“Bird? Ask me the name of my sailboat”.
I don’t know if many people have seen The Talented Mr. Ripley as many times as I have, but it was perhaps whilst watching this film for the first time, years ago, that it first dawned on me how well jazz and Italy go together, stylistically. Spiritually. Jazz is everywhere in this twisted psychological thriller, taking stage in several locations: Palazzo Malcovati on the island of Ischia, a club in Naples, a record store in Rome, and a terrace in what we are told is Sanremo.
I had just moved from Sydney to New York City to hone my skills as a jazz musician, and I had not yet been to Europe, but this film fed my already fervent desire to perform across the pond. Especially in Italy. One thing led to another, and four years later I found myself not only touring but moving, along with my drums, from the jazz capital of the world to Rome. Over the past ten years or so on Italian soil, I have had the opportunity to play this music up and down every coastline, in the mountains, on the islands, in the countryside, vineyards, at its many international festivals, in theaters, concert halls, and jazz clubs. The full gamut. This early impression that I had of the bond between Italy and jazz has fortunately proven to be true, and it exists on a deeper level than I had expected.
Italy’s connection to jazz dates back to the very inception of this music, in New Orleans, at around the turn of the twentieth century. While the city was a slave port and segregation persisted long after slavery ended, people mixed more freely there than in other American cities at the time. New Orleans was home to Africans, French, Spaniards, Germans, Irish, Scottish, Swedish, Native Americans, Mexicans, Haitians, Cubans, Creoles, Greeks, Chinese, Jews, and a large number of Sicilians representing Italy. While jazz as an art form is unquestionably African-American, it is fair to say that the diversity of sounds and traditions that presented themselves in this cultural melting pot had a considerable influence on one another.
Some 80% of the residents in the city’s French Quarter were Italian, and a part of the neighborhood was known as “Little Palermo”. Along with the salumi, cheeses, olives, and capers that make up the infamous muffuletta sandwich, the Sicilians brought with them the brass band, la banda, which is still popular in Southern Italy today, and the vocal style known as “bel canto”. Both of these elements were adopted by the early jazz musicians. Among the Europeans in New Orleans, the Sicilians were the main group of people to perform this new music and indeed record it. The internationally acclaimed Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso has performed many times in recent years alongside a member of New Orleans jazz royalty, Wynton Marsalis. Francesco has taken the time to absorb the city’s music and flavor: “There are many similarities between the two musical worlds”, he says, “which is why I feel very comfortable when, for example, I find myself in a marching band context, very similar to the bands that I saw as a child in my city in Sicily”.
In 1919, an Italian diplomat, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin, wrote an article on the New Orleans jazz scene for La Lettura, a monthly supplement to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. While some of his claims were overblown, Zuculin’s desire to promote the importance of the Italian immigrants, at the dawn of this new music’s conception, helped increase the curiosity that the Italians back home held for the genre. They embraced jazz as a symbol of youth and modernism. Clubs and dance halls opened up in Rome, Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Florence in the 20s, and jazz filled the airwaves. Italian musicians started learning how to play from the records, emulating their heroes, signaling a departure from the more traditional education of the classical conservatories.
One of the founding fathers of jazz, and its biggest star at the time, Louis Armstrong, arrived in Turin in 1935 to perform two concerts. The shows enjoyed unprecedented success and received widespread media coverage, officially putting Italy on the map for touring jazz musicians. And there it has remained. If you talk to any jazz musician today, Italy will no doubt be cited as one of their favorite places to visit and perform. Partly for the chance to soak up some of the country’s beauty, partly for the generous hospitality of the organizers, and partly for the warmth with which they are received by concert-goers. Legendary American saxophonist Dave Liebman states that “The Italian audience is by far the most enthusiastic and warmest that one encounters. In fact, it is hard to separate the Italian lifestyle of great food, wine, high fashion, beautiful towns, and villages, medieval art and culture everywhere as well as the mellifluous sounding language from their enthusiasm about jazz, film, opera, painting and the arts in general”.
As a testament to the love that touring musicians have for the peninsula, dozens of jazz compositions have been inspired by and dedicated to its cities, towns, and islands; more than for any other country outside of the USA. Milano and Venice by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Back to Bologna by Cedar Walton, Capri by Gigi Gryce, Perugia by Brad Mehldau, There Are Many Angels in Florence by Paul Motian, and Verona by Gilad Hekselman, to name but a few.
The feelings are mutual, too. In 2011 Bologna inaugurated La Strada del Jazz: a street dedicated to the jazz stars that have performed in the city over the past decades. Every year concerts are held in the city center, and a Hollywood Walk of Fame-style marble star is placed in the pavement, honoring beloved legends of the music, such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie.
How to sum up jazz, Italy and all of this love between the two?
Is there something about this music that connects particularly with the Italian people?
“I believe that Italians are attracted to the creative and passionate aspect of this genre”, says Cafiso. “And actually, these are the same adjectives that I would use to describe Italian culture.” Another of Italy’s most respected saxophonists, Turin’s Emanuele Cisi, also feels it may be tied to the creative/improvisational aspect of the music. “Improvisation is present in the daily life of the Italians, at every level, even at times creating problems for those used to a more predictable and organized way of life.” Bologna tenor-man Piero Odorici, a long-time collaborator with the late master pianist Cedar Walton, offers a different perspective. “Culturally, we come from the classical idea of melody, and I think something in jazz that communicates well with the Italian audience is the melody. Italians love a good, clearly defined melody”.
I am sure it is all of these things and more. In any case, pulling up in Piazza Navona like Freddie Miles in Ripley, in a red Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider with Coltrane blaring from the car speakers, is still on my bucket list of things to do. Maybe that will truly put Italy’s love of jazz to the test.