Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Story Of Mallorcan Jazz

Sa Pobla in August is the venue for one of the main events in the Mallorcan jazz calendar. Its annual festival has over the years attracted some seriously big names from the world of jazz, but as a festival it had been, until last year, strung out; the five or six concerts were staged over a three-week or so period. If you are going to promote jazz as part of the tourism mix, then it is probably better if a festival takes place over a more concentrated period. And this was what happened last year.

Whether the promotion was any better, however, is open to question. Jazz, and the same can be said for all forms of music on the island, does not tend to get a look-in on those lists of the usual-suspect, alternatives-to-sun-and-beach tourism activities. Gastronomy, culture, nature, cycling. You know these lists only too well. Music? Well no, not really. Be the music, say, Sa Pobla Jazz or the Pollensa Festival, it tends to be treated if not as an afterthought then as an add-on, an optional extra for the tourist who might stumble across an event rather than be drawn by a direct appeal to his or her musical tastes.

For an island which has an enormous amount of music of all varieties, an apparently official indifference to this music's existence is difficult to comprehend. The endless saga as to the survival of the Balearics Symphony Orchestra has done this officialdom little credit. Yes, it costs money to run an excellent orchestra, but there are times when benefits, both tangible because of audience revenue and intangible because of cultural enrichment, should be given greater prominence when a bean-counting cost-benefit analysis is being made.

Jazz in winter, of which there is a good amount, is the preserve for the most part of the clubs which offer it. Though Jazz Voyeur closes for two months from the middle of January, there are other venues. Sala Dante, the Blue Jazz Club at the Hotel Saratoga, the Garito Café.

The story of jazz in Mallorca started, to all intents and purposes, with a pioneer in the early 1950s. That pioneer was Vicenç Montoliu i Massana, better known as Tete Montoliu. He wasn't a native of Mallorca (he was from Barcelona), but Montoliu became intimately associated with the development of jazz music on the island from the '50s. Montoliu, who died in 1997, was arguably the most important jazz pianist Spain had produced. Like George Shearing and Ray Charles, Montoliu was blind, but his incapacity didn't hinder him. In 1952, at the age of nineteen, he played in Mallorca for the first time. During that decade he appeared at venues such as Tito's club in Palma and at the Hotel Formentor. But this wasn't necessarily an entirely satisfying time for him. His jazz, which then was mainly bebop and Latin, had to be moderated for the burgeoning tourism industry. He was jazz-lite.

In truth, jazz was very much a minority musical genre in Mallorca until the 1980s. This was largely due to the fact that the Franco regime hadn't been that keen on it. The regime had enough problems trying to keep youth exposed to British and American pop music in check than to go adding to them by permitting other forms of music at variance with the patriotic styles it preferred. Nevertheless, both Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton appeared at Tagomago in the 1960s. Big international star names apart, however, jazz was largely ignored in Mallorca, except by Montoliu and collaborators he teamed up with. This all changed from 1980 onwards. Montoliu began to appear very much more regularly in Mallorca, and a concert of 7 May, 1981, which also featured the American pianist Keith Jarrett, was to prove to be a breakthrough occasion and helped to bring about the Palma International Jazz Festival, an event which, for the first time, brought jazz to a wider audience and away from exclusive or elite clubs. Montoliu went on to also perform in less likely settings than clubs or auditoriums. In 1982 he played with a gospel choir in Palma Cathedral and in 1984 in the church in Alaró.

The 1980s represented a decade that was a high point for jazz in Mallorca. In 1991, something happened which reduced its popularity. That was the local election. Palma town hall, which had been controlled by the PSOE socialists since 1979, came under the control of the Partido Popular. The jazz festival was scrapped. The reason? Good question. But there was more than just a hint of it having been because jazz was seen as being "socialist". Indeed, it was if jazz became proscribed. Montoliu played at a hotel in Cala Ratjada. The audience was tiny. There was no press coverage. His final appearance, six months before his death, was in Palma's Gran Hotel.

It was the festival in Sa Pobla which revived jazz, and the Jazz Voyeur summer festival season is, in a way, the offspring of the one-time Palma festival. These summer traditions have spilled over into the winter. There is jazz on a winter's day in many places across Mallorca, not just in Palma. But those days owe a great deal of debt to one man - Tete Montoliu.

* I acknowledge an article by Francesc Vicens for information about Montoliu.

Photo from Wikipedia: Tete Montoliu in 1984 with Bobby Hutcherson.

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