The Masters of Jazz in Italy

In the early 1970s the international jazz scene was shaken by the emergence of jazz-rock. Without a shadow of a doubt, the initiator of such a momentous shift toward a less purist view of jazz performance is the American trumpeter Miles Davis.

After some attempts to electrify instruments and introduce rhythms and riffs borrowed from African American rock and funk in albums recorded in the late 1960s, Miles in the Sky (1968) and In a Silent Way (1969), Miles Davis defined his musical vision with the album Bitches Brew (1969).

Upon its release, the record work determined a real turning point in the jazz scene of the time divided between supporters of the old-school Bebop and adherents to the Free movement, guilty according to many, including Miles Davis himself, of decreasing public interest in jazz in favor of rock and pop productions.

Several of the musicians who had been part of the large ensemble directed by Miles Davis for the recording of Bitches Brew would replicate the jazz-rock formula in the following years, with a few excellent variations on the theme, translating it within their own groups: Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock’s sextet, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, joined by Larry Young’s solo record Lawrence of Newark.

The jazz-rock genre in its various forms attracted a growing number of fans and buyers in the 1970s. This was due to the dynamic-expressive as well as aesthetic content of the new musical genre akin to that put forth by the numerous rock and psychedelic funk ensembles capable of climbing the charts and selling out at the box offices of major international festivals.

Conversely, those musicians who remained loyal, rightly or wrongly, than those mentioned above to the “tradition” of jazz saw the American public’s interest in their music gradually diminish, leading to a sharp decline in engagements in city jazz clubs.

To give continuity to their artistic careers, several of them decided to move away from the United States to go and play in front of European audiences, which have always been ready to be rationally open to novelty, as long as it is measured by the yardstick of the past, synonymous with tradition and historical identity, so rooted in the cultural fabric of the Old Continent.

Let us be clear, the jazz-rock and free jazz genres were also spreading in Europe at that time, but with substantial differences from the African-American scene. In fact, both musical movements are characterized by a distinctly “European” feel, by virtue of an instrumental language welded to the national and regional origins of the musicians.

The U.S. jazz-rock scene would have its cohort of European epigones in England, France, Holland, Germany and Poland. Italy will be no less: free jazz, given the turbulent political and social situation of the 1970s, will take on a precise ideological connotation shifted toward the antagonistic wing of the extra-parliamentary left, while jazz-rock groups, coeval with those of progressive rock, will be engaged, with not always convincing results, in merging overseas musical trends with the folkloric heritage of the Peninsula.

Contributing to an even more varied and stimulating musical climate during that turn of time was the arrival in Italy of sacred monsters of Bop, Hard bop, Cool and modal jazz. These include McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Jackie McLean, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Johnny Griffin, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Lee Konitz, Art Farmer, Sal Nistico.

Except for a few cases, for economic reasons American artists come to Italy without their own rhythm sections. To replace them, they rely on local musicians, in demand for the occasion in every European state or city. This opened the possibility, unimaginable until recently, for the new generation of Italian jazz musicians to play with their favorites in the various jazz clubs and festivals organized in different Italian cities.

As happened in the United States through the merit of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, in Italy in the second half of the 1970s Bop-derived acoustic jazz would reclaim the scene by shaping itself to the technical-expressive sensibility of Italian jazz musicians.

Among the roster of young jazz musicians who find themselves accompanying foreign musicians are: Enrico Pieranunzi, Roberto Gatto, Roberto Della Grotta, Giovanni Tommaso, Maurizio Giammarco, Enzo Pietropaoli, Danilo Rea, Massimo Urbani, Fabrizio Sferra, Riccardo del Fra, and Nicola Stilo.

The meeting of musicians who had never played together is somewhat facilitated by a repertoire consisting mostly of standards, the set list of which is drafted before the scheduled concerts, particularly during soundcheck.

What made the difference was the local musician’s ability to improvise, who often had to be ready during the concert to accommodate variations in the set list of songs by the leader of the lineup. In this respect, Italian jazz musicians proved to be among the best in the European arena, so much so that they quickly became permanent members of the ensembles that accompanied the “Americans” on tours in Italy and the rest of Europe.

This phenomenon of encounter and exchange between foreign and Italian musicians will inform the entire period between the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s, leading to a qualitative growth of Italian jazz.

Paolo Marra

I Maestri del Jazz IN ITALIA