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June 2008

Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe

Jan Garbarek, the Norwegian saxophonist, states the theme of Julian Benedikt’s instructive 90-minute documentary early in the program. “We’ll never be Charlie Parker,” he says, “but we have something else.” Throughout, European jazz artists express similar sentiments: aping an American art form only goes so far; at some point the need to break away and find one’s own voice becomes the paramount concern. Joe Zawinul notes that the Hungarian electric guitarist Attila Zoller, for one, realized he’d never be able to play blues like a black man and ultimately searched for his own roots, and German keyboardist Joachim Kühn explains that it took his discovery of Ornette Coleman before he felt free to be himself

It’s debatable though, even by the end, whether—with the exception of the anomalous Gypsy guitar of Django Reinhardt—European jazz autonomy ever truly arrived. Drummer Marilyn Mazur’s assertion that “Your own music comes from within yourself” is hardly a thought exclusive to Europeans, and German trumpeter Till Brönner’s confession to “grappling with the question” of his roots betrays a tentativeness that surfaces often. Only late in the game, with the arrival of free jazz, which the Europeans took to new extremes, do interviewees seem convinced that they’ve cut the tether to America.

But regardless of the outcome, the film leaves no doubt that European audiences and musicians have certainly embraced jazz, practically since its inception, and probably beat Americans to the punch in appreciating it as an art form. Once jazz seeped into the various European cultures in the 1920s, American musicians found work increasingly easily in the continent’s cultural capitals. Some, like Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, became expatriates, delighted, says French singer Juliette Greco, “to meet people who weren’t racists.” From them and from a continuous flow of touring masters the European musicians learned not only the music itself but the attitude that fueled jazz as it evolved from big band to bebop and beyond.

Copious infusions of vintage performance footage—Americans Dizzy, Duke, Miles, Satch, Bud Powell, et. al., and European players, among them a possessed-looking Tomasz Stanko, the Polish trumpeter—and scene-setting clips (gotta love those dank, smoky basement joints packed with wild and crazy beatniks) contribute to this revealing portrait of jazz’s travels and impact beyond its birthplace.

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