French architect Jean Nouvel's newly opened Koncerthuset (concert hall), widely compared to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for its intriguing design, swell acoustics, and hefty price tag.

DANISH JAZZ PASTRY KITCHEN: A funny familiarity might come over Santa Barbarans paying a first visit to Copenhagen. Anyone, after all, hip to the Danish-themed burg of Solvang knows something, even if second-handed, about Danish ways. You might also find yourself with Danny Kaye‘s voice dogging your brain, to the tune of “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen :” Beyond such superficial preconditioning, though, nothing prepares you for Copenhagen like being there.


It’s an ancient, mythic place, founded in 1167, in a nation whose flag is the world’s oldest. Yet this is also the home of Christiania, a last bastion of hippiedom and anarchist pipe-dreaming, a funk zone free of cars, claimed as a “social experiment” in 1970 and still standing. On your way out of Christiania, a sign overhead reads, “You are now entering the EU.” Well, not exactly. In a real and metaphorical way, Denmark is a transitional, debriefing zone between Europe and Scandinavia. Its five million people are packed into a small geographical patchwork sandwiched between Germany and Sweden. Elements of culture, language, and attitude blend the two worlds-though leaning strongly toward its Scandinavian roots.

Somehow, the pace and outlook are more relaxed in Denmark. Christian Dalgas, my liaison at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival-the columnist’s professional reason for a visit-suggested a kinship between the laidback qualities of the Danish and Californians. “Germans think we’re practically Caribbean,” he quipped.

But crisp efficiency and clean, friendly surfaces also prevail. Coordinating a vast and complex jazz festival, with venues and partners set up all over the city, requires well-oiled machinery. The 31st annual 2009 festival was the biggest yet, and refreshingly off the grid of the usual suspects on the Euro summer jazz fest circuit. Copenhagen has long had a tight and loving relationship with jazz, and was a haven for such jazz expats as Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster.


And despite what you don’t hear from the usual radio and media sources, some of the more interesting current jazz hails from Scandinavia. That truism was confirmed in Copenhagen, via such lively evidence as the Norwegian-Finnish band Delirium (featuring Danish trumpeter-of-choice Kasper Tranberg, also part of Yusef Lateef‘s band) and the adventurous and sweet-spirited Yun Kan 10, led by talented Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungqvist. Young Danish singer Maria Laurette Friis presented a moody, indie balladeer-style tribute to Billie Holiday, one of the more intriguing twists on Lady Day I’ve ever heard. The next night, Friis played her own more dream-like folk-jazz material, theremin player in tow, in the ambient hull of the MS Stubnitz, a repurposed historic fishing vessel.

Aside from featured American visitors-i.e. Chick Corea and a Nina Simone tribute with Dianne Reeves-a Danish-flavored keynote concert involved trumpeter-composer Palle Mikkelborg‘s 25th anniversary tribute to Aura, his collaboration with Miles Davis. That album was special, a rare American-European meeting in Miles’s life. Mikkelborg took this new occasion to venture fresh ideas and stylistic directions, with a large ensemble at the posh Det Kongelige Teater, Gamle Scene.

Through the festival’s labyrinthine schedule, one learns of the city’s sweep, including the stunning, lavish Frederiksberg Garden, next to the 1858 vintage beer garden of M.G. Petersen‘s familiehave. Time blissfully stood still, partly thanks Papa Bue’s Viking Jazz Band‘s trad jazz.

French architect Jean Nouvel's newly opened Koncerthuset (concert hall), widely compared to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for its intriguing design, swell acoustics, and hefty price tag.

In Copenhagen’s present cultural atmosphere, one hot new property is French architect Jean Nouvel‘s newly opened Koncerthuset (concert hall), widely compared to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for its intriguing design, swell acoustics, and hefty price tag. Nouvel famously pushes and tweaks the envelope, as with his concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Lyon Opera House. Likewise, his Copenhagen hall is deceptively minimal, with a hidden agenda. A huge blue translucent box-like frame encases a more unruly assembly of slabs and jagged shingles, like a shale pile. The machine-like and the organic are melded, as with music itself, where math meets mysticism.

Tivoli Gardens

For a more classic escapist Copenhagen experience, proceed to the famed Tivoli Gardens, smack dab in the city’s center, and founded in 1843. Walt Disney filched plenty of ideas for his Disneyland franchise here. Jazz filters into the Tivoli at festival time, as it did with the worldly improvisational sound of Lateef’s Universal Quartet, in the ornamental Glassalen Theatre. Later, a cross-generational throng packed in to hear wondrous jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater perform with the sharp-sounding Tivoli Orchestra and Big Band. I took a midnight ride on the 95-year-old rollercoaster, the Rutschebanen, as Bridgewater’s version of “Midnight Sun” drifted through the Tivoli air, sensing that some deep, clarifying Copenhagen sensation was at hand.


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