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  • Transatlanticism as Dutch National Spectacle:Universalism and Postpolitics at the North Sea Jazz Festival
  • William Kirk Bares (bio)

Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them. Except for an inner electricity which results from the simple fact of their being crowded together. A magical sensation of contiguity and attraction for an artificial centrality. This is what makes it a self-attracting universe, which there is no reason to leave.

—Jean Baudrillard, America (1986)1

The memorable travelogue that earned Baudrillard his reputation as a postmodern Alexander de Tocqueville revealed just how persistent the European drive toward transatlantic “othering” remained before the advent of an equally artificial and self-attracting European Union. In the timeworn narrative pattern, Old World “substance” was valorized in and through fearful and fascinating constructions of New World superficiality. Given New York’s historic, symbolic, and de facto centrality for the jazz world, it should come as no surprise that this narrative pattern played a significant role in structuring a polarizing transatlantic jazz discourse during the past century of cultural exchange. Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of his encounter with New York’s authentic bebop—“hurried [End Page 345] … like the people who take the subway,” a music that, “like bananas, must be consumed on the spot”—can be taken as representative of the trend.2 The wake of European unification, however, has ushered in a unique historical moment; rival European cultural switchboards have arisen to challenge New York as the world’s center for jazz exchange, and the established binary has become more difficult to maintain. To borrow Baudrillard’s phrase, Europe has been busy constructing its own seemingly superficial and “self-attracting” jazz universes, with profound consequences for those still invested in narratives of jazz’s Americanicity. On the American side, cultural retrenchments and boundary drawing around—ironically enough—American jazz “substance” within Europe have followed closely on the heels of this development.

One would be hard-pressed to find a cultural arena that collocates Old and New World jazz hierarchies more spectacularly than the North Sea Jazz Festival, the annual Manhattan in microcosm that the impresario Paul Acket first staged on Dutch soil in 1976. In relatively short order, the North Sea Jazz Festival has become jazz’s international hub, a surfeit of information, and a whirlwind of fleeting social, musical, and commercial encounters—in short, a European jazz center of New York-like magnitude and multitude. By 1981 England’s venerable journal Melody Maker had already declared the festival to be “the most incredible festival anywhere on earth,” and Sweden’s Orkester Journalen had pronounced it “the most concentrated musical event in the whole world.”3 The festival has only grown in size and scope in the ensuing decades. Some seventy thousand spectators and some twelve hundred musicians from all over the globe now converge upon the indoor festival for one long weekend each July, effectively inverting an old colonial relationship: the European host is temporarily overrun by the novel energies of New Amsterdam—and indeed by many of its most prominent musicians. After the festival was transferred in 1994 from the Acket family to the Dutch entertainment giant MOJO Concerts—which has since become a subsidiary of the American conglomerate Live Nation—the festival slowly developed into a showcase for European jazz.4 The official welcome party took place at the Europe-themed festival in 2007. According to festival programmer Sander Grande, this gesture was somewhat perfunctory. The writing had been on the wall since the turn of the millennium: European jazz musicians—who had always been included in the festival in accordance with Paul Acket’s vision for the festival—are now selling as many tickets as the Americans.5 Browsing through the readily available history of the North Sea festival on its website reveals an interesting turn of events: a Dutch-owned festival originally designed to bring American jazz to European audiences has evolved into an American-owned, EU-supported, Dutch-operated spectacle showcasing European jazz alongside American jazz for international audiences.6 [End Page 346]

These developments have brought to the fore competing visions of jazz universalism—ideas about why and on whose terms...


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