BELGRADE JAZZ FESTIVAL 1971–2022
The first Newport Jazz Festival in Belgrade took place from October 31 to November 3, 1971. This event marked the peak of the Belgrade Youth Centre efforts and a group of true jazz enthusiasts affiliated with it, like program managers Milan Šević and Guta Grdanički and jazz expert the Tanjug state news agency reporter Aleksandar Živković. Earlier, the Youth Centre arranged a series of concerts called The Jazz Podium with many esteemed American artists. Finally, Živković reached out to George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival with a collaboration proposal. The first big event in November 1970 was announced as "The greatest jazz concert in Belgrade ever!". The performers were Earl Hines, Anita O'Day, Charles Mingus...
A year later, at the start of the Festival, publicist Žika Bogdanović wrote: "Overwhelmed with excitement and a new surge of hope, for the first time in this city, we welcome extremely distinguished guests – some of the greatest living figures of jazz... We already got Bitef, Bemus and Fest: now we also get the Newport in Belgrade, with a sincere hope that it will become a cultural tradition of this region."
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were the opening act of the first Festival. Four days of jazz in the Union Hall showcased the entire history of this music genre, from dixie innocence by Kid Thomas' Preservation Hall Band, to The Giants of Jazz bop flame and Gary Burton's intimate impressionism, to avant-garde traps set by Ornette Coleman Quartet, to lecherous jazz-funk by Miles Davis. The first edition was a part of the "American Jazz Week in Eastern Europe" tour, but only the Belgrade audience got to see Miles Davis thanks to Aleksandar Živković who arranged this performance separately because the State Department refused to send Miles to Europe due to his controversial political views. As the Festival was coming to an end, Miles played the music no one in the audience was prepared for, but everyone knew that they were witnessing the making of history. The event put Belgrade on the world jazz map while setting the bar high for the Festival – to follow world trends closely and record them.
The following year, Aleksandar Živković was appointed as a program selector, assembling the "Dream Orchestra", the first Yugoslav All-Stars Band. However George Wein took care of the rest of the program and Belgrade welcomed the famous jazz journalist Leonard Feather and jazz broadcaster Willis Conover. On the sidelines of the main program, the Youth Centre Dancing Hall hosted a series of memorable jam sessions that have since become a staple of the Belgrade Jazz Festival. The third edition already bared the name the Newport-Belgrade Jazz Festival. Belgrade band Korni grupa represented the local music scene, and for the first time, the audience got to watch a non-American foreign jazz ensemble, the Polish vocal quartet Novi Singers.
"The Youth Centre presents the Belgrade Jazz Festival", the cover of the 1974 catalogue clearly indicated the big change: a local organization was capable of arranging the Festival and selecting the acts. For the first time, the main program took place in the Pionir Sports Hall in front of a 4000-strong audience each night! America was represented by Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz, as well as the Newport production Musical Life Of Charlie Parker. Vibraphonist Boško Petrović with B. P. Convention represented Yugoslavia, and there were performers from Argentina, West Germany and the Eastern bloc also.
Živković prepared the next edition before focusing on his management career, becoming one of the great impresarios of jazz. Saša Radojčić took over the helm in 1976 and the Festival kept a similar concept – with several big stars from the USA, the best domestic jazzmen, and European artists. Concerts mostly took place in the Union Hall, jam sessions in the Belgrade Youth Centre Dancing Hall, and for the performance of the world's most popular fusion band Weather Report, the festival "returned" to Pionir Hall at the opening in 1980. Fun fact: the ninth edition officially never happened – it is most likely that the organizers "rushed" the jubilee celebration in 1979 to ensure better funding and greater interest from sponsors and the media.
During the harsh period of economic recession, the Festival almost got shut down, but in 1986 it was "saved" by the tremendous support of the US Embassy for the comeback concert of Miles Davis in the packed hall of the Sava Center. With the renewed interest from the audience, the Festival continued until 1990 as in its best days, presenting in the program Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Phil Woods, Art Blakey, Nina Simone, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie United Nation Orchestra, Oregon and Modern Jazz Quartet, among others.
Amid the civil war approaching Belgrade in the fall of 1991, the Belgrade Youth Center management issued a statement about the postponement of the Festival: "We apologize to our audience, jazz enthusiasts, culture envoys for refusing to live in illusions. We expect an apology from the real culprits for this unprecedented human and cultural misery we live in." The break went on for the next thirteen long years...
The comeback edition took place in 2005 under the slogan Tradition and Futurism. The goal was to gather all jazz aficionados who still remember the first Newport and new kids too, or just music enthusiasts who haven't discovered yet that they have a soft spot for jazz. The new concept meant not only a balance between more traditional jazz styles, avant-garde and crossover with popular music of the new age but an emphasis on younger artists, as well as shifting the focus from the USA to Europe, looking at the outstanding results of artists on our continent. Recognizing the Festival's importance in creating the best cultural image of the capital, in 2007, the City of Belgrade put the Belgrade Jazz Festival in a category of events of special importance. And recognizing European aspirations in a new concept, the festival became a member of the Europe Jazz Network in 2014.
Each year, a large number of foreign journalists and photographers, from the USA to Russia, from Great Britain to Italy, flock to Belgrade to report for prestigious jazz magazines and portals, including JazzTimes, DownBeat, All About Jazz, Jazz Wise, Jazz Journal, London Jazz News, Concerto, Jazz Flits, Laboratorium Muzycznych Fuzji... Serbian photographer from Timişoara Dragoslav Nedić won the award for jazz photo of the year in the vote of the Jazz Journalists Association, for the shot of the American singer Jazzmeia Horn taken at the 35th Belgrade Jazz Festival. Concerts from the Festival were broadcasted twice directly to viewers in forty countries by the French MEZZO channel, in 2008 (Patricia Barber and Yaron Herman) and 2009 (Kurt Elling and Terence Blanchard).
Sixteen editions in the second life of the event were packed with unforgettable moments, guest appearances by great jazz creators and numerous talents who only later became famous. Today, the festival pays special attention to local artists, taking responsibility for the affirmation of Serbian jazz in the country and internationally. Starting in 2008, the Festival commissions one original production to a prominent local ensemble or soloists – a performance with a premier program and possibly prestigious guests from the country or abroad. And since 2015, the Serbian Showcase presents three ensembles or individuals each year, of mostly younger generations with their current projects. showcase, na kome predstavljamo po tri sastava pretežno mlađe generacije sa aktuelnim projektima.
So far, over 520 bands or soloists have performed on the main and side programs. About a quarter of them were local, about 30% Americans, and about 45% acts were from Europe and the "rest of the world". The percentage representation of local bands before and after the break is similar, while the percentage of foreign acts has changed. In the first twenty years, it was about 45% American and 30% non-American artists; since 2005, it's been 20% American and over half non-American artists.
The RTS Big Band had a record 16 performances at the Festival, usually performing with distinguished guests from the country or abroad. Among the foreign leaders, the record holder is Dizzy Gillespie with five appearances, and in the recent history of the event, Joe Lovano with four appearances. After the USA and Yugoslavia/Serbia, which are well ahead, Austrian bands hold third place, with 20 appearances at the event. The Festival lasted the longest in 2019, for eight whole days with an opening and a plus concert when a record 30 foreign journalists followed the festival. The largest number of participants performed in 2021 - a total of 164 musicians.