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Letter From Saint Petersburg

In 2018, International Jazz Day brings the beyond-politics cultural diplomacy of the U.N. to Russia

An all-star cast at the 2018 International Jazz Day Global Concert in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with co-artistic directors Igor Butman and Herbie Hancock (from far left) (photo by Steve Mundinger/Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz)
An all-star cast at the 2018 International Jazz Day Global Concert in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with co-artistic directors Igor Butman and Herbie Hancock (from far left) (photo by Steve Mundinger/Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz)

“You have to imagine peace, and work for it,” the arts producer and musician Hannibal Saad told me in the late evening of April 30. “Otherwise you become insane.” We were standing in the ballroom-style atrium of the Commandant’s House at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Established by Peter the Great around the dawn of the 18th century and built over the next few decades, the fortress is arresting in its architectural grandeur, like so much of Russia’s cultural capital. A cast party for the 2018 International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert had begun to wane, and Saad was detailing the jazz-related entrepreneurship he undertook in his native Syria.

After gaining an education in the U.S., he “started the modern jazz movement in Syria in 2004,” he said, which included a festival and collaborations with cultural organizations that fostered admission-free events in multiple cities. When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, the festivals became impossible, so Saad, who currently lives in the Netherlands, funneled his energy into international benefit concerts for Syrian refugees, children and musicians. He also cleverly deployed technology to raise awareness, including an online video campaign, dubbed #4Syria, that asked musicians to perform and record something in dedication to the nation’s suffering, devoid of politics. “I thought, ‘This should be done now, not when the war ends,’” Saad explained. “And that worked, because usually when there is polarity, people tend to join the polarity, and the people in the middle, they disappear.” International Jazz Day, co-organized by the United Nations’ UNESCO agency and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and held globally each year since 2012, became an essential ally in his work, touting a humanitarian ethos he’d already adopted. “Somehow you have to find common ground, and I thought music can do that.”

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