This is not news. The global influence of our music has been evident for many decades. But I guess I was not prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly of that reality. I’ll get the bad news out of the way first.
I was not surprised to hear techno/electronica type club music in some of the oh-so- hip and trendy shops in Rome – it is one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world and while the contrast of ancient Rome and the vibrant modern scene can be quite jarring and wonderful, you expect the Italians (especially the younger ones) to be absolutely cutting edge in every aspect of their lives. It’s just that this type of music is so mind-numbing and useless, for lack of better word. OK, that’s probably just me. That “music” is supposed to be about as important as the lighting and the climate control. You’re not supposed to pay any attention to it I guess. Unfortunately, I am incapable of ignoring music when it’s playing regardless of the setting.
What was surprising was hearing the same sort of stuff in quaint and beautiful little shops on the island of Murano, off Venice. Murano’s glass art culture goes back many hundreds of years and the town itself almost breathes history. We had a wonderful conversation with a couple who own a small glass bead gallery and store and we asked them about why they had such music on their sound system. They kind of sighed and vaguely explained that they thought it was something their international customers would enjoy, or at least not find offensive. OK, I guess… But wouldn’t some Vivaldi (native son of Venice) softly playing in the background set a better mood? I put that computer generated, repetitive thumping of modern techno right up their with American junk food. Inevitable wherever you go, and most likely harmless, but what’s the point of eating it when there are so many wonderful options available?
That was the ugly. Now the bad, or more accurately, the humorously bad. In the most well known and visited tourist area of Venice, San Marco piazza, there are three or four cool looking but overpriced restaurants with outdoor seating surrounding the square. Each of them has a permanent small stage set up outside, most with a grand piano in place, where trios and quartets (usually violin, piano, stand up bass and perhaps a clarinet) play every day and evening. The musicians are great, all classically trained. But I had to laugh when we walked by one and the tuxedo clad players where studiously putting forth a rendition of “New York, New York” ! Later that day – although I can’t blame this one on the American influence – we watched a flotilla of four gondolas make their way down one of the myriad small canals while a hired accordion on board one happily belted out “Roll Out The Barrel.” Maybe the riders where from Germany???
But now the good. On our first evening in Rome while gloriously lost exploring the ancient alleys and small piazzas we found ourselves in Campo Fiori, one of the main huge piazzas in the city. I could see but initially not hear a five-piece band playing at the other end. I could see two guitarists, stand up bass player, a drummer playing a single snare drum with brushes and a clarinet player. Judging by the crowd around them and the fact that one guitarist played a Maccaferri type gypsy acoustic and the other a hollow body jazz guitar I knew this would be good – and it was, to say the least! It turned out they were a bunch of guys from Germany who had come to Rome with no solid plans other than just to play, for the love of playing and love of the music. And what music it was! GREAT swing jazz, plus some Django type gypsy jazz. Fantastic players all, tight as tight could be, showing huge enthusiasm. The crowd – including, interestingly – a group of high school are Italian kids LOVED what they were hearing. We ended up seeking them out again the next night and even ran into them at a lunch and talked with them for quite a while – great guys, great musicians.
This confirmed what I already knew: that American jazz is still alive and well in Europe, where many of the greats spent a large part of their careers when jazz waned in the U.S. Thank goodness for this. It gives me hope.
We also did hear some very good European music on the streets, really good gypsy accordion players, and a highlight was Romanian man sitting on the Academia Bridge in Venice one evening playing beautiful renaissance pieces on a 140 year-old lute-type instrument. When we spoke with him and told him I was a guitarist and how much we enjoyed his music, he all but demanded I try his instrument. I did, and while it was not exactly my most shining musical moment in terms of playing (!), it was very cool indeed.
What does this all mean? I guess that the old cliché about music being the universal language is still true, even if that music is machine and computer generated pabulum. Oh well, that stuff makes me a bit embarrassed to be an American, but hearing a superb German guitarist playing a scorching solo on “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” on an acoustic gypsy jazz guitar certainly makes me a bit proud!
Peace & good music,