The magic of an absolute statistics of the jazz department
A decade of jazz education at the Latvian Academy of Music – a milestone signifying much more to come
The last decade of Latvian jazz community is signified by a whole bunch of changes — a lot of new musicians appeared on the scene, countless ensembles formed, new albums are being released every year, clubs, bars and restaurants organise jazz music concerts, concert halls invite both local and foreign artists to perform…. The list of events is endless, but some are worth mentioning on their own, like a ten year anniversary of our local jazz music department in the Academy of Music. Ten years ago a group of teachers lead by Indriķis Veitners gathered together to educate the new generation of jazz musicians, and since then local young talents received one more additional option where to get their degree, no need to go abroad, you can do it right here, at home, and become a bachelor or a master of jazz music in Latvia.
The establishment of the jazz department is an important event that not only concerns the students who wish to study jazz in a formal environment, but is significant in the world of academic music and in forming a positive image of our one and only Academy of Music in the international and historical context. If we went back a little bit in time, we would see and hear a lot of amazing musicians that were active on the scene until 1970’s, afterwards, unfortunately, the popularity of the genre had rapidly declined, because a lot of the very same musicians left the Union the moment they could. But in time jazz started «waking up», we have to say «Thank you» to the people responsible for that, starting with Raimonds Raubiško, who was well known and is still warmly remembered not only by his saxophone comrades, but all his students, because if it wasn’t for his regular jam sessions, a new generation of jazz lovers wouldn’t have a place to meet like-minded people and exchange licks and practice what they learned in a real concert situation.
And then there was Nic Gotham, of course, who came from Canada and started giving improvisation classes in schools. And even though Nic isn’t among us anymore, his legacy lives on and he still supports the new generation through a foundation and a yearly awards ceremony.
There’s a lot of people who made sure that jazz music in Latvia wouldn’t die out, who invested their time into developing the genre and teaching youngsters. I hope that someday Indriķis Veitners will have enough time and life force to write another book on the history of jazz in Latvia, making sure that all the important people are not forgotten and that the young generation will have a source of information about our jazz past. But for now we have the results we can see with our own eyes, which is a jazz department in a very conservative establishment, in the music academy. The fact that JVLMA has been admitting and schooling students in jazz music also means that this genre is being recognised by the state as something serious. It doesn’t really matter that at the beginning it was music played for fun and dancing, as a means to entertain the public in bars, every music had its own purpose. Now though people understand, both musicians and the listeners, that this music is in fact a form of arts, not just a commercial product (which jazz in our country most definitely isn’t), but something that required education and during the last ten years it was possible to receive this education here, at home, and each student that graduated from JVLMA is able to call himself a bachelor or a master of jazz music.
Here’s a talk I had with the head of jazz department Indriķis Veitners, and one of the most respectable jazz vocal teachers in the state Inga Bērziņa, who told me a story of how the department was established. Enjoy!
The idea to create a jazz department at the Academy of Music originally belongs to Artis Sīmanis. He called me and said «Join us!» That happened the same year he was elected as the rector of the school. After Sīmanis got elected, I sent him an SMS with my congratulations, because I’ve known him for years. We had played together in various big bands, and he also used to work for the Latvian Radio Big Band. And that’s basically it. A week later he called me with an invitation to meet. I came over, and he said that it was time to open a jazz music department. So I took a piece of paper and scribbled down everything I thought the department should be. It wasn’t hard to do, because we had already had five years of experience with jazz at the Riga Cathedral Choir School (RDKS).
Then I took my scribbles and went to visit Irēna Baltābola, who is still the director of study programmes and the ECTS coordinator at the academy. She informed me that my plan was a complete failure and began solving some mystical math equations involving credits and hours, and in the end, with a lot of sweat and tears, we did it. That’s how the first year went by, with licensing the programme and all of the bureaucracy. The first thing Baltābola did was send me to the annual AEC meeting, where I made a lot of useful contacts, seeing as it’s an association of European music academies. So we participate every year.
What is extremely important, in my opinion, is an opportunity to go abroad and attend different conferences, also together with students. I have been to an amazing program in Denmark called «Girl Power», where the girls from all over the world played and sang jazz. It was amazing, we were absolutely ecstatic. It is clear that we would never get the chance to participate in this kind of event if it weren’t for the Academy. Because Riga Dome Choir School is something different, but higher education is another level.
IV: The team of teachers has remained almost the same as when we first started the department. We’ve also had some very successful collaborations with teachers from abroad, such as composer Linas Rimsha from Lithuania. And our core team is as strong as ever, with Inga Bērziņa on vocals, Madars Kalniņš and Viktors Ritovs on piano, Andrejs Jevsjukovs on guitar and Artis Orubs on drums.
IB: The Fulbright scholarship programme has brought us Anne Farnsworth on piano and vocals, Chris Beaty on saxophone and Lynn Seaton on double bass.
IV: I’m also very grateful to Taavo Remmel, who still travels from Estonia to teach double bass. He was our saviour when we had no one to fill the position. It was also difficult when our dear friend and colleague Nic passed away [Nic Gotham, 1959–2013]. The main criteria I had when choosing the teachers was a combination of professionalism and integrity. I have to admit this was based on my own opinion, and it still is, but then I’m the one who bears the weight of responsibility. That’s also the reason why I sometimes seem sceptical when someone proposes something new, because I have to think about how it might affect our common goal. This is the sort of magic that can’t be born at a moment’s notice, but happens through hard work.
IB: One of the greatest things is that we had Nic, he gave us the sense of stability because of his experience. I thought that if Nic was involved, then we’d never fail! We’d get through it all somehow. It was a huge moment for everyone, we realised that we were doing something big, something important, something that will stay in our history, that finally the moment has come and we can create something of this significance. Sure, we would have to change something, improve something, situations change, students change, but that was a very positive breakthrough. And that first moment was grand, we had a huge competition on entry exams, everyone was happy, the students as well, because finally they could study something they really wanted to!
IV: One of the main problems we have is that part of the team still works at RDKS and the academy is intertwined with the school. Or at least it was at the beginning. It was logical, because we already had experience with RDKS and we were building on top of that – a second storey, so to say. But it was also challenging, because RDKS was built with the idea of it being pretty self-sufficient, because at that time no jazz department at the higher education level was in sight. So we tried to give the students the maximum. As a result, it’s a very high standard for a school, and it’s a standard that also sets the bar of expectations from the academy at a very impressive level.
The other thing, which is impossible to predict, are the changes in the music itself. The generations have changed, living conditions are different, there’s a completely new information flow, the environment… Things that were relevant then are irrelevant now; we have different problems nowadays. The music market has changed. And it’s hard to keep up with these changes, because the Academy of Music is a huge beast that is slow to adapt. It involves a lot of paperwork, bureaucracy. RDKS had the advantage that we could make changes within our department without much struggle; at the academy, however, the smallest detail has to be scrutinised and approved by various administrative layers. Because in truth, we are a small part of a huge institution with some pretty old traditions and a deep history. But we’ve nevertheless managed to change quite a lot over the years, and it’s quite interesting to compare our department today with how it looked ten years ago. Also, it’s very interesting to understand how it all works, what is dependent on what.
And we are now yet again at a point of change, this one happening on various levels simultaneously. One of these changes is internal, because the generation has changed and we need to find new ways of approaching things, add some new blood to our team. Another thing, and it’s a big one: we’ve come to the point where we have to reevaluate the whole concept of the jazz department, to understand what we see as the final result of the studies, what it is that we’re teaching. The genre changes, the borders have become blurred, the things our students are interested in are very different. Our responsibility is to provide enough choice, at the same time keeping our identity intact. It’s a very interesting stage but also a very complicated and responsible one. That’s why we’ve made it a regular practice to have meetings with students and arrange different collaborations and work groups. We try changing things together, because in my opinion the students are the very people who can tell us what they want and need, and this has to be in balance with what we can and deem necessary to give.
IB: I agree, I think it’s extremely important that each student after graduation could say that during the four (or six) years spent studying here he did something he enjoyed, that they wouldn’t end up in a situation when it’s their graduation year and they are tired of music and don’t really want anything at all any more. I never had this with my students. Ok, maybe they got tired of life and the learning process, but I’ve never heard anyone say that these years were meaningless, that they didn’t get what they came for. Each has their own way, but it’s important to establish some positive communication and maintain it.
IV: Our goal has always been clear: to make sure that when a student graduates, he or she is a professional musician who is absolutely ready to participate and work in Latvia’s music market and is able to compete with others and contribute to that market’s development. The second, but no less important, goal is to maintain and develop Latvia’s jazz community. That’s why I’m such an advocate of Latvian jazz and its history – no one but us, Latvians, will be bothered to do it nor will be able to do it. Our history and our community are what makes us different from all other counties.
There are a lot of things I’m proud of, but one stands out the most. It’s our 100% statistical success rate. All of our students stay in music after they graduate. No other department at the academy has that result, but we do. In my opinion, that is a success.