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Reykjavik Jazz Festival

We all know Frank Zappa’s saying, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells weird.” I don’t understand why people think jazz is dead or smells weird, but who would suspect Frank Zappa? After all, being cocky, I decided to explore Reykjavík his jazz his festival to get a sense of what jazz really smells like (why didn’t he elaborate on that?).

jazz was not welcome

Iceland doesn’t have the best history when it comes to welcoming jazz. It was racistly considered “black music” and was not welcomed until sometime in the 1960s (the genre originated in his late 19th century). It had to do with Iceland’s strategic position in politics, nationalism, World War II, the Cold War, and all of this. Black soldiers were also not welcome. However, I will omit the history class.

Thankfully times have changed. The Reykjavik Jazz Festival proves it perfectly. Now in its 32nd year, this seven-day festival of his took part in some 11 venues and his 200 musicians from around the world, rocking the city with some 40 concerts. After all, he is one of Iceland’s longest-running music festivals.

Flikirjan’s Club for Five.Credit: Reykjavik Jazz Festival

From assumption to reality

On my way to the opening of the festival at Sukgabaldur, a lovely downtown jazz venue, my dream took over. I imagined the festival would turn Reykjavik into a Wes Anderson movie or Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’. Jazz is everywhere, people smoke pipes while having intelligent conversations, and I’m addicted to reading T.S. I bumped into my future husband. Instead, I almost collided with a lost seagull on the road and came back to earth.

When I arrived at Sukgabaldur, I was really surprised that it wasn’t full. It turns out that no other Icelandic media was present, and when I later asked one of the organizers about this, Jazz said that his musicians were too humble to promote themselves. I said the facts were likely to be the cause. “Maybe it smells weird?” I thought.

Credit: Reykjavik Jazz Festival

Where were these people hiding?

When I picked up the program booklet, I realized just how big the Icelandic jazz scene is. Organizers Jón Ómar Árnason and his Pétur Oddbergur have put together a great line-up featuring not just jazz, as you know, but funk, blues, big band, and anything else that could fall into that range. Especially “Copenhagen Jazz Funk Collective feat. Benjamin Koppel” and Jacob’s Buchanan “Requiem”. The latter took place at Hallgrimskirkja, and on stage he was attended by over 40 musicians, making him one of the biggest concerts ever in Iceland.

The concerts I attended gave me a taste of everything. Buchanan’s ‘Requiem’ was long sitting (don’t be easily distracted and forced to sit on wooden benches for too long), a bit too religious for my taste, but well worth the experience . The other concert was a chorus, followed by a big band, then a funk act took over, making me wonder why this was a seated event.


Buchanan’s “Requiem” at Hallgrimskirkja.Credit: Reykjavik Jazz Festival

crowd diversity

I think that’s the problem. Despite being unconventional and rebellious, jazz is a genre that doesn’t really appeal to younger generations. Aside from the adorable boy who was so into music that he made my week, the audience seemed older (suddenly a chair makes sense). It was too late for a weekday. Perhaps a change of venue with places to dance, lounge, or where the bar doesn’t close early will attract a younger crowd in the evening.

So, did my Wes Anderson fantasy come true? No one read ‘Prufrock’ to me, but I learned a lot about the extremes of jazz and its place in the Icelandic community.Jón and Pétur did an amazing job of organizing the festival, Proving once again that jazz is very much alive. Sure, it might smell weird, but it sure tastes good. Wake up, young people!

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