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Real Village Voice #32

"Do you remember when I visited your apartment in the East Village, back in the '80s?" asked my friend, the Finnish music critic. We were eating Spanish food in a restaurant during an intermission in the music at the 22nd annual Tampere Jazz Happening.

Tampere is a small city in the center of Finland. It was the birthplace of Finnish industry in the 1800s, is still home to Finlayson, a textile company, and the headquarters of Nokia, the cell phone maker, is in a nearby town. Tampere is located between two lakes. It has two colleges, a state-of-the-art concert hall, and one long avenue of fashionable shopping. On the dark, cold, rainy autumn weekend when the Tampere Jazz Happening takes place, it is full of downtown type people. They came this year to hear bassist William Parker's ensemble with dancers and a video, violinist Billy Bang's gritty quintet, electric pianist Uri Caine, the Bad Plus piano-bass-drum trio, German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet with dueling baritone saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson, and a range of hard-core Scandanavian jazz players. I am told a large part of the audience drives here from Helsinki, which is two hours by car to the south. Other listeners come from Lapland, where the reindeer live in the north, and Finnish, Swedish and Norweigan locations. Approximately 5000 people of all ages come to this three-day festival. They drink, and listen intently.

I was sitting across from Jussi Niemi, who slept on the floor of my bachelor apartment more than 15 years ago. I hadn't talked to him since then. He is my age, and like me, since we met years ago he has married and become a father. He said he thinks about writing a book. We had just sat in a very hot sauna bath for half an hour, and we each had drunk a beer.

"I remember looking at your record collection", Jussi continued. "I thought you were only into abstract, intellectual jazz. But then I saw all these blues records, and rhythm and blues and soul albums, and old New Orleans music. That's when I thought we had a lot in common, because I love all that music, too."

What good is abstract, intellectual jazz if it isn't grounded somehow in blues, and rhythm, and soul? How can you dig Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, John Zorn, and similarly brainy players, if you don't sense the passions of Jelly Roll Morton, early Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Mississippi delta guitar demon Robert Johnson, Chicago's Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, pianists Otis Spann and Professor Longhair—not to mention Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, James Brown and George Clinton?

It is possible to listen to blues, rhythm and blues and soul musics and never learn to like music that doesn't have a single clear melody line, or constant pulse. But I am a bit suspicious of people who claim to be deep into the heaviest improvisers and composers, yet don't respond to the founding fathers and mothers of popular music of the African American tradition. That is one reason I wonder about Wynton Marsalis: he says pop, rock, soul and blues isn't worthy of serious attention. I have always disagreed.

And here was a Finnish journalist announcing he came to trust me only when he saw I liked that stuff. He told me too many of his younger fellow citizens thought the blues was loud drinking music, without subtlety. I said that problem exists in the US today, too. That's why the recent seven-film series about the blues produced by Martin Scorsese, shown on public television and sold as DVDs, was so important, even though the films were flawed. The plots wander, they aren't all informative, there is no attempt to tell the history of the blues the way Ken Burns tried to tell the history of jazz. But there is great performance footage of delta bluesman Son House, Detroit boogie guitarist John Lee Hooker, famous B.B. King, little-known J.B. Lenoir, and a lot of others. The flaws are forgiven.

"Jussi", I told my buddy, in my most severe real village voice, "the book you write should be called 'Funk for Finns'".