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Graz for Jazz

Graz for Jazz

Kathy Arnold - 2003-03-01

Jazz cellars don't come more atmospheric than the Royal Garden Jazz Club's, set beneath medieval vaulted arches. The music may be modern, but the refreshment is traditional - beer, Zweigelt red wine and Brötchen, slices of pumpernickel bread spread with liver pâté. The night we visit, the Berndt Luef Trio is in action. Luef, a virtuoso on vibraphone, is a whirl of hands, forearms and green-knobbed sticks, rippling out old favourites like How Deep is the Ocean, as well as his own composition, Work Stations Part, 1, 2 and 3. None of us in the audience is more than five paces from the musicians.

"People are amazed that jazz is so popular in Graz. In fact, Graz was the first university in Europe to open a jazz faculty, back in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, many students stayed on and play here," Luef tells us over a lager during an interval. He studied classical music as well as jazz, until a hand injury finished his classical piano career.

With the border of the former Yugoslavia only some 40 km away, the war there had a major impact on music in Graz. "Many jazz musicians come from former Yugoslavia. We never ask them whether it's Serbia or Bosnia. We just play music." Luef explains.
This open door policy is highlighted during the Cultural Year, with European Jazz 2003, a series of jazz weeks, featuring East and West European musicians.

Veterans, often professors at the university, are at the heart of the jazz scene, and often the catalyst for the bands set up by foreign students. Musician and journalist Otmar Klammer is also the owner of the Stockwerk jazz club: "There is no Graz sound, but each club here tends to have a style. Stockwerk is all about innovative, cutting edge, improvised music." The jazz scene is still informal, so there is no glossy brochure for the tourist. Finding out what's on, however is easy. Just pick up the Kleine Zeitung, the local paper, and look under Aviso, or ask your concierge. Most venues are within walking distance of the centre. As for venues, WIST, across from the Jazz University, is a student hang out. Jazz M59 is also known as Münzl (because it's on Münzgrabenstrasse). Then there is trad jazz for trad folk who pack into the Sunday jazz brunches at the Grand Hotel Wiesler, when the Murwater Ramblers, a honkin' and tootin' Dixieland band struts its stuff.

While we chat to Klammer, a band from Kosovo rehearses. "As the European Union looks east, their musicians are travelling west. Irina Karamarkovic is re-interpreting 200 year-old folk songs in a jazz idiom." Singing in Albanian, Irina's Songs from Kosovo have echoes of American blues and Moorish history. It's all part of the rich ethnic mix swirling around in this fascinating corner of Europe. This month, Czech musicians are in town (17-21 March at Jazz M59). Later, Italian, Hungarian, Polish and British jazz musicians will be in the spotlight.

Graz also hosts an international jazz festival every summer. "It's great for Graz," according to Berndt Luef, ever the rebel, "but not that good for the local scene." American stars jet in for three nights, then disappear. Although Styria is often considered the most conservative of Austria's provinces, there is a lot "bubbling under," says Berndt, "with avant garde artists, writers and musicians."

Overlooking the Franziskanerplatz is the Kleinen Elefanten, a small bar and restaurant where jazz is a regular on the menu. We drop in for a night of rhythm 'n' blues. Howling Sweet Home Chicago like a natural-born American was an Austrian university student, with a veteran of the Graz jazz scene on guitar and a bass player from the Balkans. Instead of soul food, we tucked in to Schnitzel. That's Graz: an unexpected mix of east, west and more.

Jazz cellars don't come more atmospheric than the Royal Garden Jazz Club's, set beneath medieval vaulted arches. The music may be modern, but the refreshment is traditional - beer, Zweigelt red wine and Brötchen, slices of pumpernickel bread spread with liver pâté. The night we visit, the Berndt Luef Trio is in action. Luef, a virtuoso on vibraphone, is a whirl of hands, forearms and green-knobbed sticks, rippling out old favourites like How Deep is the Ocean, as well as his own composition, Work Stations Part, 1, 2 and 3. None of us in the audience is more than five paces from the musicians.

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