When you think of the great autumn jazz festivals of Europe, cities like London, Berlin, and perhaps Milan come to mind. You don’t necessarily think of Belgrade, Serbia. Many jazz people are probably surprised to learn that Belgrade has a festival. In the 1990s, Serbia and the Balkans dominated the cable news channels during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. But according to the dynamics of the 24-hour news cycle, that was long ago. Most people in America and Western Europe have lost all track of Belgrade.
It is not a romantic European destination. Belgrade has some grand vistas over the Sava and Danube rivers, especially from Kalemegdan fortress. It has many nice parks and some beautiful neoclassicist architecture. But because of frequent wars, few structures predate the 19th century. The dominant visual impression is of gray austerity and graffiti. Towering clusters of Soviet-era apartment blocks are streaked with black from pollution. When you walk around the city, it is shocking to suddenly come upon the rubble of a building bombed by NATO in 1999, still not cleared. Everything from the way people dress to the grim hole-in-the-wall retail zones to the cars on the streets tells you that Serbia has not recovered economically from wars that ended 20 years ago. Still, there is an ambience to Belgrade, a certain edgy energy, that gets under your skin. People here have seen everything and survived. They distrust all governments, starting with their own. It’s a city devoid of sentimentality. Serbs only smile when they mean it.