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The plan B turned out to be a true one

Evilena Protektore

Ilmārs Priede about the right choices and the wrong job

Our greatest treasure is people. We live together, stay near each other, but usually we don’t think about how our actions or words influence those around us. But the moment we start thinking that it would be good to change something about the way our world works, most of us don’t go further than just dreaming. There are tons of reasons for that, each one has his own, and these are no excuses — each and everyone of us has his own life to think about, his own responsibilities and priorities, and stating that every person has the will to fight against the system, no. This interview is not about that. It’s a story about an ordinary guy who decided to give back to the community, to do something good. The main hero of this conversation is Ilmārs Priede, a double bass player from Valka, Ventspils, Tallinn… He is not that well-known in Riga, because he doesn’t really spend a lot of time here, but I think that he deserves to be known for several reasons, starting with the fact that he’s a one fine bassist, of course. But another reason is that he is one of those people who don’t stop at just making music, he’s actively involved in spreading the word, sharing the art of jazz with the people, and that’s mighty admirable, if you ask me. Thanks to Ilmārs, Latvian regions are one big event richer that a couple of years ago. Since he himself is from Valka, he decided to create a special event for the people of his hometown and all those interested, the event is called «Valka Jam».
Yes, Valka is pretty far from the capital, sure. The town itself is small, the event is only 3 years old, but if you look at the bigger picture — events like that are important, because they help to form and support the community, and if the community is interested in knowing more about jazz, than that’s just amazing.

Evilena Protektore

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours talking to Ilmārs, and we’ve discussed different thing, not only Valka Jam. Since I’ve known him for a bit longer than most of my musician colleagues, I had my own questions to ask and opinions to consider. So, here it all goes! A little of jazz, a little of life philosophy, honesty and right choices! Enjoy!

How did your musical journey begin?

While I was still a kid, my grandmother used to sing with me, and I also played a little bit of mandolin and accordion. Maybe it was then that my interest in string instruments bloomed. In the kindergarten it wasn’t very complicated, we used to play Latvian folk songs on one, maybe sometimes two strings. But then I enrolled into Valka music school and started playing the piano, my next 4 years were spent there. I didn’t really like the piano, I was never a fan of being put in a box that is called «classical music» and its educational methods — etudes, Mozart and so on, I didn’t enjoy it, it was never what my heart desired. Each time I was made to practice the piano I used to just bang random notes, everything to kill the necessary one hour. No one paid any attention to what I was doing, it was important that I was sitting at by the piano and doing something, everybody happy. I also sang in a pop band, when I was little, so I’m not a stranger in vocal music as well. When I was a teen, I got really bored with the music school, so for a short while I took a break and left music.

I used to sing in different choirs while in the middle and in high school, some of them being more professional, some — less. During my teen years I also started playing the guitar, I was inspired by such artists as Tenacious D, and then suddenly I’m in a band, playing gigs on my guitar with the other guys. The most challenging thing back then was to learn to read chords — you know all those letters? But our first gig was a couple of hours long, a festival or something at Valka Culture Center, we needed some 50 tunes, so I had to learn. We played everything — from American pop music to Latvian Raimonds Pauls and a lot of other things. For that time the event was pretty grand.

Then I finished school, and the relationships with the band died down, because I couldn’t really drive long distances and play with them all the time. I went to Ventspils, enrolled into Ventspils University of Technology, studied there for one semester and realised that was not my thing, that was meant for someone else. I like technology and computers, but I wasn’t ready to deal with so much math. But while still there, I befriended some guys, who also did some music and together we’ve formed a pop-punk band called «The Seventh Floor», we played together for approximately a year, composed our own music, took part in competitions and all. During that time I’ve got acquainted with a lot of jazz musicians from Ventspils Music School. It was a breaking point in my life, when I just finished my first semester and realised that I don’t want to leave Ventspils and I don’t really want to go back to Valka yet. That’s why I had to find a job, I ended up working as a 1188 call center operator for maybe 9 months. While working there, I’ve learned the value of money and what it means exactly to work at a job that doesn’t satisfy you, or bring you any joy whatsoever. I understood that I never want to do that again in my life, I decided that i’ll be doing what I like, not counting pennies. And then I dove head first all into music and decided to give this lifestyle a chance. I had an opinion, that you can be a professional musician only if you do that since childhood, but in spite of that I was like a tank — going towards my goal and being unstoppable. That’s how I started studying at Ventspils Music School. It took me 4 years, but considering the fact that I already graduated from high school, I didn’t have to attend non-musical lessons, all my time was dedicated only to music. I started out as a guitarist, but on my second year I switched to bass, because there was a shortage of it. Shortly before that I was invited to play with the «Remnant of the Sun» band, we’ve spent together some time.

While in Ventspils, I was developing my knowledge and technique as a musician, and on my last year I finally took on double bass. A huge «thank you» goes to Ventspils Big band and its conductor Renars Lacis for helping me develop my musicianship to the level that allowed me to continue my musical career as a professional. Now I am the one the graduated from Tallinn Academy of Music, where I studied for the last three years. Now I decided to continue my education there, attempting at masters degree. In between all of that there have been different bands and people, stories, events, adventures, this is just a short version about how I got to the point where I’m at right now.

Why did you choose Ventspils?

That was an accident… At most, my life is a series of plan B’s, that’s how I came to Ventspils as well. Plan A was to study philology in Riga, but I didn’t get the budget spot. Plan B was to go to RTU to study IT, but I also didn’t get the budget spot, and since I didn’t want to be stuck with student loans, I had to figure out another plan B. In Ventspils plan A was also languages, but I didn’t get the spot there as well, so I was left with plan B — IT, and bingo! So then the next plan B after the university was music, as I have already mentioned. I was lucky to meet the right people along the way who inspired me to take the right path in life.

Can you point the moment when exactly you decided to dedicate your life to music?

I think it were those 9 months that I spent working as a call center operator. I realised that this kind of existence will drain me till the last drop, it was a very complicated period in my life. I had to wake up very early, I never got enough sleep, I wanted some kind of social life, so I partied and in whole it seemed that my life had taken the wrong course and not a very healthy one. I felt 40 years old, when in fact I was only 20, it was like banging my head on the wall. The creative term for that is «a quarter-life crisis». But that was the exact moment I realised that I need to do something else in life. It’s never like you’re always happy about your life and content with what you’re doing, there are brighter days and darker ones, but I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity to choose and do what I want in life and be able to provide for myself with that.

Roberts Johansons

So you only work in the music field now?

Yes, and I also teach music. I have spent the whole year already working in one of Estonian music schools as a guitar and bass guitar teacher. It’s the second year now since I’ve started teaching in Räpina music school, which is a very interesting and challenging experience, where I also got to learn a few things myself. One of my life credos is to always take on the challenge, to agree to do something even if not completely sure that I can do it, but in the end I always find the way to complete the job. It’s the same way Valka Jam has started, I just decided that I’m doing it and told a lot of people about it, just to cut off my way back, because I try to always stick to my word.

We’ll talk about Valka Jam a bit later, but tell me — why exactly did you choose the academy in Tallinn?

I’m from Valka, born there, and Valka is almost Estonia on its own. In Ventspils everyone called me The Estonian. Technically it’s on the border — Valka is on the Latvian side and Valga on Estonian, it was normal to be in both places. But education wise, I’ve heard this question a million times before and thanks to that I can give you clear points of my choice. First of all — anyone who studies music will tell you that the most important thing is your specialty teacher, in my case that would be the same person in Riga and in Tallinn — Taavo Remmel. Naturally, he spends more time in Tallinn then in Riga. The next important point in my list are finances. I realise that if I chose to study in Riga and were lucky enough to get the budget spot I wouldn’t have to pay a single cent for my education, but if something went wrong, the cost is up to 3.5k. In my opinion this sum is astronomical and unreasonable. In Tallinn it’s a fixed amount of 550 EUR per year and you don’t have to worry about keeping your budget spot. Third — distance. Ok Tallinn is a bit further from Valka then Riga is, but Estonia has more modern train lines that cut this time a bit, so it’s the same for someone from Valka. Fourth — lesson schedule and planning. As a Latvian in Estonia, I don’t have to take some courses that are not connected with music, and I know that my colleagues from JVLMA are tired of those. Combined with concerts and teaching jobs, even the most proper students aren’t always able to handle that pressure. All in all Tallinn gives more opportunity and more time for music and for practicing it.

Why jazz?

I think that jazz is something that I did unconsciously when I spent those hours at the piano still being a child, when my parents made me play for one hour every day. Jazz is like a freedom of word, of speech, it’s not an etude that binds you with notes and instructions, I understand the value of an etude, it has its place in music and in musical education, but I’ve seen so many examples of kids who weren’t able to play anything practical after that… If you give them the chords to «Zemene» (a popular Latvian tune), they will not know how to interpret this music, they don’t learn how to be a part of an ensemble, and all in all I’m not sure how this kind of education is useful. Jazz, on the other hand, is more open, more diverse. It’s a door to something more, where music is not written out, where you have the space for your own input. It is also considered to be a language that we all are trying to speak. When I listen to some modern artists like Jacob Collier, Knower and others, who play a very tasteful pop music, I’ve noticed some clear parallels with jazz music stylistics that is noticeable in the harmonies, rhythms, arrangements. More and more people tend to listen to more complicated music, they are moving away from easy licks and radio music. I don’t like being binded to a lot of rules, I like it when I have choices, so… That’s probably why I chose jazz!

What is the most important in learning jazz?

There are people who like spending time alone, practicing for hours, playing etudes, scales, classical pieces. But I think that the best thing is being on the stage with other people, the people you trust, when you can be sure that the music will happen in some way. Jazz itself tends to move towards diversity, creativity and improvisation, that gives each tune a chance to be unique. I also think that the contact between the musician and the listener is very important, especially the one that happens during a jam session, that’s another reason for Valka Jam to be born!

Tell me more about Valka Jam!

When Valka Jam happened for the first time, it was my birthday, it was my 25th anniversary party — I gathered my friends and musicians in Valka Culture Center, we partied and played music! We had a couple of bands that played a couple of sets, and then there was an open stage, otherwise known as a jam session. I arranged a place to stay the night for musicians, food and drinks, and after the first year I noticed that the system works and I have to do that again! The next year proved to be more successful with more attendance, more tables booked, more response from the people, and this year we’re sticking to these high ratings as well! One of the many reasons I decided to continue this is that most people upon hearing the word «Jazz» think it’s something alien, something hard to listen too… «It’s when people come together and play something» — that’s the phrase I’ve heard hundreds of times now. A lot of people see jazz that way, especially people from the side, that who haven’t seen or heard jazz live, only on the TV and the radio. That’s why Valka Jam exists, I try connecting those interested in live music with jazz. So that they could see how it looks like in real life and how improvisation is being born, how the communication on stage happens and how this improvisation reflects on the faces of those doing it and in their body language. I think that most people are not really acquainted with the basic concept how the jazz tune is supposed to be played, when you have the theme, then you improvise on the tunes chords, and when you explain that to the listeners, they start understanding the context of the improvisation and get sucked into the mood of the jam, thus getting a deeper understanding of jazz music itself. It’s obvious that people have the appetite for those kind of events and these events are being attended. All the tables were booked this year. For the next one I’m hoping to expand the event into a two day festival and invite more artists and get more financial support. I hope that Valka Jam will become a trademark of Valka, something more serious, regular and annual.

Viktor Voloh

How important it is to arrange events like that in the regions?

I think it’s very important, maybe even more so than in Riga, because everything happens there all the time. In some small cities, nothing usually happens, but there is a huge audience that needs to be addressed. We have to multiply the joy and cultural diversity on all our country’s territory!