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Dutch jazz seems to give Kevin Whitehead an appetite–he’s keen on using food metaphors to describe it in his recent book, New Dutch Swing. “In Holland, as Americans discover to their horror, frites–French fries, chips–are served with mayonnaise. There is also something called patatje oorlog: fries with ketchup, and mayo, and satay sauce, three big globs and raw onions sitting on the taters. The logic is plain, kid logic: these toppings obviously don’t go together, but let’s see what happens anyway.”
The same attitude characterizes Dutch jazz musicians, who treat the form somewhat less than reverently, reveling in the clash of traditions as disparate as musical theater and bebop. “Because jazz, or minimalism, or rock-and-roll, came second hand, the Dutch feel no impulse to preserve it in pure form,” writes Whitehead. Perhaps this freewheeling disregard for musical purity is the reason Dutch jazz has largely been ignored in this country. But jazz has always borrowed from other forms throughout its history, absorbing elements from blues, marches, and even European concert music. Such musical cross-pollination is an essential part of its existence.
Whitehead, who has written on jazz for the Village Voice and Downbeat and has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, wondered why this thriving jazz scene was ignored. In 1995 he left for Amsterdam, planning to spend just five months there to write the book, his first. He ended up staying two and a half years, and now intends to live there part-time.
He describes how jazz first took root with American recordings of the 20s and tours by artists like Coleman Hawkins in the 30s. Early Dutch groups emulated Americans, but local experimentation produced the first generation of distinctly Dutch jazzers, such as pianist Misha Mengelberg, drummer Han Bennink, and saxist Willem Breuker. Classical music and jazz were inextricably linked: Dutch musicians revered maverick American composer Charles Ives as much as bebop pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols, and often collaborated with avant-garde composers like Louis Andriessen and Peter Schat. Breuker’s long-form works reveal a debt to opera and musical theater, while Andriessen’s orchestral compositions draw on boogie-woogie piano patterns. The growing scene inspired other fascinating musicians, such as trombonist Wolter Wierbos and bassist and composer Maarten Altena, who developed a Stravinsky-flavored chamber-jazz sound.
Generous public funding made much of this possible. “The whole impetus for throwing money at the arts was to court the youth vote, to buy them off,” says Whitehead. (Though he says the purse strings have tightened in recent years, his book tour and the local appearance of several Dutch musicians at the Empty Bottle’s International Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music are partly funded by the Dutch government.) The result was all sorts of strange cross-genre projects, some dreadful, many inspired. But such experimentation exposed audiences and musicians to different possibilities. As saxophonist Ab Baars says in the book, the Dutch learned to “not bother about the rules of a certain style, but just use it in a personal manner.”
Whitehead will read from New Dutch Swing on Saturday at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, and there may be some impromptu musical performances from Bennink, cellist Ernst Reijseger, and reedists Baars, Michael Moore, and Peter Van Bergen, who will all be on hand to perform later. The book-release party starts at 4; it’s free. Performances, which get under way at 5, cost $12. Call 773-276-3600. –Peter Margasak
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Whitehead photo by Hiroyuki Ito.