Spain's own jazz story

National Library opens its doors to exhibition of nation's encounter with the genre

'At the cabaret: Rag Time'. Madrid, 1919.
'At the cabaret: Rag Time'. Madrid, 1919.

There was a time when the popular songstress Lola Flores used to perform a flamenco version of swing and Duke Ellington's Don't get around much anymore had a homegrown version called Ya no voy por el club, recorded by Juan Carlos Calderón and his quartet. This was also a time when jazz magazines carried the story of Miles Davis' death and called him "one of our own."

These and other movingly melancholic bits of nostalgia are the focus of El ruido alegre (The happy noise), an exhibition of jazz-related documents that ends the tricentennial celebrations of the National Library. The show traces the colorful ups and downs of a century of jazz history in Spain: the misunderstandings with which the new genre was received, and the quaint assimilation of what is surely the 20th century's most important form of cultural expression made entirely in the USA.

The exhibition is as complex as the progressions in Coltrane's Giant Steps. Press clippings, slate records, CD covers, posters and books all helped curator Jorge García assemble a tale of amazing heroics and resounding failures ever since music with a black pedigree first arrived in Spain in the early 20th century via places like Cuba, Paris or London.

The display cabinets show paper-based memories of the time when the zany cakewalk dance became a hit, or when foxtrot entered the peninsula "through San Sebastián or Santander" for the greater solace of "nobility and royalty." The exhibition documents how jazz was first received as a picturesquely racial new music by a majority of people who were quickly seduced by it (the poet Jorge Guillén, the dictator Primo de Rivera, the Generation of '27 literary group or the poet Corpus Barga, author of the quote "black music is not music for dancing; it is music that dances"). A minority rejected it (a cranky Wenceslao Fernández Flórez or a certain sector within the Franco regime). But with time the genre became a staple of bohemian circles.

El ruido alegre also highlights successive and illustrious visits to Spain by leading jazz performers like the exuberant Josephine Baker, the sax players Don Byas and Gerry Mulligan, or an experiment by Lionel Hampton who made an early attempt at fusing jazz with flamenco on an RCA album recorded in 1958, with castanets syncopating the vibraphone to hilarious results.

All of us who listen to jazz-bands look like the victims of good news"

A more refined experiment by saxophonist Pedro Iturralde on his legendary album Jazz Flamenco, in which Paco de Lucía participated, serves as a segue into the thorniest chapter in this history of jazz: the Spaniards who were seduced by the genre and overcame reticence, struggling to make a living out of it. A good example of the lean times up ahead for aspiring jazz musicians in Spain is Iturralde himself, who despite being the dean of the jazz sax in Spain "has had to earn his bread teaching at the conservatory," as the curator noted during a tour of the exhibition.

The second part of the show revolves around Tete Montoliú, a world-renowned pianist in his own right who stands out for the absence of Spanish stereotypes in his work. Montoliú rules over this section much like he ruled the Spanish jazz scene up until his death in 1997. The National Library has rummaged in its archives and produced a video of one of his performances, as well as covers of the albums he recorded solo or in the company of Nuria Feliú or Jordi Sabatés, including Vampyria, which National Library director Glòria Pérez-Salmerón admitted is her "favorite" album ever. There are also references to Barcelona, no doubt Spain's jazziest city.

The exhibition ends with a section on contemporary CDs that proves that a jazz music industry actually exists here, even if it has seen better times (like the late 1990s, when stars like Brad Mehldau or Mark Turner were regular performers for Spanish labels.)

"Half a century had to go by before our country entered jazz normality, and suddenly it is hurtling down the highway," reads a text by Ebbe Traberg (1932-1996), a Danish poet, journalist, jazz fan and indispensable witness of the return to democracy and jazz's newfound place at festivals, magazines (Cuadernos de Jazz, available exclusively online these days, and Quartica), bookstores (the show displays Winter in Lisbon by Antonio Muñoz Molina and the seminal treatise by José María García Martínez, Del fox-trot al jazz flamenco: el jazz en España, 1919-1996), and even television. This latest idyll lasted until Jordi García Candau, head of the state broadcaster in the 1990s, told parliament in 1992 that "there is not a large enough target audience for a permanent jazz program."

Perhaps that was because we have forgotten these words by 20th-century writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna: "All those of us who listen to jazz-bands look like the victims of good news." Jazz fans who drop by the National Library will come away with a bitter taste in their mouths after seeing the last part of the show, which lists all the bad news for the jazz world, such as publications that have gone out of business, reduced programming at jazz venues (including the flagship San Juan Evangelista) and festivals which will never see another edition (the last to fall was the Fundación Barrié de la Maza jazz fest in A Coruña).

El ruido alegre. Until February 24 at Biblioteca Nacional, Paseo de Recoletos 20-22, Madrid.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS