Saturday, July 19, 2008

UJ Memories

“Grazie, Perugia!” Such are the final words from international jazz superstar (obligatory adjectives around here these days) Herbie Hancock, as he and his band thank the huge crowd at Santa Giuliana Arena,
a veritable mob that has crowded in front of the stage for his twenty minute encore, snapping pictures with their phones, dancing, smiling, groovin’ and rockin’, chanting “Air-Bee,” “Air-Bee,” “Air-Bee!” Airbee and his band shuffle off the stage and the crowd finally accepts the fact that the night is over. They clearly don’t want it to be.

Airbee Ancock is the perfect bookend to a run of several nights at the Umbria Jazz Festival that started with another international jazz superstar (I swear this term must be in the Italian section of the Italian-English dictionary), Sonny Rollins. The night before Rollins played the Arena was packed to overflowing to see Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and Brazilian superstar (and international jazz superstar) Caetano Veloso. It was an almost hometown concert that packed them in. But the crowd that came to see Sonny Rollins came to see a legend and they were not disappointed.

Rollins gave a great performance, but even if the 78 year old saxophonist had honked and squeaked all night the crowd would have loved it. They were there to pay homage to a jazz great and the enormous crowd was clearly well schooled in his music and style, applauding at a riff here and a motif there. And did I say the crowd was enormous? Well it was. Every space on the vast outdoor arena floor was covered with seats, each of which is attached to the temporary wooden flooring with screws and chains to prevent the notoriously “independent thinking” Italians from moving their Section D seats to the front row. We have actually been quite impressed with this group of Italians’ manners and groupthink. In most cases in Italy if you put an object of desire in front of a group of Italians (for example, a train station ticket window), mass chaos will ensue, as each one in the group believes it is his right to be the first one served. I have seen old women elbowed aside by middle aged men, shamelessly and without regret, to be the first to check in at the airport. Taxi queues? Fuhgeddaboutit!

So it makes perfect sense that each plastic lawn chair bears a sticker with the section, row and seat number on it and is chained to the floor like a ballpoint pen in a bank. But at Umbria Jazz there seems be a civilizing instinct emanating from somewhere, the music perhaps, and during our days here we have seen few examples of the pathological desire to be first that unfortunately seems to be part of the Italian psyche. Not to say that the crowd has been completely virtuous. We have arrived late several nights to find people sitting in our seats (if you can’t take your seat with you, get thee to anotherseat) and who made us feel bad for making them move. The 15 minute interval between performers during the concerts featuring more than one artist also seem to be a period of reversion for many, as the throng mobs the refreshment tents lining the perimeter of the arena to get a porchetta sandwich or a glass of wine, pushing and jostling to be first in line even if they are tenth in line. And as each concert ends, the crowd rushes forward to the stage, chanting the name of the performer to coax him or her back on stage for an encore. It is an enthusiastic and respectful gesture, but be careful not to be in the aisle when this human wave crests, or you may never come up for air.

* * *

Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins are arguably the two biggest headliners here at this 10 day festival that features a main performance nightly at the outdoor Arena Santa Giuliana, a venue which, when fully set up with chairs, will probably hold 4,000 or so spectators. The opening night concert of Bollani and Veloso was packed and completely sold out as was the Sonny Rollins concert. As the week wore on, fewer seats were set up for performers with lesser drawing power, making the arena seem large and empty. The Cassandra Wilson/David Sanborn concert evening was slightly sad, as only half the seats were set up in the arena and the bitter cold temperatures sent much of the audience heading for the exits after each song. By the time David Sanborn gave his final encore after midnight (“Thank you, Perugia!”) the crowd that rushed the stage could have fit in a night club. Era una peccata, it was a shame, however, because his performance had more energy and raw power than any of the other performances. Until Airbee.

Herbie Hancock is a jazz god. His performance last night was the best performance I have ever witnessed anywhere. The man is so talented and magnetic that we should all be grateful that he chose to go into music rather than staring a cult. Incredibly his performance followed a young pianist that has recently burst onto the jazz scene named Gerald Clayton. Clayton absolutely wowed the audience for over an hour with his virtuosity and style, but his youthful excitement really captured the crowd. Everyone in Santa Giuliana could tell that he loved playing, that there was nowhere he would rather be than at that piano in front of that audience, playing that number with that band. And oh, how he can play.

This young fella may not realize how lucky he is to be opening for Airbee because he is learning from a master. Hancock has it all. Great numbers, an absolutely awesome talented band, undeniable virtuosity, energy, vitality, vigor and showmanship. This guy and his band not only performed flawlessly over an hour and a half, they made everyone in the arena feel as though he or she was witnessing something special. And they were. It was a contrast to Sonny Rollins, who played brilliantly but a bit formulaically (the group starts with a theme, then hands it off to one another as each member is featured as a soloist), a concert showcasing (rightly) Sonny Rollins, the performer that the audience paid to see. Hancock’s performance was about much more than himself. At various times he introduced a member of his band, the bass player or the guitar player from Africa, and left stage as the spotlight shined on the one soloist for ten minutes. And oh, how they could play. Each of them could be headlining in Perugia himself. Hancock brought in two singers as well, a black woman with soul who could belt it out and who mesmerized the audience and a white singer who he probably should have left in the dressing room. While her voice was good, it was hard to tell after a few minutes whether her moves were real or written for her by Saturday Night Live. She reminded me of Molly Shannon as a lounge singer.

Herbie spoke to the audience throughout the concert, telling long stories, or introducing a band member. Most of the audience, non-English speaking as they are (when will they ever get with the program? They better watch out if John McCain is elected president), couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but they bobbed and reacted to the sounds coming out of his throat, enjoying it like music. This is a guy who has a real talent for communicating with sound.

* * *

In general, the American musicians at Umbria Jazz had difficulty communicating with the largely Italian audiences. That is in the rare cases where the American musicians seemed to care to try to communicate. “Thank you, Perugia” really doesn’t cut it when you spend 90 minutes with an audience that has paid somewhere in the neighborhood of €50 for a ticket. We have been treated to such complicated Italian phrases as “Molto grazie,” “Grazie, Perugia” and the linguistically challenging “mille grazie.” Whew! It is hard to imagine where these busy, hardworking musicians have found the time to study at Berlitz or listen to their Italian tapes.

Not every musician should be expected to maintain a running commentary in the native language as Caetano Veloso did. The Brazilian, whose native language is Portugese not only spoke in good Italian between every number, he sang “La Mer” in perfect French from memory, after introducing the song as one he was dedicating to his mentor and first manager, who had recently died. That’s a lot more for your euro than “grazie.”

Why doesn’t one of these international jazz superstars put his crack publicity department to work writing up a simple set of welcome comments in Italian, which the performer could read? Even if he mangled it badly, I expect the Italians would applaud him or her for trying. It’s not that hard to try. We make fools of ourselves every day for our simplistic language skills when we order at a restaurant, make a reservation for the hydrofoil or buy a pair of pants at the clothing store. And I’m talking about when we’re home in America.

* * *

And while I’m at it, they might think about playing a few more pieces with Italian themes. Jazz fans love jazz music and in many instances the theme is just a starting point and is completely lost as the performer launches into ad lib solos that bear only a tangential relationship to the original. But God bless Sonny Rollins, who for his second encore played a straight ahead rendition of some well known Italian popular song. Well known to the audience, evidently, who gasped and then cheered after a few notes and who hummed along with Rollins every time the theme would return. A few days later when watching a tribute to Nat King Cole by singer Allan Harris over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at the Brufani Hotel the crowd went crazy when he crooned a song starting “Non Dimenticar” (“Don’t Forget”), one middle aged Italian woman shouting “bravissimo” so enthusiastically I was afraid she was going to throw her panties on the stage.

* * *

Perhaps the most interesting cultural experience for us this week has been scalping our extra tickets in front of the Arena Santa Giuliana. When we began planning to attend this year’s Umbria Jazz festival, we thought we might be bringing a group of 6 or 8 friends or guests with us. Unfortunately the late start in planning this adventure and the weakness of the dollar left us with a smaller group. I had gone online the day tickets became available and snapped up at least ten tickets to all of the events in seats generally in the first 10 rows of the arena. Rather than have the extras go unused, we decided to sell them at the arena’s entrance before each concert started.

Our first difficulty was in determining whether we could scalp our tickets legally or whether we might spend the night in jail. Seems like a simple question but, as we have painfully learned through our home buying experience here, even the simplest, black and white legal question in Italy is unanswerable. It is not that there is no answer to this straightforward question. It is simply that no one will give you a simple answer or any answer at all. It is impressive indeed to observe an Italian respond to a direct question without answering it. They summon up all their skills in body language to avoid a direct gaze while yammering and mumbling about something and before you know it they haven’t answered the question. They somehow mesmerize you, however, and within a few minutes you are so confused and exhausted that you have forgotten your original question. When I was young I would jokingly avoid answering a tough question by excitedly pointing over the questioner’s shoulder, requiring him to look backwards, and shouting “Look! Halley’s comet!” I wish I had mastered the Italian art of sidestepping back then. It’s much more effective.

So, completely confused whether we could do so, we decided to start dumping our tickets on the very first night, targeting the huge crowd of concertgoers looking for tickets to the Bollani/Veloso concert. We were fortunate that we bumped into our Italian friend, Adriano, just outside the trailer that serves as the box office, a few yards from the arena entrance. Adriano, a professional photographer who is credentialed to take concert photos from the area just in front of the stage, didn’t hesitate to take our tickets and walk into the large crowd trying to sell them. I followed him into the melee so I could learn how he directly he offered up the tickets. A quiet man generally, Adriano seemed to pick his marks, looking for couples that might pay for the high dollar (euro, actually) ticket, and approaching them slowly, quietly saying only “biglietti” (tickets). He was often rejected or ignored, but on several occasions a beautiful dance would ensue with information about the price and location being exchange without anyone appearing to say or do anything. The Italians have an interesting way of communicating without using many words (they seem to supplement this with the use of their hands), but that first evening at least we sold all of our inventory quickly and for full price. And we didn’t end up in jail.

The next night, the night of Sonny Rollins, there was a very small crowd at the ticket window looking for night of performance tickets. The few stragglers who wandered by generally already had tickets but occasionally a couple would approach the trailer looking for tickets. The €80 ticket price was a difficult mountain to climb, however, and Adriano, who had showed up early for the express purpose of helping us sell our tickets refused to reduce our price in order to sell out. Italians are always looking for bargain (un sconto) but Adriano, on the other side was holding firm. As the evening drew later and later and desperation began to sink in, we held a fire sale and sold nearly everything.

The next night’s draw – Cassandra Wilson and David Sanborn – was a desert. The arena was only set up with half the seats of the previous two evenings and it seemed unlikely that even this lower capacity would be filled. This time with our friend Javier we went low early, offering substantial discounts to anyone who appeared remotely interested. But if you show weakness to an Italian, he will try to take advantage of it. The following night as we were trying to scalp tickets to Gerald Clayton and Herbie Hancock, one of the festival’s biggest draws, my offer (by this fourth evening we were comfortable enough to plunge into the crowd ourselves, without the aid of an Italian friend to do the dirty work for us) to sell these prized tickets for about half price, €30, was countered by an offer for €20. When we compromised at €25 I was given a €20 bill and a handful of coins that totaled somewhere just south of €23. No wonder the dollar can’t keep up with the euro.

But after all the commerce is done, you have made a friend for life, especially if you are selling front row seats. Italians are able to compartmentalize so many things in their lives and seem to be able to live with great contradiction. If you ever watch a group of old men in a piazza late in the afternoon, you can safely bet that they will be engaged in Italy’s favorite and most accomplished sport – arguing. Old men in dark suit jackets and plaid caps, their faces within inches of each other like a baseball manager arguing with an umpire, their hands stabbing the air in a menacing fashion, their voices raised and expletives streaming forth. It is a sight to behold. But look back within a few minutes and that same group of men is hugging each other and kissing each other on the cheek before departing for home and dreaming about tomorrow’s arguments.

So before each concert we swear and frown and argue about ticket prices, but when we enter the arena and take our seats around the people to whom we have just moments earlier cursed, we are treated like royalty. And rightly so, for my hard advance work has netted us the best seats in the house every night. Maybe it is the natural suspicion of the Italian mind, but I don’t think they really believe that they are buying good seats until they sit in them. They expect that we have scammed them somehow and when we arrive at our seats there is a sea of smiling faces to whom we have sold a half hour earlier. One younger guy to whom we sold fourth row aisle tickets to Herbie Hancock saw me enter and shouted “Forza America” – “go America” or “America rocks” and hugged me. Two shy girls to whom Suzy sold said “grazie” so many times we began to wonder if they had some sort of speech impediment.

A particular favorite was a family to whom we sold Sonny Rollins tickets. The mother and father of a teenage boy were extremely cold and harsh buyers, agreeing to buy three of our €80 for €75 total. It appeared that they didn’t have much interest in the concert, but their son seemed beside himself that they might be sitting in the front section. They consulted with him and without ever cracking the faintest smile shelled out the euros for him. When we arrived at our seats the family, who had another two small children, had taken six of our seats, despite paying for only three, and the ones they took were not even theirs – they were ours. When we asked them to move out of our seats they looked at us like we had done something wrong and moved a row behind us where the two younger children proceeded to play patty cake with their parents throughout the concert, standing in front of their mom and dad and, consequently squashed up directly behind Suzy and me, jumping up and down the entire time and generally shaking our entire row. But throughout the concert the teenage boy sat entranced by Sonny Rollins. What a horrible little family except that one magical kid. Seeing him completely lost in the music and the evening made all the jostling worth it.

One of our buyers, a particularly drunk Italian man who bought second section, second row seats for Cassandra Wilson and David Sanborn decided he didn’t like Sanborn’s Italian imported horn section and proceeded to scream obscenities at Sanborn for having the gall to hire such a talentless group of locals. It was a sight to behold as he would blurt out insults every few minutes and eventually he was shouted down by his neighbors. Before he got up and left, with a few choice hand gestures, he turned to our friend Javier, who was sitting next to him and from whom he bought the ticket and said, only half jokingly, that he should give him back his money.

And then there was Forza America guy. He and his buddy agonized for twenty minutes before buying Herbie Hancock tickets. We had three for sale and they spent twenty minutes trying to convince their friend to come down to the arena to join them. They appeared either extremely drunk or just plain simple, their friend on the other end of the phone even more so, not being able figure out where the nearby bus station was, despite being a native of Perugia. After the hug and sitting through having to listen to the two friends talk to one another throughout the opening act they pulled one of the classic moves we have seen. For the first few minutes of each act the credentialed photographers are permitted to stand directly in front of the stage and take photographs. No photography is permitted after that time, although you see plenty of pocket cameras and camcorders in use. As Airbee Ancock began his set I looked for our friend Adriano, the photographer, in front of the stage taking his photos. He was there in his photographer’s safari jacket, surrounded by a couple of dozen other photographers and videographers, many of them similarly wearing safari jackets, donning cameras with enormous telephoto lenses. It was then that I noticed a younger photographer join the crowd, not wearing the usual safari jacket but just a plain t shirt. And in his hand he held not a digital Nikon or Cannon, but a camera phone, the tiny flash popping every couple of seconds, getting the greatest photos of the greatest night of his life. When the photographers were told to leave he returned right to our section, taking his seat right behind me.

Forza, Italia.

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