A couple of years ago, as the financial crisis was starting to really show its teeth, Greek saxophone player Dimitris Vassilakis took part in an unexpected jam session in Athens alongside renowned trumpet master Jack Waller. The impromptu performance took place in the then-tiny Aperitif bar off Syntagma Square, following a joint appearance by the artists at nearby Bacaro.
Music producer Ilan Solomon was one of the lucky few to witness the event.
“While the bar was normally considered full with just 15 to 20 people, about 50 of us, all die-hard fans, managed to squeeze in that evening, including Greek trumpet players who hid their instruments in their jackets and ended up joining their fellow musicians on stage,” said Solomon. “It was an amazing night.”
Watching top jazz names perform is no longer a frequent phenomenon in the crisis-hit Greek capital. The Half Note Jazz Club, for instance, has scaled down its roster, while venues such as Parafono, Guru Upstairs and Bacaro have closed. Jazz, however, is not on its way out here, as plenty of bars and cafes are hosting young local acts, in some cases without charging admission.
According to journalist and jazz lover Nikos Fotakis, manager of the Petite Fleur bar in the northern suburb of Halandri (which hosts live sessions on Wednesdays), there are two ways to set up a live jazz show. “The first way is the traditional music stage way, where people listen to live music while enjoying a drink. The focal point in that case is music. The second way is to go to a bar where musicians happen to play music. In the latter case, the focus is on drinking and the going-out factor, and it seems to be the prevailing trend these days, because setting up a stage for gigs is a difficult and costly endeavor. At Petite Fleur, we usually host small ensembles, given that I’m never short of offers from musicians who want to perform.”
Last month, flutist Leonidas Sarantopoulos appeared at the newly established Jazz Point on Academias Street in central Athens, performing tracks from his “Black Mamba” album along with his quartet.
Located at 94 Solonos Street in Exarchia, Verve recently hosted a Greek electric jazz trio, while on nights with no scheduled live performances, guest DJs play jazz and soul.
“When you visit these smaller venues you realize that the Ionian University, state conservatories and private music schools such as the Athenaeum and Philippos Nakas have turned into a great source for young, dynamic musicians who are now appearing on various music stages around the city. This is very important because jazz is born the moment it is performed, not in a studio,” said Yiannis Stefanakos, known as “Professor” in local jazz circles.
On a recent Monday night, the Synergy Quartet played bossa nova-meets-jazz at a venue not usually associated with the genre, the Baba Au Rum club on Kleitiou Street.
Among a large number of venues hosting jazz ensembles are the Blue Bossa Bar and La Ronda in Vyronas, Santa Botella on Panormou Street, the Melanythros art space near Kallimarmaro, as well as bars located in central Exarchia, such as the Faeinon, on the corner of Kallidromiou and Mavromichali streets. The Numismatic Museum’s jazz evenings have also proved a success, while over at Faust on Kalamiotou Street, “Jazz Opera Shows” take place on Wednesdays.
At the same time, Vassilakis recently inaugurated a jazz stage in Thiseio. Miles View (on Apostolou Pavlou Street) aims to fill the gap left by other venues that have closed their doors. Festivals also play an instrumental role and include events such as the second edition of Greek Jazz Panorama, which recently took place at the Onassis Cultural Center.
According to director-producer Kyriakos Angelakos, the most important aspect of this jazz revival is that it showcases a new generation of musicians.
“You should listen to the fabulous Eva Kesselring and her ‘BLUEzUKI’ evenings at the Klimataria taverna in Psyrri on Friday nights,” said Angelakos. “It’s all about fabulous jazz through reorchestrations of old Greek songs or classic jazz performed on the bouzouki.”
Another act to look out for is the WonderFall Quartet, co-founded by Irini Konstantinidi and Thanos Hatzianagnostou.
Meanwhile, Solomon says that young Greek musicians boast top-level training, including degrees from excellent music schools, primarily in the Netherlands.
“Both their techniques and their aesthetics go beyond the mainstream. They are more liberated compared to the older jazz generation, whose members were taught music through listening to albums,” he said.
While the days of Athens being known as a jazz capital are over, the current revival is nothing short of a small miracle.