Jazz in Flanders: Biotope of Free Birds

By Didier Wijnants

During 2002, when Bruges was the European Culture Capital, local arts centre De Werf released an amazing CD box-set called ‘The Finest in Belgian Jazz’. The box contained ten top quality CD’s with famous artists like Toots Thielemans and Philip Catherine, but also lesser-known Belgian talent. It included a booklet with background information about our jazz scene, very interesting reading, especially if you consider the fact that, barely six years later, it already seems outdated. This isn’t meant to criticize the authors, quite the opposite: it means the Belgian and Flemish jazz scene is very much alive.

The first thing that comes to mind is that it is very difficult for jazz to differentiate between Flanders and Belgium. The linguistic border is not the first preoccupation for jazz musicians. Many Belgian jazz groups consist of Flemish-speaking and Francophone musicians alike, and quite often a few French, Dutch and German ones thrown in for good measure. Belgian cultural policy, however, is regionalized and therefore there is a Flemish jazz policy and, bureaucratically speaking, there is even a Flemish Jazz scene.

Funny Belgian titbit: the heart of Flemish jazz lies in Brussels, and it is also the centre of ‘Walloon jazz’. Brussels is a melting pot of cultures, so it seems logical that you come across a denser concentration of clubs, venues and musicians. That being said, the last few years have seen an interesting expansion taking place. On the one hand, there are growing jazz scenes in the larger Flemish cities (Antwerp, and particularly Ghent). On the other hand, jazz musicians are getting more opportunities to perform in local cultural centres in Flanders. Another indication that there’s movement. Ten years ago, you only found jazz in a few big cities and in a handful of clubs; today Flemish jazz is omnipresent.
There’s increasing diversity and you don’t hear anyone complaining, except for the odd organiser who doesn’t manage to pack out his venue or the frustrated punter who is presented with too many options.

Jazz = excitement

What happened to jazz being seen in certain circles as unfashionable music for aging youths? That was barely ten years ago and it already seems like a distant era. This is partly thanks to a few pop musicians, thanks to the likes of Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones. Even pop journalists are hailing jazz as the hip thing, albeit the more superficial jazzy tunes. That being said, jazz is slowly working its way to a larger audience. Pianist Jef Neve, for instance, is causing considerable waves in Flanders. This young thirty-something captivates friend and foe alike with his slightly clumsy but cheerful stage presence and his charming, recognisable yet titillating piano performance. His technique reminds of Brad Mehldau, including the flirting with Schubert-romanticism, and thus is not particularly original. Consequently, Neve is not what one could call the genius of Flemish jazz, but he always strikes a sensitive chord which helps to attract the crowd.

The growing number of festivals is another sign that jazz is seriously taking off in Flanders. Ten years ago, there was the biennial Jazz Middelheim in Antwerp and some summery brushwood here and there. These days there are jazz festivals of all size and creed, in and out of season and in all parts of the country. The five-day Jazz Middelheim will once again be a yearly event, as of 2008 and Ghent is putting on the ambitious Blue Note Records Festival with the full-size edition in July and a smaller one in February. There are also the Motives Festival in Genk, the bi-annual indoor European Jazz event in Bruges, a revamped Free Music Festival in Antwerp and even more brushwood here and there than before. Even arts centres (Vooruit, deSingel, Roma, Beursschouwburg) are organizing mini jazz festivals more often. As mentioned before, the problem is that the schedule is usually packed whereas the venues aren’t, not because of a lack of interest, but rather because of over saturation.

The popular media has had its eye on this renewed interest in jazz for a while, but they do have a tendency to blow it a little out of proportion. Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé: it’s all sweet as pie, but in reality jazz is a rather complex form of music, certainly not a light starter. Yet, this complex form of music can count on the growing attention of a young and covetous audience. And there are good reasons for that. The cultural attaché of the Cultural Centre in Alsemberg summed it up quite nicely: “The most exciting stuff happens when I put on jazz shows.” Jazz is indeed exciting and young folks just can’t get enough of it. 

New scenes

They can’t get enough of it because they can feel jazz musicians are free as birds, couldn’t give a toss about commercial interests and record company policies. Jazz musicians aren’t in it for the money, you can tell by the smell of their sweat and you can feel it at their concerts. How else do you explain such a burgeoning scene in Ghent? Ghent totals about a quarter of a million inhabitants, hardly what would qualify as a metropolis, but insiders claim it’s possible to take in more creative jazz concerts, on a daily basis, than in New York. These high claims come from Bart Maris, himself an overactive trumpeter who is involved in more than 20 different groups. When he doesn’t have any prior commitments in Ghent or elsewhere, he sniffs out the jam sessions in his hometown. That’s always a good sign: spontaneous jam sessions mean creative growth. It happened in Brussels in the late eighties. The most creative musicians would get together in De Kaai, a grubby but cosy club at the Arduinkaai, run solely by musicians. If De Kaai hadn’t existed, we would never have had Aka Moon, who is possibly the most influential Belgian jazz band nowadays. Without De Kaai there would be no Octurn: it was in that club Kris Defoort was able to test his lucid ideas for the first time. At the same time another jazz club was flourishing in the Brussels district of Elsene; The Sounds, today still a port of call for creative musicians. Without The Sounds there would be no Brussels Jazz Orchestra, which today is the most impressive institute of Belgian jazz.

So, in 2008 it all seems to be happening in Ghent (among others). Young musicians get together in cafes such as the Hot Club de Gand, for formal and informal concerts. They exchange ideas and are constructing a new kind of jazz. Take a listen to Moker, produced by guitarist Mathias Van de Wiele: it’s rough and unpolished music, but exceedingly authentic and professional. It is quite remarkable, because the new jazz scene is certainly cashing in on the newly founded jazz courses at the various conservatories. These courses have not led to the feared tedium, brought on by the musicians’ blood trying to go where it can’t.


This musical attitude of the new jazz scene fits in perfectly with the new easy-going state of mind of the young Internet user. Nobody will tell them how to go about it. Record companies, of course, try to grasp these hip birds (Jef Neve is under contract with Universal Music, for instance), but the most creative of these musicians prefer to release their own stuff and are not at all interested in the music industry. And this is not only true for the younger generation. Kris Defoort has refused many a record company deal because the contracts were too restrictive and offered too few opportunities. Most of his records are released on the label of De Werf, a reliable partner without meddling tendencies. Someone like Peter Jacquemyn released his music on his own label KraaK. Not only Belgian musicians have this habit. Even international jazz greats work this way. Tim Berne, for instance, has been releasing his work in his own label, Screwgun Records, for years. He sells mainly online, but also at his concerts, where there is a more direct approach with his audience.
That scene is possibly even more important than the internet. Musicians sell to their listeners via a formula which you could call buy@gig: after the concert they produce a box of CD’s. This indicates the fundamental difference of this universe with, for instance, the pop and rock scene. In jazz the concerts support the sales of CD’s and not the other way around. Or, to quote Bart Maris: “Why should we work with record labels? We know our clientele personally.” Of course, it doesn’t induce riches, but jazz musicians generally don’t become rich, not even international jazz stars like Joe Lovano. Even they don’t exceed the 20.000 worldwide sales mark.


The example of Peter Jacquemyn is interesting. This double bassist is a descendant of WIM, the Workgroup Improvising Musicians, the renowned Antwerp pianist Fred Van Hove’s club. Their free improvisations were long vilified as anti-music by the ambassadors of good taste. These days, it seems to be quite lucrative, albeit in different circles. Jacquemyn, in any case, has a solidly booked schedule in Belgium and abroad. This fact demonstrates that musicians and audience alike are, once again, fascinated by the “sound of surprise” of jazz.
Another example of the above mentioned is Mâäk’s Spirit’s success; they are the trendsetting band around trumpeter Laurent Blondiau with Jeroen Van Herzeele, Eric Thielemans, Jean-Yves Evrard and Sébastien Boisseau. An example of their skills and talents: at Jazz Middelheim, in 2007, they played for an hour with the famous Dutch obstructionist Misha Mengelberg, a confrontation that made many a musician falter.
Mâäk’s Spirit turned the event into an incredible adventure and apparently Mengelberg had a blast. He doesn’t utter those kinds of things very often.

Adventure is also on top of the list these days for Ben Sluijs, who, up until a few years ago, was the leader of a great but rather conventional quartet. A more pleasant adventure can be found with Flat Earth Society, clarinettist Peter Vermeersch’s enjoyably disturbed big band. Others seek their adventurous escapades in folkloristic motives and dances (Tuur Florizoone), in exotic rhythms and fitting instrumentation (Chris Joris), in the exploration of overtones and understated atonality (Robin Verheyen) or even the fabrication of grand musical storylines (Erwin Vann).

Leaving room

Naturally, not all Flemish jazz musicians have adventure at the top of their agenda. Traditional jazz, based on sophisticated compositions and fine arrangements, is still doing very well and we do have some international talent in the house. Consider trumpeter Bert Joris, who’s ‘Magone’ CD caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice abroad. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra is recognised abroad as one of the best big band, by among others, Dave Liebman, Maria Schneider en Kenny Werner. Drummer Dré Pallemaerts’ ‘Pan Harmonie’ CD, is causing considerable waves in France. Pianist Michel Bisceglia has been making emotive lyrical jazz for years.
The hype around Jef Neve is, however, shadowing other exciting Flemish pianists’ limelight. Think Ewout Pierreux, one of Jef Neve’s generational colleagues, who is often referred to as ‘that other young pianist’. Then there is also Erik Vermeulen, another searcher who doesn’t mind taking the occasional nosedive. The good thing about that kind of attitude is that he isn’t afraid to take huge leaps and explore uncharted territory. 
Free Desmyter is just as interesting. He is on a unique personal voyage and not deviously copying the relative successes from abroad. With his CD ‘Something To Share’, he serves up a platter of compositions that leave the performers all the room they need, nothing too convoluted or tedious yet appealingly contemporary. He also infuses his work with personality, not playing the up-tempo but rather the down-tempo aspect of it and loves poignant hesitation and moments of anticipation.

As mentioned above, jazz is indeed all about suspense. It is delightful that a growing number of young people (musicians and audience) are making the concerted effort of seeking out that suspense. As long as that necessity is sustained, jazz has a guaranteed future. A while back, the Dutch author J. Bernlef voiced his doubts about the future of jazz. On December 21, 2001, he wrote the following in the guestbook at De Werf:

‘Jazz is for people
who don’t know anymore
who’ve heard everything
and never believe their own ears
Hope springs eternal
But whether that will include jazz?’

It’s very doom and gloom, but the evolution of jazz in Flanders, over the last few years, certainly shows that real jazz is very much present and is showing no signs of going anywhere.

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