynamics of audience perception became more markedly focused on the individual subject, sitting comfortably in an armchair or on an outdoor chair in the summer months. Not surprising, then, is the subsequent entry of jazz inside opera houses and stadiums, in many cases selling out at the box office.

From the 1990s onward, we will see the emergence of venues devoted to listening to jazz with acoustic and spatial characteristics similar to those devoted to classical and symphonic music.

The gradual change in characteristics related to the concert event-goer emphasizes the decisive role played by gathering spaces on the psychological, social and, not least, spiritual level perception of live music.

As a function of this, jazz takes on a role of interconnection between different subjects, conscious or unconscious amplifiers of the continuous give-and-take underlying the artistic evolution of every age.

Note: Promoters of the “self-reducers” movement included Marcello Baraghini, owner of the counter-information agency Stampa Alternativa, and Giulio Tedeschi, editor of the underground culture magazine Tampax. Convinced that culture should be accessible to everyone free of charge, “self-reducers” claimed, often violently and intimidatingly against musicians and organizers, the right to attend concerts without paying for a ticket

Paolo Marra

Pictured is the first 1973 edition of the Umbria Jazz Festival.