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“Spain, a desert for jazz.”

This quote by the famous British jazz composer Leonard Feather, paints a rather gloomy and unprofitable picture of the state of jazz music in Spain. It also justifiably raises the question why is it worth writing a whole article about this genre? I think the answer to this question lies not only in the past but also in Spain´s current musical scene.

In this article I aim to look at what Spain has and had to offer in this style of music reflecting on three main questions: How did jazz develop in Spain? What characterized this development? And finally what is the state of jazz music nowadays?

  • Jazz in Spain has undergone a roller-coaster ride throughout Spain´s political history.
  • This genre can be seen as an important part of Spain´s current musical culture

Spain´s first major contact with this genre can partly be attributed to western influences. In 1929 Samuel Wooding, a famous American jazz conductor, and his “Chocolate Kiddies” performed concerts in Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastián. However, it was not only this performance but their subsequent recording of discs in Barcelona which gave Spain a real taste of this American music. Another notable musician responsible for increasing the Spanish public´s awareness of this form of music is Jack Hylton who performed, with his British Orchestra, in the Barcelona Universal Exhibition in 1930.

Although these musicians increased the popularity of jazz and revolutionized the public´s perception of this genre, Spain´s indirect contact with jazz can actually be traced back to the 1920s. In ballrooms, in cities such as Barcelona, jazz originally appeared in the form of African-American and Afro-Cuban dances such as the foxtrot, ragtime, rumba and habanera. Famous composers like Debussy further increased the importance of this primitive style of jazz by incorporating it into their pieces. After the introduction of this musical genre, it increased in popularity with Barcelona becoming the Spanish hub for this type of music. Indeed in 1934 the first jazz club opened its doors in this city.

However this so-called “golden age of jazz” music was not to last and with the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and Franco´s reign in 1939 jazz music started to be suppressed. Franco´s “Hispanization” of Spain aimed to get rid of western ideas and influences which included jazz replacing them with Spanish traditions such as folk songs. This censorship of jazz led to the closure of clubs and many jazz musicians left the country.  However, Franco´s reign did not lead to the complete disappearance of jazz music. In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s the jazz industry underwent a partial revival with the opening of a “Hot Club” in Barcelona in 1946 and then one in Madrid two years later.

The focus on folk songs such as flamenco and the comeback of jazz led to a new fusion style called “Jazz-Flamenco.” Pedro Iturralde, a Spanish jazz saxophonist, is considered to be the progenitor of this style. One of his notable works is his collaboration with the flamenco guitarists Paco de Algeciras, the pseudonym of Paco de Lucía and Paco de Antequera. Mention must also be made of Jorge Pardo, a famous jazz flautist and saxophonist, who recorded with the flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and the American jazz pianist Chick Corea.

Considering jazz´s chequered past what is the state of this musical genre nowadays? Although Spain is perhaps not renowned for its jazz music, it does have some important yearly jazz festivals which attract artists from around the world including Jazzaldia in San Sebastián, Barcelona´s International Jazz Festival and Vitoria´s Jazz Festival.

In conclusion, in view of the above is Spain as much as a desert for jazz as suggested by Leonard Feather? In the past there were certain moments where this genre did not flourish but its roots were never completely destroyed and talented musicians nourished them and gave jazz a new Spanish identity by combining it with traditional musical styles. If you like this genre do not miss out on Spain´s jazz festivals and you could even combine them with a Spanish course in an exciting city like Madrid or Barcelona.

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