Bram Stoeken is the driving force behind the Delft Jazz Festival which this year runs over the weekend of 25th – 27th August. We met at the Phoenix bar in the Nieuwe Langendijk, where Bram has a Friday night residency and, while the rain poured down outside, I asked him when the festival first started. ‘In 1985. It was established by Delft trumpeter Jerry Steyger who plays jazz from the swing era, the 1950s. When it started it was an old style jazz festival, Dixieland.’
So when did Bram become involved? ‘In 2006. I was asked to help with the organisation of the festival and we decided it was time for a change. The town council was thinking of cutting its subsidy because the festival was considered too old fashioned, so we needed to bring it up to date. I was invited onto the organising committee and asked to come up with some new ideas. Very soon after that the new festival was created and took place in Delft’s main square, the Markt, with the emphasis on modern jazz.
‘Since then it has grown and we now have stages in five locations around the city. As well as Markt, there is the Beestenmarkt, Doelenplein, Agathaplein and Kromstraat. It now runs over three days but it is still totally free for spectators.’ And how many musicians are involved? I asked. Bram thought for a minute. ‘There must be about seventy bands, they come from all over the country and most of them are professional, but we do have a stage on Agathaplein for local amateurs. The local pro musicians play in Delft all the time so it is important to give the amateurs a chance to perform. It’s more interesting for the audience to see musicians they perhaps haven’t seen before.’
In the six months or so since I have been in Delft I have been to a few different jazz events and it struck me that there seem to be an awful lot of jazz musicians here, playing in a variety of different styles. Bram agreed. ‘It’s true, there are a lot. There is a big technical university here, the TU, and a lot of the students there are very into jazz. There’s a big student jazz society. They have workshops at the TU, and lectures, they are very keen and knowledgeable. It’s very special.’ But you don’t see much trad jazz around. ‘That’s true,’ agreed Bram. ’The only trad jazz in Delft used to be at the BeBop on a Sunday with its previous owner. It’s mainly older people who like this type of music. The challenge for the Festival is to attract a young audience and we believe the best way to do this is to present young musicians. There is now a lot of rock and pop in jazz, ever since Miles Davis met and worked with Jimi Hendrix.’
But, I pointed out, jazz used to be the pop music. From the 1930s up until Elvis it was the big bands like Duke Ellington that were the popular music and in the UK, certainly, until the Beatles arrived, trad jazz was the most popular music for young people. And, don’t forget, in 1961 Dave Brubeck’s Take Five was a Top Ten hit in the States and in Europe. ‘It’s important for jazz musicians to move with the times and incorporate new things, otherwise it dies or becomes just for old people. It’s as much style as content. The older musicians always stay with the same line-up of instruments – trumpet, clarinet and trombone with a banjo playing rhythm. If you played the trad repertoire, the same solos, using different instruments, like guitars and synths, it would sound different, more modern. But there is a lot of purism and elitism with older musicians and they don’t want to change, they want their music set in stone and that’s not healthy or good for the future. They treat the Real Book [the standard reference for jazz repertoire and arrangements] as a Bible. For me, the idea of jazz is experimentation and improvisation, to find new ways of playing, finding new chords and not be driven by the sheet music of a sixty or seventy year-old song. Some musicians treat jazz like classical music, using arrangements that were created before they were born. An improvisation gets established, written down and repeated and then it’s no longer an improvisation. So it’s important always to find new songs to use.
‘My problem with the Real Book is that when it was created, it was appropriate to play these songs because they were on the radio and that’s what people listened to and wanted. But for me, it was Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna even, on the radio when I was in my teens, so as a jazz musician, I believe that’s where my influences should come from.’
We were getting a bit side-tracked and I wanted to know more about the Festival. I was speaking to Bram a few days after the Delft Chamber Music Festival and, although we agreed it had been a fantastic event and that a lot of the contemporary pieces appealed to him as a jazz musician, he was a little envious. ‘They have coverage on the radio which we haven’t managed to achieve yet. Also, most of their concerts take place in established venues like the beautiful Prinsenhof but, because we perform in the town’s squares, we have to erect stages and lights and hire all the other equipment. It’s expensive and takes money away from the musicians.’ So, I asked, if the festival is free for the spectators, where does the money come from? ‘A lot of the bars and cafés in the town have concessions to sell beer at the venues and we take a small percentage of their profits. We get money from the town as well as other sponsorship. The TU gives us money and the Clavis Pianos store here in Delft supports us. But times are difficult and we are having to make cuts. We don’t make a profit but all the professional musicians get paid. That’s important.’ I wondered how much the Festival costs to mount. ‘It’s about €70,000, which is a lot of money to find each year, a lot of negotiating.’ admitted Bram.
I wanted to know how Bram first became involved with jazz. Holland has always had a reputation for jazz going back to the 1950’s with the internationally famous Dutch Swing College Band playing trad. Is this what inspired a young Bram? ‘No. It was in 1985 when I heard Miles Davis on the radio playing at North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague and he played Human Nature and Time After Time. I already knew those songs but that was the first time I had ever heard a musician improvising on familiar melodies.’ What, I asked him, had he been listening to up until then? ‘The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and also to The Police. I had recorded the Miles Davis concert onto cassette from the radio and I listened to it a lot, but I didn’t throw away my Beatles and Stones records. But then in 1987 I had the chance to actually go to a Miles Davis concert in Rotterdam. He played for three hours, non-stop, and from then on I was really hooked. I was mesmerised. I was eighteen which is an important age for assimilating influences. It was so special, so fantastic. I tell people over and over again about this. I had a friend who I later discovered had a recording of that concert and he gave it to me and I played it every day for a year’.
And did this encourage the young Bram to play? ‘I already played piano but I went out and bought a trumpet and I wanted to emulate Miles Davis – I bought sunglasses like his and a silver jacket. I had tracks on a Walkman which I played along with, busking on the street in Delft, rehearsing the songs. It was crazy, a manic episode which ended in psychosis, all influenced by Miles Davis. It became very unhealthy.’
Bram’s fascination went on until Davis’s death in 1991 and even after. ‘I had had this desperate wish to meet him. I had the same thing with Prince later on. They played together and had a mutual respect. Prince was a fantastic musician as well, played every instrument.’ So what happened to the trumpet playing? I asked. ‘It takes a lot of time to maintain the technique. It’s like sport, you have to practice every day, you have to train you lips and your mouth, your embouchure.
‘After a while I decided to go back to keyboards. I had had piano lessons since I was ten, so that was really my instrument. When I was a kid I used to play the Beatles on piano, in fact it was through Beatles sheet music that I really discovered them. I had the sheet music for Yesterday and if I discover an artist I investigate further and that’s how I got into the Beatles. I like their songs with an orchestral arrangement, like A Day in the Life.’
And how did he develop into a jazz musician? ‘When I first came to Delft in 1987 there was a theatre called De Waag, it’s still there but it’s now a bar and restaurant. They used to have an evening called Smör jazz, like the Danish smörgåsbord. It was all avant-garde jazz with an incredible range of musicians. That was the training for my ears to open up to experimental music. Sometimes there were only five people in the audience but I liked it very much. Avant-garde jazz is not so popular, but it’s important to the development of all forms of jazz, especially here in Holland.’
We will be able to see the result of that development with many different styles at the Delft Jazz Festival. There will certainly be a lot more than five in the audience and you can guarantee that it will be popular. The man largely responsible for that popularity is jazz musician extraordinaire, Bram Stoeken. Michael Hasted August 2017
Text and photographs © Michael Hasted/ArtsTalk Magazine 2017. All rights reserved, no reproduction without permission.