Silver Mines, Golden Jazz

Kongsberg presented its 35th jazz festival in July last year. Since its inception in 1965, it has become part of jazz history and acquired an international reputation.

Kongsberg is known for its silver mines, ski jumpers, world-famous high technology and, thanks to two young jazz enthusiasts, its jazz festival. It began with a few musicians, most of whom were Norwegian. Later on came international names and the festival has expanded to include contemporary music, a special children’s festival and several concert venues.

Kjell Gunnar Hoff was eighteen and Per Ottersen twenty-one when they started the festival. They were already responsible for Jazz Evidence, the first jazz club in town, but after a visit to the Molde festival in 1964 they were keen to tackle new challenges. Kongsberg would have its own festival. They had a cinema in town, and why not use the silver mine as a concert hall? They could have a festival club in the town’s two hotels, Grand and Gyldenløve.

From a musical point of view, the first festival was a success – several of the musicians are now international jazz names – but financially it was a fiasco. Ten thousand NOK had to be found and Kjell Gunnar borrowed it from his father, who had a ski factory. Kjell’s father was so dubious about the project that he had to consult with his wife – the same lady who last year wandered enthusiastically around the festival streets enjoying the jazz: “You don’t see many people of my age,” said Mrs. Hoff, who will soon be ninety.

Jan Garbarek and Karin Krog
To the 1965 festival came jazz singer Karin Krog and eighteen-year-old saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The Polish pianist and composer Krysztof Komeda, who was also in Kongsberg, was so impressed by Jan that he invited him to Warsaw the following year. We also heard the Danish bass player Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen and several Norwegian musicians who are all just as relevant today. Only one American was invited, saxophonist Nathan Davis, now a professor at Pittsburgh University.

Several of the musicians gave concerts in the silver mines, transported there with drums, saxes and mikes on the historical lilliput train that carried them 2.3 kilometres into the mountain.

Kongsberg, an interesting little town full of exciting history, is only an hour and a half’s bus ride from Oslo. It was the discovery of silver in the mountain that led to the foundation of the town in 1624. Today the mines contain more jazz than silver and many jazz greats have inspired their audiences to boiling point from its unusual stage, surrounded by rock on all sides. Mine jazz is hot!

The French fiddler
Per and Kjell Gunnar wanted more American jazz names to come to Kongsberg’s second festival and proudly announced to the press that they expected saxophonist Dexter Gordon and trumpeter Clark Terry. A few days before the festival was due to begin, Per and Kjell Gunnar turned up at my place in the middle of dinner:

“Randi, you’ve got to help us. We have no musicians!”
“But what about Dexter and Clark?”
“Terry didn’t return the contract and Dexter is ill.”

The previous year, I had been at a festival in Juan-les-Pins and been agreeably surprised by 21-year-old French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (see LtN 1-2000). He was a find and I had asked for his address. I also knew that American saxophonist Bill Barron was in Scandinavia. Could this be a solution?

Per and Kjell Gunnar were fairly inexperienced organisers, but now they really got moving. The festival had to be saved. A telegram was sent to Jean-Luc: if he would like to come to Kongsberg, he would have to fetch the air ticket, pronto. It was the violinist’s first time abroad and on the plane he thought he was going to Königsberg in Germany. In Oslo, he was picked up by a private aircraft at eight in the evening, just as the concert was starting in Kongsberg. The pilot caught sight of the little Frenchman with the violin case, took him by the arm and dragged him inside. Jean Luc tried to protest in French, but before he knew what was happening they were preparing to land – right in the middle of the forest outside Kongsberg. From there he was driven directly to the cinema, where he just had time to shake hands with Danish superbass Nils Henning Ørsted Pedersen, who was to accompany him.

The concert was a success and the festival was like a fairy tale for Ponty – the violinist who is now world famous. At Knutehytta he saw Norwegian folk dancing and tried playing a Hardanger fiddle for the first time. We remember that episode with pleasure, and it was even more fun when Barron and Yusef Lateef – a saxophonist who had also been hired at the last minute – each pulled out a home-made flute and treated us to a duet.

Jean-Luc had several unusual and frightening experiences in Kongsberg. Like the night he was fetched to take part in a jam session after the concert. He was placed in the back of Kjell Gunnar’s pickup and when it started off rather too abruptly, the Frenchman was tossed in the air and landed on the ground. He ended up resting in his hotel. Another experience that must also have been rather unique took place when he was driven into the mountain to give a concert. He played magnificently and is probably the only jazz violinist to have performed several hundred metres underground. When the concert was over, however, he was obviously longing for the little train to carry him back to the open air. He and the other musicians – and the audience – had been packed in the mine like sardines.

Jean-Luc has long since moved to the US and become a member of the world’s jazz élite but he will not forget Kongsberg. After all, he played with top musicians, had an attentive audience and experienced the warmth of the eager organisers. I am sure he forgives them for more or less kidnapping him from the moment he fetched his air ticket in Paris.

Where is Kongsberg?
Although Kongsberg is not very far from the old Oslo airport, misunderstandings could arise and the organisers had quite a job transporting musicians. Some were delayed, while others tried to make their own way. The South African pianist Dollar Brand didn’t come by air but turned up at the Dagbladet newspaper office in Oslo, where he asked for the newspaper’s jazz critic. He wanted to know where Kongsberg was and was referred to me at my day job at Hydro – a large company known for oil production rather than jazz. The Hydro staff had an unusual experience when they left work that day, for in reception sat Mr. Brand, giving an impromptu flute concert. Although they may have wondered about the music, nobody doubted who he was waiting for! We took the train to Kongsberg together.

In 1975, legendary trumpeter Don Cherry managed to arrive in Kongsberg one day late, but by that time it was easy to find substitutes. Several big jazz names were already there. When Cherry arrived the following day without his own bass player, Arild Andersen stepped in. This was another unforgettable concert, with Cherry on several ethnic instruments in addition to his trumpet and his Swedish wife, Moki, also playing a rare instrument. Cherry was a well-travelled musician and often liked to hitch hike to festivals. For many years they were accompanied by their son, Eagle Eye. Cherry is dead now, but his son has become a big pop name in Sweden.

Sonny Rollins in Kongsberg
Sonny Rollins, one of the biggest jazz attractions today, has been to Kongsberg three times. The first time, in 1971, was a topic of conversation all over the world. Rollins hadn’t been heard for two years; he had taken a break and everyone wondered where he was. He chose to make his comeback at Kongsberg and asked especially to play with local musicians. The concert was a wonderful experience, with Bobo Stenson from Sweden and Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen from Norway. Rollins thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

In the early years, the musicians lived in Kongsberg throughout the festival and Sonny took the opportunity of hearing the other musicians. I particularly remember the time he attended the concert in Kongsberg Church, the country’s largest Baroque church built in 1761, beautifully decorated and with room for 3,000 people. Pianist and composer George Russell was going to present his masterpiece Listen to the Silence with a twelve-man ensemble and for the first time in history the church was filled to the last seat. The queue outside was enormous and the verger was terrified when the audience stormed in.

I ended up beside Sonny in the gallery, where the old wooden beams groaned as more and more people poured in. Sonny wondered a little where we would end up if the gallery collapsed – on Jan Garbarek’s or Terje Rypdal’s head? They were both soloists in the orchestra. The church remained standing, however, and has always been the venue for the presentation of exciting commissioned works during the festival.

Good music on offer
Kongsberg has often been the first to present new ideas. The organisers arranged free concerts in the park outside the cinema at an early stage, they started bigband workshops for amateurs with excellent teachers, while professional Norwegian musicians had the chance of playing with world-famous arrangers and band leaders, such as Oliver Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie and Gerald Wilson.

The festival began to present new music early on, including compositions by Arne Nordheim and Finn Mortensen. Several musicians have composed commissioned pieces, such as Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Carl Magnus Neumann and Per Husby with his Dedication Orchestra in which Karin Krog and Georgie Fame were vocalists. George Russel came back with his work Vertical Form No. 6 for twenty-two musicians, including Garbarek.

The Kongsberg Festival has for many years benefited from the voluntary efforts of many jazz enthusiasts. The organisation has become increasingly professional and the festival has grown. Kjell Gunnar and Per constantly increased their staff with new, capable people, an administration team was formed and Per was still involved. Several people tried their hand at being festival director, Tale Solheim being the first woman in 1989-90.

In 1992 the Kongsberg Jazz Festival appointed its first director, Tore Flesjø. He came from the well-known F 15 art gallery in Fredrikstad, which he had headed for several years, and he came as a stranger to the jazz crowd who had been running the festival for more than a quarter of a century. Flesjø fitted in beautifully. He has managed to retain the good traditions and some of the intimacy, although the festival is growing constantly. He has also upheld the view that Kongsberg must present a pure jazz festival, preferably with exponents of new music in cooperation with jazz musicians. Last year, for example, the Oslo Sinfonietta and Jøkleba from Bergen played there, conducted by Christian Eggen (LtN 3/99). The main attractions were the unusual violinist Nigel Kennedy, singer Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Joshua Redman, Nils Petter Molvær with his project Khmer 1 and 2, and pianist Herbie Hancock playing Gershwin. Hancock had asked the festival to choose a Norwegian female vocalist to sing with his orchestra, including Summertime, and Kjersti Stubø from Narvik had the honour. She was a pleasant surprise, both for the audience and for Hancock.

All the above artists gave a concert in Kongsberg Hall, which seats 1,500 people. This and several other concert venues have been established since the festival started. In the pedestrian precinct outside the Grand Hotel, new musicians try their paces every day, from one year to the next, and singer Hege Saugstad did so well that last year she gave a concert in the King’s Mine. The “Miner’s Tent” was also new – it had no seats but was nevertheless full, while the “Pope’s Stage”, acquired in 1989 after the Pope’s visit to Norway, has become a popular meeting place every year for everyone, including the town’s citizens and, not least, the children, who have their own festival where they can run, play, paint and dance to the music on the Pope’s Stage.

Grants and prizes
Kongsberg is one of the festivals that receives a certain amount of government funding. The telecom company Klart Svar has also supported the festival for several years by awarding a prize to a deserving musician. Singer, composer, lyric writer and actress Sidsel Endresen received the NOK 50,000 prize last year, which means that she will be presenting a commissioned work on the Pope’s Stage this year.

Tore Flesjø naturally has plans for the annual festival exhibition, too, so we can expect exciting things, both art and jazz.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.8 - 2000 No. 2
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