CAIRO – 2 November 2021: For a long time, the iconic picture of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet at the Pyramids in 1961 was “jazz” for Egyptians. Today, jazz has been localized in Egypt, and jazz artists find a big fan base to perform to.
“The U.S. Embassy is supporting the Cairo Jazz Festival this year by sponsoring visiting American musicians who are continuing our tradition of jazz diplomacy dating back six decades to the historic visit to Egypt by famed jazz musician Louis Armstrong,” Ambassador Jonathan R. Cohen said.
ICX Jazz Ensemble, instrumentalists from various American universities, and U.S. jazz fusion group AJOYO performed at Cairo Jazz Festival. Dr. Ayman Fanous, an Egyptian-American contemporary free jazz and improvisation artist, performed with renowned international cellist Frances-Marie Utti.
All three groups conducted master classes and workshops for Egyptian music students and jazz aficionados. ICX Jazz Ensemble also performed inMinya, Upper Egypt.
The members of ICX Jazz Ensemble, who are often exchanged every now and then, come from different age groups and backgrounds.
One artist from the group was Maasej Kovacevic, a Croatian married to an Egyptian, he spoke a little Arabic, but it was the first time he has played for an Egyptian or Arab audience.
Seeing the enthusiasm of the audience after the first song, Kovacevic said to himself “where are we?”
The encouragement of the audience engulfed the team and made them play more passionately than in many other festivals around the world, Kovacevic told a group of Egyptian journalists after ICX's performance in Cairo.
Age does not seem to matter in jazz either. David Richardson, one of the older members of ICX, said he has a lung disease and his doctor told him never to quit playing the trumpet.
Gregory Tardy, an accomplished saxophonist who teaches at the University of Tennessee, said that when he was younger, he played with Jazz artists who were much older and the young members of the ensemble could hardly keep up.
To Tardy, music is about communication, not age, and that a musician will continue to play for as long as they can put their heart into it and are still abel to communicate.
John Bowers, the founder of ICX, also emphasized communication. ICX stands for International Culture Exchange, and Bowers said the notion that music is a “language” does not do justice to it. It transcends words into a rhythm that translates emotions, something that words cannot if you do not know the language. Hence, he listened to hours of traditional Egyptian music, including music originating from Upper Egypt, rather than actual songs.
“Jazz is about constantly being creative... in classical music you can’t change a note, but in jazz you can... You’re not limited to any influence, I love the freedom, it’s about how I feel in the moment," Bowers said.
The origin of jazz is in New Orleans, the only place in the U.S. where black slaves were allowed to practice their own culture, Tardy told Egypt Today.
Jazz was born with influences from different parts of Africa, although it is an expression of the African-American experience.
“A lot of it really comes from black people in America trying to build their own culture… a lot of the culture we had in Africa before was lost,” Tardy said.
The pioneer of jazz in Egypt is Yehia Khalil, who formed his own ensemble in 1979. But today, many genres of music have been well-received in Egypt, and other genres have emerged therefrom. The Cairo Jazz Festival was established 13 years ago, and it has clearly went on for so long for being successful and finding its own fans in the North-African country.