All those cutbacks
Musicians and aficionados decry the fund slashing that threatens the country's jazz festivals.
Nine years ago, at the jazz festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (then called "Jazz, Blues and Videotape" and now called "Jazz Tel Aviv" ), I had one of the most exciting musical experiences in my life. As sometimes happens at festivals, I found myself at a performance by an ensemble I wasn't familiar with. There were two players, a black saxophonist and a white pianist, and they said they were called Ras Dashen. The saxophonist, Abate Berihun, was a new immigrant from Ethiopia who had arrived in Israel four years earlier; the pianist, Yitzhak Yedid, was a graduate of the Jerusalem music conservatory. Nothing prepared me, or the others in the small Cinematheque auditorium, for the rare beauty that erupted from the stage when these two unknown musicians began to play.
That was the first time I heard the wonderful sound of Ethiopian music, and the combination between it and free Coltrane-style jazz (Berihun's saxophone ) and touches of a meditative modern composition (Yedid's piano ) was breathtaking. When Berihun opened his mouth and began to sing an ancient prayer with the most authentic blues intonation I had ever heard, I was already floating a few centimeters above my seat. Every sound in this performance flew straight into the soul, including the sound of the drops of sweat that fell from Yedid's hair and landed on the piano keys.
The encounter with this musical marvel could not have happened anywhere except at the jazz festival in the Cinematheque. Ras Dashen, which had not yet issued their first (and only ) album, had already performed in small venues, but it is doubtful whether those performances had flickered on the radar of Israeli jazz lovers. This is why, among other things, there are festivals - to bring ensembles that perform on the margins to a central stage and to present them to the audience.
So perhaps I could have discovered Ras Dashen at another jazz festival in Israel? No chance. The jazz festival in Eilat provides a platform for Israeli ensembles, but not for ensembles that play jazz that is free and chamber in spirit. Only the jazz festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque is attentive to music of the type played by Ras Dashen, and the performance at the 2003 festival was not only an hour and a half of superb music, but also Abate Berihun's springboard to the awareness of Israeli jazz lovers and the window through which we discovered the miracle called Ethiopian jazz, which today is almost self-understood.
Ras Dashen's performance is but an example - one of many - of the Tel Aviv jazz festival's important contribution to Israel's musical and cultural landscape. The festival, established 23 years ago, has brought some of the best jazz musicians in the world to Israel and introduced them to Israeli jazz players. It has presented to the Israeli audience important jazz traditions not represented on other stages (most of all, it seems, the terrific tradition of black free jazz ), provided an alternative to the Eilat jazz festival - which has greater mass appeal - and a platform for excellent Israeli ensembles that did not receive the proper exposure, and enabled them to play in special and ambitious formats that could not have come about in any other situation.
A few weeks ago this important festival suffered a harsh blow. The Tel Aviv municipality, which funds and produces it, decided to change its format and to sponsor it only biennially. Next year the festival won't take place, and it is supposed to return in 2014. Israeli jazz lovers are afraid that making the festival a biennial event is nothing more than a step on the way to canceling it, and even if the fear is exaggerated - the municipality firmly denies any intention of canceling the festival - making it biennial (as far as we know, without increasing its budget in the years when it is held ) is a harsh blow to one of the central axes of the Israeli jazz scene, one of the last islands of profound and creative musical culture.
Letters to the mayor
The cutback in the festival infuriates the hard core of jazz lovers and jazz musicians, who wrote to Mayor Ron Huldai imploring him to restore the festival to its usual format. Saxophonist Shai Brenner was not satisfied with sending a written message. He went to the municipality and asked to meet with the mayor and the director general, who according to the protesting jazz lovers is responsible for the decision to cut back. (The municipality chose not to respond to Haaretz's question as to whether the municipality's cultural staff participated in the decision ).
"I went there and said that I wanted to come with a group of famous musicians to express our objection, but they weren't willing to meet," says Brenner.
The municipality didn't bother to explain the cutback, and its silence, like the cutback itself, makes a mockery of its early declarations about the great importance of the festival. The program of the last festival, for example, said that "If Tel Aviv were a musical style, we can assume it would be jazz: colorful, daring and always surprising. Like Tel Aviv-Jaffa, jazz also combines colors, sounds, scales and innumerable influences, which merge into a harmonic creation that is likely to change from one moment to the next."
The 2011 festival program read: "In the 22 years of its existence the Jazz Tel Aviv festival has gained prestige and a reputation in Israel and abroad. The festival constitutes a major attraction for sworn jazz lovers and lovers of culture in general, as well as for leading players and outstanding artists. The festival hosts exceptional musical combinations and special projects, and provides an exciting experience."
So exciting that we have to calm down for two years until the next time.
Far from New York
"This festival is the crowning glory of Israeli jazz, certainly in the center of the country," says Brenner. "I think that the municipality has made an unfortunate mistake. As it is there is little awareness of jazz in Israel, and now they're taking one of the most important jazz institutions in Israel, an institution that has maintained this awareness for many years, and undercutting it.
"For us, the musicians, for whom music is our lives' work, this creates a dangerous void," continues Brenner, asking jazz lovers to continue "to bombard the municipality with faxes and e-mails."
"It's not easy to be a jazz player in this country. Jazz players don't live well, don't find work. So we seize on the sliver of hope offered by the festival. Even if it doesn't pay well, it gives us a platform and treats our art with respect. So now they're trampling on that too. It hurts."
"This decision is very regrettable," says trumpeter Avishai Cohen. "I think that the people in the Tel Aviv municipality are unaware of the fact that Israeli jazz has become one of the country's most important export industries. The musicians who come from here play on the most important stages in the world, and it's a shame that when they return to Israel they have fewer and fewer places in which to play. This cutback is especially infuriating in a city like Tel Aviv, which is supposed to be the Israeli equivalent of New York."
Cohen played wonderfully at the last Tel Aviv jazz festival, and he says that hen he went out to the Cinematheque plaza after the performance "I had so much fun talking to people, feeling what I always feel at festivals all over the world - but this was in Tel Aviv and it was so natural and moving. I hope Huldai will reconsider the cutback."
"This is a pathetic decision by the municipality and its head," says Albert Beger, who has performed in the festival several times and has even formed deep ties, thanks to the festival, with several of the greatest American jazz players. "This festival is the only ultimate jazz festival in Israel. It enables a broad range of music to exist within it: from mainstream, and even pop that is close to jazz, to avant-garde that you can't find at any other festival. So to cut that of all things?
"As musicians we have a vested interest here," continues Beger. "There's no place left to perform in this country. Everything is being closed and going from bad to worse. Which city is supposed to provide a solution in such a situation if not Tel Aviv? It's supposed to be the cultural capital of this country, isn't it? So instead of providing a solution, Huldai is doing the opposite and simply removing the festival. I think it's a blatant and ugly step, which is causing a cultural Holocaust, and I want you to quote me - don't be diplomatic. I'm fed up.
"The battle against this decision has to be in-your-face. We have to take to the streets, and all the artists have to join us because it's not just a problem of the jazz players. It's a problem of all of Israeli culture, which is becoming cheap and simplistic and empty of content. Our image is getting smaller, and those responsible are those who stand at the top of the pyramid and control the financial sources. 'We're missing a grush and a half in the budget? Let's get rid of this unimportant event called the Jazz Tel Aviv festival.'"
The Tel Aviv municipality replied that "The municipal commitment to the festival remains. On the contrary, it was out of overall thinking and discussion about the events program in the city, and in order to strengthen and refresh the overall program and the festival in particular, that we decided to turn it into a biennial event."
Now it's all clear. The festival cut back in order to strengthen it. A good joke, but why at the expense of our music and culture?
Participating in the funeral
The Tel Aviv jazz festival is not the only jazz festival to recently suffer a significant cutback. The Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, the largest of its kind in Israel, also took a severe blow: Its budget, which was NIS 1.45 million, was cut by about a third and is now only NIS 1 million.
As recently publicized on Ynet, the new artistic directors of the festival, Dubi Lenz and Eli Degibri, sent an angry letter to the Eilat municipality and the Red Sea Resort Tourism Administration, which finance the festival. "In our opinion this is a death blow to an institution that is proud of the 25 years of its existence," wrote Lenz and Degibri. "We believe that those who made this hasty decision really don't mind participating in the funeral of one of the most important cultural institutions in the State of Israel ... We cannot see ourselves continuing our work on the festival under these conditions, since the product that we turn out will be flawed and will not bring the audience we had anticipated."
Two and a half weeks after publication of the harsh letter, Lenz and Degibri have not carried out their threat. The two artistic directors are continuing their work on the festival. Degibri preferred this week not to discuss the letter, and we were unable to get Lenz's reaction.
In reply to Haaretz's question as to whether the festival budget really was cut from NIS 1.45 million to NIS 1 million, the response from the festival was: "Preparations for the festival are in full swing."