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Liepāja — New York: direct flight

Harijs Ločmelis

Jazz Valhalla jam sessions in Liepāja as a trip to New York

Annija Markota

Every second Monday at 8 p.m., quite regularly by now, «Valhalla Wine & Coffee», together with well-known Latvian jazz musicians and young cats from Liepāja city, organizes jazz concerts and jam sessions.

Nobody doubts that jazz in Latvia isn’t anything new or artificially borrowed from the West, but instead is an always present part of the culture during the whole last century, continuing to bloom to this day. And indisputable proof of that can be found right here in Liepāja that in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, has become one of the most important migration centers in the Russian empire, as a geographically convenient port city connecting the East to the West. It means that fresh cultural breath flowed to the empire through Liepāja. New York back then could be reached in just two weeks’ time, and when jazz as a genre arose, it was just one cruise ship trip apart.

Even though it might seem today that neither a cruise ship nor an airplane doesn’t travel across the ocean directly anymore, this trip from Liepāja is still quite short and direct. Just as a steamer «Czar» with a route Liepāja — New York amazingly served in connecting both shores of the Atlantic Ocean, «Valhalla» cafe basement nowadays has a direct connection between a jazz music lover and New York. That’s a perfect place for implementing authentic «east coast» club atmosphere and traditions: cafeteria basement with a low wooden ceiling, dimmed light from antique lamps, colorful rugs, and various kitschy soft furniture for cozy seating, with walls decorated with paintings by the owner of the place, Ivonna Kalita herself. This welcoming venue has been waiting for trumpet and saxophone choir, drums, and singing until the morning comes for quite a long time. Meanwhile, the narrow walls of the basement bring the audience closer than they might have allowed themselves to do in their daily life. This venue gives us an opportunity to enjoy something we’ve almost forgotten about — acoustic jazz band sound, hear a trumpet shout right in your face instead of through an acoustic amplifier, feel the warm air out of a saxophone that came right near you, and some attentive listeners may even see scobs flying out of drumsticks. All of it goes well together with happy talks, laughter, and glass clinking because, as we all know, jazz isn’t only about the music.

Annija Markota

Thanks to the Jazz Department of the Liepāja Music, Art and Design Secondary school, the school teachers often attend this place to well-known jazz musicians in Latvia and abroad. «Jazz Valhalla» Monday jam sessions often feature saxophonist Deniss Pashkevich, drummer Andris Buiķis, bassist Edvīns Ozols, pianist Atis Andersons, singer Evilena Protektore, accordionist Rustams Bagirovs, pianist Zanda Ciemīte, trumpetist Gatis Gorkuša and students of them all. This place is a great stimulus and motivation for young jazz cats. That’s an opportunity to regularly prepare and perform concert repertoire, overcome laziness, unwillingness, fright and worry, make music and stage our daily life, and learn to love music on a deeper level. And real studies begin only at night on a jam stage, where a teacher and his student stand right near, playing their favorite melodies. Even though an unslept night after a long jam session is tempting to stay in bed longer the next morning, this experience brings new inspiration to wake up earlier and take an instrument in one’s hands.

Just as in the New York «Smalls» jazz club on the other side of the ocean where the music lovers are sitting close to one another and let a saxophone and a trumpet blow right into their faces, the «Jazz Valhalla» audience has proven that jazz in Liepāja is real, too. A city near the sea, also known as a city of winds, has been also called a rock music city thanks to well-known festivals and prominent rock bands. Or maybe when we hear the phrase «Liepāja rock», there’s also some irony proving that this time has already passed? Wind will never cease to blow in this city, but will the music change? Despite the relatively small population, jazz takes over the venues in Valhalla, music school, culture house «Wiktorija», Spīķers quarter, freshly opened «Pegaza pagalms», and pop-up concerts in different cultural venues. In 2027 Liepāja will become the European culture capital. Maybe the time to nominate Liepāja to become a Latvian jazz capital has also come?

Annija Markota