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Army, jazz and the Alps

Evilena Protektore

A story about the Latvian army big band playing jazz music at the new Swiss festival «MilJazz 2.0»

Philip Kessler

For me this year turned out to be full of unexpected and extremely interesting trips, but I have to admit that the one I’ve been to this last May has topped all previous ones because it was too unusual for my pretty calm life. It was an adventure in music, but also in life, because for the first time in my life I got a chance to visit a country with such beautiful nature, a very interesting history… and such an advanced military force. This year I had the honor to represent my own country at a newly established festival in Switzerland «MilJaz 2.0», and I did it together with the National Armed Forces big band (NAF), the program consisted of the highlights of the big bands colorful everyday life and also demonstrated the folksongs of our country arranged in jazz. And why is the festival «newly established»? Read on and find out!

Let’s start with the history of the festival — what it’s all about. The almighty internet wasn’t able to provide me with a decent answer, but then I arrived to Switzerland, and after one of the concerts I was spending some time getting to know members from the Finnish big band and they shared some «intel» with me then. Turns out that «MilJazz» was created by Finland at least 15 years ago and its goal was to demonstrate the virtuosity of the military musicianship and to promote the army, persuading the people to be more involved in their own military life, all the concerts were for free, and took place all around the country. I think it’s a very wise idea, a very involving one, that makes the image of a military man (or woman) closer to what a civilian would consider approachable, and also, after listening to the bigband myself, I concluded, that they indeed are very good, creative, technical, alive. It’s also good to hear music played virtuosely, and if it’s jazz — even better.

Then, continuing our informal conversation, I was told that Swiss military forces bought the trademark and decided to upgrade the festival, implementing their own ideas, thus making it new and upgraded — 2.0. The result turned out to be very impressive, although I wasn’t really able to compare it with the previous years, since I haven’t been there myself. But anyway, this is all a very long introduction that leads to a more detailed story, a day by day report, if we must. I apologize for the quality of the pictures, because I only had my phone with me, but the festival webpage has also shared some pictures that will help brighten up the visual side of this story. Hopefully together we will be able to illustrate the trip in full.

Day Nr.1.

We arrived at Geneva airport in the evening and were met by a military bus with a person assigned to our group — Roman. A program of the festival was given to us straight away and it consisted of everything we might need to know. For me, a regular civilian, it was very exciting, because the time schedule was written just as in the movies — dinner at 1900, breakfast at 0900, soundcheck at 1600, and so on. The program also contained a description of the festival (which I decided to read carefully after the talk with the Finns), and the text was along the lines of: «Yes, at first the concept was created in Finland, but with the permission of the Finnish army the Swiss military forces have adopted the brand name, adding a «2.0» to it. The goal of the festival is to emphasize military music and attract young people, motivating them to join our ranks, to improve and develop the movement of the military music with the help of the young generation.» The main event was called «The Big Band Soiree», where big bands from 4 different countries presented their programs — Swiss army big band, one from Germany, from Finland and, of course, us, Latvians. The event took place in the barracks of the Bern army base, the guests were both young soldiers and civilians. But we will come back to that evening a bit later, let’s get back to the bus!

The bus took us to a dinner at Geneva’s military base, and the first thing I noticed was the freedom of the choice of attire. Yes, uniforms, but… tunnels in the ears, dreadlocks, the hair in different colors, tattoos and other things, that people use to make themselves look and feel different, to express themselves. I myself am not from the military structures, but to me it looked a bit unusual, because in my mind a soldier is… a soldier. Recalling the stories my mother told me of the days my father served, he wasn’t allowed to wear even the wedding band, although it’s fair to say, that it was a long time ago and during the USSR. But the stories of old times do influence the perception of the army we have now, and even despite the lack of «discipline» in the attire, internet stresses out that Swiss army is one of the most organised and impressive in Europe.

The locals say that young people are very responsible and have a strong sense of collective. I was told a story about a video about some military life aspects, a squad was chosen to participate in it and during a test shot it was noticed by the soldiers that while standing in a row, two of the soldiers stood out because of their hair styles — while most everyone’s hair was military styled, these young men had a waist long ponytails. No one told a single word about it, because as a free person in a democratic state you are allowed to choose your own hairstyle, but the young men themselves decided that they stood out too much and that their appearance might compromise the goal of the advertising campaign, so he changed their looks to fit in more. No one asked them to do it, it was all of their own free will. As for me, this is just unbelievable, that a person might sacrifice something this personal to help a common goal.

But back to the story. After the dinner we headed to our new destination, this time to Bern, because the next day we were having a concert, the one I already mentioned before.

Day Nr.2.

The free time from breakfast until lunch that we had was, of course, spent sleeping. Lunch was served at yet another military base, in Bern. Surely I’m not going to describe the food we were served, but a couple of words, just to emphasise the differences in… life. Let’s start with a salad bar, yes, a salad bar on a military base, a salad bar that you can visit after you’ve been served a standard meal set. Sometimes there’s even a special person that comes into the room with a huge box of fruits, asks for your favorites and packs you a to-go bag, because you’ve got to have some strength to defend your country. In my opinion, the service is way better than in some civilian cafes.

And here we are at the soundcheck in the concert hall. The hall itself is so huge that it was divided into two parts. If you’ve ever been to Ķīpsalas hall, then it’s almost half of that. Or maybe I was just so excited that my mind made it all look so huge, I don’t know. But yes, that concert hall was pretty impressive. The sound engineer left a very good impression, everyone could hear everything, every musician felt comfortable on the stage, even though the acoustics in this specific hall was far from being perfect and definitely not suited for this kind of music, but oh well, nothing new here, if you’re a jazz musician, you find yourself in these situations on a regular basis.

And so, the concert is here! Among the guests of the concert are all Swiss army «Top Brass» (high position military personnel). To say the concert hall was overflowing with listeners is to say nothing at all. There was literally no place to even stand (forget about finding a seat), and that was at the beginning of the show, try imagining what it looked like when after an hour or so 200 more soldiers came along and joined the party. The show was a total success. All big bands were very professional, played wonderfully, their programs were very different, which made the evening very exciting. The German «Bundeswehr» big band was formed in 1971 and the main principles of their work that were suggested by chancellor Helmut Schmidt were that «A modern army requires modern music». The big band’s performance was delightful, with a lot of interestingly arranged jazz standards and pop tuned. I wasn’t surprised by the quality of their performance, because the big band’s reputation is impeccable, the orchestra is known for their quality and virtuosity.

The Finnish Air Force big band was founded a little later, in 1977, the band actively performs in Finland and abroad, plays during official ceremonies and educates young talents, also it comes in various lineup variations — from a full big band and up to a small combo band, sometimes doing performances with just a wind instrument group playing contemporary and pop music arrangements. In this concert the big band performed a couple of jazz standards, but the rest of the program consisted of their folk music arranged in jazz.

Philip Kessler

Our NAF big band was formed in 2009 and since then, with the efforts of captain Aleksandrs Kreišmanis, has earned the love of their loyal listeners. An interesting fact — NAF big band has already participated in the «MilJazz» festival, it was in 2014 and in Finland, but I suppose that the musicians were delighted to take part in something of this magnitude once again. Also the fact that they had participated once and have been invited again show us what a fine impression the band left, because no one invites a bad band twice. What I’m trying to say is — bravo! Keep up the good work! But back to the concert — our program was divided into two parts — Latvian tunes by Gunārs Rozenbergs, folk tunes arranged in jazz and jazz standards, where I was a guest artist.

The final act of the concert was by the local Swiss army big band, which is a swing and jazz orchestra that consists of young musicians serving in the army’s musical division. Since January 2015 the big band has a new leader — Edgar Schmidt, who is responsible for the bands musical direction. Since he came into the position it was decided that the band with not only play jazz and swing tunes, but also funk, soul and pop, and everything will be stylised according to the tastes of the big band. The concert I attended has proved that the band is indeed inspiring and professional.

Day Nr.3.

The Swiss army took care of everything, made sure we were comfortable on the stage, but also provided some entertainment as well and gave us a chance to get to know their country. Early morning began with a trip to a small town called Beckenried in the Nidwalden canton on the south side of Lucerne lake. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the town itself, instead we headed a bit higher — 1593 meters, to be precise, to a relaxation spot in the mountains called Klewenalp. We used a cable car to get there, which also gave us a chance to enjoy the landscape it was fantastic, and the road with this exact cable car, by the way, is the longest one in Switzerland. The trip took about ten minutes, although I honestly wish it would take longer, because the view was spectacular! Once up in the mountains we enjoyed lunch with the view — just imagine having Alps on one side and the whole world underneath you! But all things must come to an end, so after a short time spent in the Alps we went to our next tourist adventure.

Next stop — another town on the shore of Lucerne lake — Brunnen, a resort in Schwyz canton. The resort is very popular among the locals and country visitors, for many years different celebrities had and are having vacations there, one of the most famous public figures to have stayed there is Winston Churchil, he had spent his honeymoon there. Also a painter J. M. W. Turner has painted a landscape with the views of the town and the lake. We, on the other hand, hadn’t stayed in a hotel, we took a guided tour through the «Victorinox» museum. Although the exposition was mostly dedicated to «Victorinox» produced knifes, the museum has prepared a nice insight into the history of pocket knives, which is why they have a lot of related items from the past, including ancient knifes, of course. The museum also has a set of knives for collectioneers — with handles made of pearl, endless enhancements and so on. The history of the factory was presented on an interactive device, where you could use the touch screen function and choose a certain period of time and it would demonstrate why exactly the pocket knife became so popular.

I found out an interesting fact about how the most popular pocket knife came to be, the one we so often call the «Swiss Army Knife» or just the «Swiss knife», some of which have nothing to do with the «Victorinox» factory. Turned out that the famous army knife was indeed first meant for the army, the story goes like this: the owner of the factory studied the resources of the Swiss army and concluded that they need something that would help them in their military everyday life and in emergencies. He created a prototype that, according to his research, would be ideal (or close to that) for the tasks at hand and gave it to the soldiers for a «test drive». Turned out that the knife was very useful, so the army ordered one for each soldier. Another interesting fact — the name «Swiss army knife» (which is the name of one of the models) is still given to every soldier as a gift once he enrolls into the army, although it is not considered to be in the list of necessary equipment, because it is just a tradition. Naturally, after we were told about that tradition, we turned to Roman and asked whether he had one, turned out he did and uses it on a regular basis.

Another interesting topic that we discussed in the museum was how to recognize a fake knife. Nowadays, when original product usually costs pretty much, it is always possible to find an alternative that would be almost identical, only 50 times cheaper than the original. Although we must realise that the copy is probably of a worse quality than the original, still we choose to spend less, and considering the fact that a knife costs approximately 80 EUR, you surely can find a fake one in the internet for 8 EUR. So, how to discern a fake from a real one?

Evilena Protektore

— Logo — «Victorinox» logo is always made of metal instead of being painted with a metallic pigment. Also the logo would be on a red background, where the color would be identical to one on the Swiss flag;
— The blade would have a writing that states that the knife is made on the «Victorinox» factory;
— The metal is rust proof;
— Between each blade group there should be a separating wall, which makes the knife slightly heavier and also makes sure of most comfortable use;
— There should be a spring inside.

Another interactive experience provided by the museum was the chance to assemble your own knife, which I was lucky to do. That is, of course, mostly for fun and everything was prepared in advance, I could only choose the tools I wanted in my own knife, and after that an instructor issued commands and made sure I placed everything into the right slots and in best positions, directed me as to when to press the buttons and so on. It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed myself immensely. Nowadays the knives aren’t made manually, of course, it’s all a factory mechanism, apart from one process that still is hand operated — when the knife is ready, each and every single copy is being tested by a real person — whether all the tools are easily accessible and in working condition. So after all there is some personal touch to each knife, kind of makes it even more special, right?

Evilena Protektore

At the end of the tour each participant also received a gift from the museum — a small knife, which is a nice touch that is not only a memorabilia, but a useful tool.

Day Nr.4.

Early morning — we’re on the road again, this time we’re headed to Geneva, because that evening we had our second concert. When I saw the concert hall I was positively surprised. The concert hall was extremely beautiful and it was an honor to be on that stage. «Victoria Hall» is a historic place built in 1891—1894, the name is a dedication to Queen Victoria. The hall itself is mainly used for classical music concerts, but this time it hosted 3 bigbands. The opening act was a «Big up’Band» orchestra from Geneva, founded in 2015 with the goal to fulfill Geneva’s lake with the sounds of big band music. All musicians are professionals and the orchestra is considered to be one of the best in the region. I think that it was also the only non-military big band to participate in the festival. The second performance was from an already known to us Swiss Army Big band, and we were the closing act. I’m very happy to realise that our performance was a success, I’m saying that because the ovations were loud and long. It was also a joy to see (and hear) fellow Latvians currently residing in Geneva who came to support us. All in all the impressions of the night were most positive.

Philip Kessler

Day Nr.5.

Our last day in Switzerland started with… and election! In the early morning we were driven to the representation office of the Latvian Republic, where we could vote and influence the decision on who was going to represent us in European Parliament. It was a very nice touch from the festival to take care of this.

After the voting we went exploring the city. The city itself is very beautiful, the air is fresh and the streets clean. Trash bins are available on every corner with an ashtray on top. What surprised me was a sign on each ashtray «Thank you for throwing away your cigarette» — so polite that it makes you want to use it instead of throwing the bud on the ground (not that I do that). A lot of bicycle routes, a lot of green zones and parks, playgrounds. Also we’ve seen one of the tallest fountains in the world — «Jet d’eau de Genève», which is 147 meters high!

All in all I’m extremely happy that I had a chance to participate in such an event. I must say that I think that being there is an honor not only to me, but to the NAF big band as well, because our participation showed Europe that our music is of high quality, and if the culture of the country is developed on a good level, then it means that everything else is fine as well, because if the basic needs of human beings aren’t met, there is no resource left for culture. And also it shows Europe that Latvia cares for the spiritual well-being of its people, because music has always been a great part of our lives. I’m proud that I got to be one of those who showed Europe that we have a lot of things to be proud of!

Philip Kessler