A&E Goes Abroad: Time traveling through Portuguese jazz history

Sam Lewin

Last summer, I went to Portugal in the 1970s. What!? That statement is logically impossible, but as I listened to Portuguese jazz musicians, audience members, promoters, and critics describe life under Portugal’s dictatorship — which was in power from 1932-1974 — I often felt like I was traveling through time.

Interviewees walked me through detailed accounts of politics and jazz under authoritarianism, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening; after all, I find jazz history and politics to be equally fascinating subjects. I felt privileged to be given access to such personal stories, and I knew that they could shed light on important questions about the relationship between music and politics.

However, as much as I enjoyed living in the ‘70s, I often found myself gravitating towards the contemporary Portuguese jazz scene. I went to festivals and concerts almost every night and listened to jazz, free-jazz and other gutsy, improvised music that was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

Portugal’s 2011 jazz scene was happening. The Jazz em Agosto Festival last August, for example, consistently hosted large, enthusiastic and young audiences who lapped up raw and confrontational music. Acts like Peter Brotzmann’s Hairy Bones, Ken Vandermark — and my personal favorite, Little Women — played improvised music that occupied the boundaries between aggressive free-jazz, hardcore rock and metal. Their intense sets left no room for banter. Little Women took this to the extreme: They walked on stage, sat cross-legged, meditated for five minutes, walked to their instruments, shredded for over an hour and walked off.

It was weird music, but the audiences loved it. They gave Vandermark’s group three encores before one of his guitarists started bleeding, and they lined up to buy free-jazz records after each show — a scene that nearly replicated my craziest musical fantasies.

Jazz em Agosto was only one of 14 jazz festivals in Portugal in 2011, and each festival catered to specific niches within the broader jazz category. Better yet, many of these festivals were at least partially sponsored by government arts subsidies. Although the country’s economic crisis has forced government cuts, the remnants still put U.S. arts funding to shame.

But the success of 21st century jazz in Portugal made me even more curious about what the jazz community was like during the dictatorship. Did it even exist? Did jazz’s musical freedom, embodied by its emphasis on improvisation and individual expression, provide a means of subversion?

As I talked to more people, I gradually gained a better understanding of pre-1974 jazz. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I heard a number of depressing stories; political police regularly intimidated musicians and once shut down a popular jazz club on a formality. Plus, quite a few jazz musicians were sent to Africa to fight in Portugal’s colonial wars.

But there were also moments of triumph, like when bassist Charlie Haden endorsed the Black Liberation Movements of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea in front of thousands of screaming fans — though he was subsequently arrested at the airport the next day. There were also more than a few humorous anecdotes. One jazz critic who had worked in film explained how an elderly censor fell asleep during a screening and missed full-frontal nudity.

I learned a lot about jazz and politics in Portugal, but rather than trying to cram it into a few small paragraphs, I’d like to tell some of the stories in my next few columns. These stories shed light on jazz under Portugal’s dictatorship, but they also taught me profound lessons about topics like freedom, resistance and fear. I think these lessons can inform our appreciation of jazz in 2012 as well as life in general.