Italian Jazz – The protagonists (Part One)

Between the mid-1940s and the 1960s, while some musicians followed the Afro-American current ofBebop and Hard bop, Italy witnessed the return of traditional jazz, which originated in New Orleans in the early “900s.

There are many ensembles dedicated to the promotion and popularization of traditional jazz in various parts of Italy: the Original Lambro Jazz Band, the Milan College Jazz Society, the Riverside Jazz Band, which included guitarist Lino Patruno on its roster, the Bovisa New Orleans Jazz Band, in the Lombard capital, the Junior Dixieland Gang, the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and the second Roman, led by double bassist Carlo Loffredo, the various ensembles of trombonist Marcello Rosa, in Rome.

Mention may also be made of the Doctor Chick Dixieland Orchestra of Bologna, led by clarinetist and future director Pupi Avati. This, once merged with the Panigal Jazz Band, took the name Rheno Dixieland Band, whose ranks included clarinetist Lucio Dalla, who later became one of the most significant exponents of Italian pop music.

Also, the Riverside Syncopators Jazz Band, conducted by traditional trombonist Lucio Capobianco, in Genoa, the New Emily Jazz Band in Modena, and trumpeter Renato Germonio’s large Kansas Cit orchestra in Turin.

This page in the revival of traditional jazz has been, on balance, marginal in the Italian jazz scene, arousing a passionate as much as fundamentalist following among musicians belonging to a kind of niche avuncular, except in rare cases, to any modernist movement within Afro-American music. On the opposite side, the cadre of musicians dedicated to assimilating new trends in American jazz is far broader and more varied. These did not merely Italianize Afro-American music but assimilated its basic concepts by adapting them to their own language that is inextricably linked with folk traditions. An assumption of intent that involved the entire European jazz scene.

In this regard, the guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt, not surprisingly the first exponent in Europe of that blending of jazz and the musical traditions of the nomadic community of manouches, once stated – “Jazz is American. But music has no country. And jazz is music. We play a type of jazz that is in close relationship with European culture. But it’s still jazz. Because jazz has definite expressive rules from which there can be no deviation“.

Italian instrumentalists and composers have carried out their artistic activities over the years in a variety of musical fields, from the mainstream to the daring aesthetic and formal evolutions of free and avant-garde experimentation. Their merit, beyond that which is properly technical or music-writing, is that they have left an indelible mark on the historical development of Italian jazz, from the postwar period to, in many cases, the present day.

This brief anthology of the characters of modern Italian jazz can only begin with the Basso-Valdambrini Quintet, the formation that most illustrated this musical genre between the 1950s and 1960s. The quintet’s two leaders, saxophonist Gianni Basso and trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini, are regular guests at Milan’s Taverna Mexicana, the only jazz venue in operation in Italy during the latter part of the 1950s.

In the same period we find trumpeter Nunzio Rotondo, pianists Romano Mussolini and Enrico Intra, clarinetist Aurelio Ciarallo, and saxophonist and flutist Giancarlo Barigozzi, who for a time moved to Hong Kong with his ensemble and later opened a recording studio in Milan under his own name.

Another figure from the Turin area who came to the forefront of the jazz scene in those years was trombonist Dino Piana, among the best specialists in Europe of this instrument in the piston version. We later find him in the Basso-Valdambrini quintet and in the ranks of theRAI Orchestra, conducted by pianist and composer Armando Trovajoli, along with trumpeters Oscar Valdambrini, Nini Culasso, Nini Rosso, altosaxophonists Attilio Donadio and Livio Cerveglieri, baritonsaxophonist and flutist Gino Marinacci, and several others.

Note: Famous photo in which U.S. singer Billie Holiday in 1958 is pictured in the Mexican Tavern with a group of Italian musicians, including Gianni Basso and Oscar Valdambrini

Paolo Marra