Can it be necessary to write a history of Norwegian jazz? We believe so, because although it is only a microscopic part of the development of jazz worldwide, it is an important element of Norwegian cultural history this century.
In the 1920s, jazz was not only the name of a new type of music that turned up in Norway, it was just as much a symbol of young people’s new fashions, life styles and protests against their parents’ generation. Here came the jazz generation! Subsequently, this musical genre has been part of the dance and entertainment scene, of concerts and festivals – it has even merged with Norwegian folk music. How and why this happened is part of our country’s history, whether you like jazz or not.
In the preface to a book on Norwegian jazz published in 1975, Jazz i Norge, the editors wrote: “Not having a history will often mean that you are anonymous, invisible. Having a history means that you exist, are noticed, have self-respect.” The same preface indicated the need for a Norwegian jazz archive, a centre for the collection of material, research and the publication of results.
It was an entertaining book, mainly because it contained a number of interviews with jazz musicians, but it was by no means a comprehensive history of Norwegian jazz. It was primarily a record of what some jazz musicians, mostly from Oslo, remembered of their own jazz experiences. It therefore provided a useful lesson for many of the people who helped to write it – jazz musicians do not remember any better than the rest of us. It taught us “non-historians” that if a history was to be written, it had to be done in some other way.
The Norwegian Jazz Archives
The idea of creating a centre for the study and documentation of Norwegian jazz history had been discussed informally by Norwegian jazz enthusiasts many times in the 1960s and 1970s, but the man who got the ball rolling was, of all things, a Swede – Professor Bengt Jonsson, an expert on folk music from Telemark, Norway. He was head of the well-established Swedish Folk Song Archives where, towards the end of the 1970s, he had established a “Group for Swedish Jazz History”, comprising some ten to fifteen jazz musicians and enthusiasts, for the purpose of creating a Swedish jazz archive.
On visits to Norway in 1977 and 1978, Jonsson contacted Norwegian jazz enthusiasts and almost ordered us to do something similar while the oldest musicians were still alive. A troika was established (Steinar Kristiansen, Bjørn Stendahl and myself), and after a certain amount of planning we contacted the Norwegian Jazz Federation. We informed the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of our plans for establishing a jazz archive and, in autumn 1981, we received a government establishment grant. From 1982 onwards, the Norwegian Jazz Archives (NJA) was on the cultural budget and has since had a full-time general manager and an active, unpaid executive board. The NJA was a relatively independent section of the Norwegian Jazz Federation until 1997, when it became an independent foundation.
Jazz is a fairly young art form that came to Norway around 1920. When the NJA began doing serious research into Norwegian jazz history, it was still possible to find material, both from written sources and from the musicians who were playing jazz in the 1920s and 30s. The NJA’s first research project was therefore to carry out detailed interviews with 15-20 musicians who had been born before 1915. This was done in the period 1982-84. In conversations with two interviewers, these elderly gentlemen talked freely of their own jazz experiences. Several of them had been members of the first Norwegian jazz bands around 1920. The taped interviews were transcribed word for word and collected in a research report which provided much of the background for the first of (so far) three books on Norwegian jazz history, Jazz hot & swing, jazz i Norge 1920-1940, published in 1987. However, it was once again clear that the musicians’ memories are not entirely reliable. Identical events were often claimed to take place on very different dates.
The same proved to be the case in subsequent conversations with younger musicians; most events became a few years older – never younger – than they really were. Without having any scientific basis for saying so, we came to the conclusion that events that took place in the 1950s usually became two to three years older, in the 1940s four to five years older, and so on. This taught us “amateur historians” that the basis for research into Norwegian jazz history had to be written source material, and interviews with musicians and others could be used afterwards to add colour to the information that was already in place. This method was used in the preparation of the next two books about Norwegian jazz history, Sigarett Stomp – Jazz i Norge 1940-1950 (1991) and Cool, Kløver & Dixie – Jazz i Norge 1950-1960 (1997).
Parallel with this research, the NJA has built up an enormous collection of recorded material. Since the archive is supposed to concern itself with Norwegian jazz, this naturally means everything we can find that involves Norwegian jazz musicians, whether inside or outside Norway. However, it also includes publicly performed jazz played by foreign musicians if the event has taken place in Norway and thereby become part of Norwegian jazz history. Miles Davis’ famous “night concert” at the Molde Jazz Festival in 1984 is a natural part of our own jazz history. The collection consists of all the commercially released material plus hundreds of private tapes donated or lent to the NJA. It is an extremely interesting area where much has been done and much remains to be done.
Until 1965, relatively little Norwegian jazz was recorded on disc. You can get Norway’s entire production from 1950 to 1960 onto five CDs. Today, on the other hand, approximately twenty jazz CDs are released in Norway each year! However, from the early 1950s home tape recorders became readily available and many jazz enthusiasts used them. Sometimes they made recordings at jazz clubs or at home, sometimes they recorded the very frequent broadcasts – often live – of “modern dance music” on Norwegian radio, which included a great deal of jazz up to the mid-1960s. Private recordings of these broadcasts, of which the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation has unfortunately kept only a few, give us the opportunity of hearing a large number of Norwegian jazz groups that were never recorded on disc.
The NJA has also collected hundreds of pictures of the Norwegian jazz scene; kind photographers and private individuals have donated their photographs
of musicians, orchestras, clubs and concerts from the entire post-1920 period. Moreover, the archive has a comprehensive collection of Scandinavian jazz magazines, jazz books and all the Norwegian press cuttings about jazz for the last fifteen years. The results of the daunting task of reading – and copying – newspapers from the period 1920-1960 have also been included in the archive. All this material has been catalogued on computers and is available to serious students and researchers. It may not be borrowed or taken away, but may be studied on the NJA’s premises. Many music students working on university assignments have found source material in these collections.
The NJA has also established a database containing biographies of Norwegian jazz musicians which is continuously revised and updated and contains brief information about musicians throughout our jazz history plus longer biographies of some 120 of the most important Norwegian musicians today. These are freely available to the media and the musicians themselves.
How to dig
When we started writing the history of Norwegian jazz in the early 1980s, we had one good and one bad starting point. The good one was a genuine interest in, and fairly comprehensive knowledge of, the Norwegian jazz scene and recorded jazz music. The bad one was, naturally, that we were not historians and therefore not fully aware of all the potential hazards. We had to develop our own method. Whether or not it satisfies the strict demands of professional historians I am not sure – and not particularly concerned.
As mentioned above, we have repeatedly found that the human memory is not always reliable, partly because people remember the wrong dates and partly because most of us have a tendency to stress the importance of our own contribution to events. Much of Norwegian jazz history consisted of information passed on by word of mouth, and stories had a tendency to be exaggerated each time they were retold.
We therefore quickly discovered that our historical efforts had to be based on factual information rather than the beliefs and memories of well-meaning jazz enthusiasts. This discovery led to many long hours reading newspapers at the University Library in Oslo. Behind each of the last two books lies a detailed study of approximately forty Norwegian daily newspapers on microfilm published in the period 1940-1960. This interesting but time-consuming effort requires its own technique. Firstly, you must not allow yourself to be sidetracked, however tempting that may be. We had to be interested only in jazz, in the form of advertisements, prior notices, articles and concert and record reviews. The strange thing is that after searching for the word “jazz” on microfilm for several years, we (my partner Bjørn Stendahl and I) have developed a mystical visual attraction to the letters zz. If I turn to a new page in the daily paper and glance over the page, my eye instinctively finds the combination zz. Unfortunately, it is usually in connection with pizza or Gazza. We ploughed through all the Nordic jazz magazines in the same way.
We photocopied all our findings and they were filed by date. All this information was entered into a database using key words and sorted geographically by date. Consequently, we ended up with a kind of diary of all the jazz events in various parts of the country. If we wanted to write about jazz in Molde, it was easy to obtain a continuous picture of events through the database, easy to find the factual information behind each key word. If we wanted to write about a single musician, it was easy to search for the musician’s name on the PC.
With this factual information in place – and it took time – we were able to start writing a book. After that, it was far easier to interview musicians and enthusiasts to add colour to the picture that already existed. With the factual knowledge in our possession, it was far easier to ask the right questions and gently correct memory errors.
And, finally, attempt to write a book where the whole subject was put in a larger context, a picture of Norwegian jazz during a given period.