Jazz in Switzerland (Vol. 2)

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The Fifties, era of amateur jazz - In the jazz clubs, which were mostly the haunts of jazz purists, substantial schisms were opening up between traditionalists and modernists, amateurs and professionals. This evolution took place at Switzerland's top jazz event of these years: the Zurich Amateur Festival.

This content was published on March 17, 2003 - 09:54

In the fifties the key event for all Swiss jazz musicians was the Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival. Inaugurated in 1951 by Zurich jazz enthusiast and amateur musician André Berner. As competition for amateur jazz musicians, it became an annual event, staged in the "Urban" cinema at Bellevue. The audience response was remarkable. The 3rd edition of the festival attracted more than 15,000 people over its six-day span.

In 1955 the number of contestants was so large that there had to be a pre-selection stage. The following year saw the contest open for the first time to a foreign group: Harry Walton's Dixieland Jazzmen. It was in 1958 that some musicians decided not to enter the contest any more. Former prize-winning soloists on the verge of turning professional, objected to having their abilities assessed by the jury and simply took part "hors concours".

The festival itself was originally designed to strictly showcase amateurs, not professionals. The typical amateur jazz musician then was self-taught, took up his instrument at age 16 and did not intend to become a professional. Though the festival presented remarkable talents, who soon entered the professional field. Daniel Humair, Mario Schneeberger, Umberto Foletti and Michel Pilet, to name a few. Consequently the Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival ranking lists read like a who's who of Swiss jazz.

Highlight and as important as the festival itself were the overcrowded jam sessions at the restaurant "Weisser Wind". Out of these sessions new groups and friendships developed, often crossing over the demarcation lines of different styles. Serving as informal crossroads and incubator of ideas, these jam sessions will also have played their role in shifting Swiss jazz scene towards professionalism.

In 1961 the festival was re-christened the International Amateur Jazz Festival. But ten years later came the final "farewell to the family party", and the festival became a showcase only for established professional jazz talents.

But at the time, when jazz was becoming more professional and sophisticated, its popularity was waning. Young people turned on to beat music, pop, rock and blues. The jazz scene was becoming the focus of a smaller circle of insiders.

Jazz on the radio

Swiss radio was present at the Zurich Amateur Festival from its very beginning and broadcast the award ceremony concert live. Unfortunately most of the tapes have long since been wiped, and no usable recordings from the early festival editions now exist.

The live programme "Jazz Partout" originated in the French-speaking part of Switzerland was also broadcast from many cities in the German-speaking region. The invited musicians played before a jury, which awarded a trophy in the shape of a plaster figure named the "Louis".

In addition, the weekly cinema newsreel and the newly-established Swiss television service reported on jazz life in Switzerland.

Though Swiss jazz started to become professional it was not possible to study jazz at this time. The becoming pro had to study by listening over and over again to the few, expensive 78rpm records or by searching the radio wave bands for the midnight programme of Willis Conover on the AFN radio station.

The first Swiss jazz schools, founded by Dr. Francis Burgener, opened in Basel and Zurich in 1959.

Production information

Jazz in Switzerland Volume 2 (1997). Musica Helvetica MH CD 108.2. Produced for SRI by Christian Strickler. Music selected by Bruno Spoerri.

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