Belgrade 2006

Although we were in the country for less than 24 hours, I had a fantastic time visiting and concertizing in Belgrade, Serbia. I knew the music, but had never seen the place.

Arrival there was chaotic. We had to change planes in Munich and when we arrived at the gate Lufthansa informed us that, inexplicably, they only had room for four of us on the flight ! The attendant actually said to me: “We’re very sorry, but you have to choose one person who will not go, right now!” Uri Caine heroically offered to take a later flight, but it was due to arrive only after the performance had begun. So much for the nationally televised Quintet gig…

When the four of us arrived we had an hour long, traffic-choked ride into town from the airport. We drove by Tito’s old government headquarters, still in use apparently, but pretty foreboding. As we got into town things warmed up considerably. Lots of folks walking on the streets, lots of shops, people hanging out, talking, joking. Nice warm autumn day, beautiful buildings in the old section of town.

Finally getting into town, Dragan and the folks from the festival were very understanding and relaxed about the situation. The hotel, as announced in our itinerary, “is building with history of being exclusive hotel during Tito years in former Yugoslavia.” OK. I’m a big fan of Borat, but that’s just not really fair. Suffice it to say that the Metropol has that Old World appeal…

We went over to the theater. Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street were still setting up and sound checking. Tons of equipment, very cool sounds. I listened to Jon’s records in high school and thought Possible Musics was really cool. What he does with the trumpet is totally unique and incredibly delicate and expressive. It was nice to see him.

We finally got going and got all the equipment wrinkles ironed out by about 7:50 (the sold-out concert scheduled for an 8:00 start…). At 7:55 Uri Caine walked in the door! They flew him through Zurich, and almost pulled the same stunt on him once he got there! Take a look at a map. Uri drove from Katowice to Krakow, and flew from Krakow to Munich to Zurich to Belgrade. And came in ready to play!

He plugged in and off we went. The audience was rapt. They responded with warmth — breathing with us. It was a beautiful experience to share the music with them. Not sure if you catch many Serbian National TV broadcasts, but who knows, it may end up on YouTube as well….

The Belgrade Jazz Festival
started in the early seventies, but was canceled in 1990 due to the tense political situation. 2005 was their first year back in action since that time. They’re obviously relieved that the situation is over. But until they give up the generals responsible for the horrific activities of the nineties Serbia will not be able to join the European Union or the rest of the world community. I hope that it happens sooner rather than later.

After chatting with several people, it’s hard not to come away with thoughts about the world situation. Of course everyone I met is involved in organizing music concerts and therefore more likely to be on the left end of the political spectrum. I also met the (center-left) Mayor of Belgrade, Nenad Bogdanović, who came to our concert, and chatted briefly with him. Very nice man.

These people did not support the ranting, Limbaugh-esque xenophobia of Milosevic (though too many sadly did). But it was clear to them that the NATO bombings merely made Slobo’s hand stronger. It gave him an outside enemy to blame everything on. I’m still convinced that engagement and negotiation work; that diplomacy and communication will win out every time over threats and bombs. There’s plenty of room for that in the world right now.

Dragan asked me to tell my friends in New York that jazz in Serbia is happening again! Here’s hoping they have many more festivals to show it.