Quality rarely happens by accident. Even less so when it is sustained over an impressive span of years. The Malta Jazz Festival (MJF) is arguably the most vivid illustration of just such a phenomenon in the local festival sphere, maintaining an impressive track record ever since it first graced the stage at Ta’ Liesse, Valletta in 1991.
Now that the festival’s 30th anniversary has the misfortune of being celebrated in a truncated fashion due to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic – with online retrospectives and masterclasses also thankfully joined by at least some live concerts – we caught up with two of the architects of the MJF, who have always done their utmost to ensure that the festival never does, indeed, leave anything at all to chance.
These are musician and painter Charles ‘City’ Gatt, who served as Artistic Director for the festival from its inception in 1991 right up until 2005, and fellow Paris-based musician Sandro Zerafa, who is widely held to be the main driving force in helping to restore the festival to its former glory when he took over the reins as Artistic Director from 2009 onwards.
Unsurprisingly, between the two of them Gatt and Zerafa can pluck up plenty of anecdotes that instantly conjure up the unique magic of the MJF and all it represents.
“We always made it a point to never clash with either the World Cup Final, or nearby village festas,” Gatt says. “But inevitably, the clashes would occur. I remember when Diana Krall had to actually stop her set several times because the fireworks were so distractingly loud…”
But as is most likely the case for any self-respecting jazz musician, the most memorable moments are often intimately tied to unforgettable displays of virtuoso musicianship.
“I can’t fail to mention the evening when Toots Thielemans walked up on stage with just a harmonica and played a spell-binding concert,” Gatt says in reference to a performance by the late, great Belgian musician who performed at the MJF during the early ‘90s.
“As I still remember, Ta Liesse felt like a sacred site – the awe and reverence were palpable. I sat through every second of that performance as transfixed as everyone else,” Gatt recalls.
On the other hand, Zerafa was a young jazz fan back in the days when the MJF was burrowing its way into a regular spot on the local cultural calendar, and he acknowledges the event as laying some crucial groundwork for his love of the genre.
“Growing up in Malta in the ‘80s, jazz was an alien culture. I was always curious by nature, and I went to the 1992 edition of the MJF not knowing what to expect. It was not love at first sight, it was not an easy love affair, but we’re still together,” Zerafa wryly comments.
And as its most recent Artistic Director, Zerafa certainly has his own fair share of memorable anecdotes, though he does specify that “the most interesting of these, I cannot quite share here…”
What he does share are stories of haggling with policemen not to interrupt a Grammy-award winning musician’s set because they overran past the curfew, of going to great trouble to acquire “a luggage full of papayas from Paris because one particular artist had requested that in his rider, only to tell me that they were not ripe enough in the end”, and the look on McCoy Tyner’s face when he was told he will be provided with a Hyundai during his stay.
“‘I asked for a piano, not a motorcycle,’ he told me jokingly. But Steinways weren’t all that easy to find in Malta back then,” Zerafa says with a smile.
While regretting that covid has cut down the possibility of showcasing “a truly stellar line-up” that would otherwise have graced the programme of MJF 2020, Zerafa finds some
solace in the news that a few concerts will still be allowed to take place, which will “also include some great international artists from Europe”.
But more than anything, he is confident that the legacy of the MJF’s 30-year run more than speaks for itself. “In recent years the festival has become a reference in international circles as a ‘true’ jazz festival, a sort of beacon of artistic integrity in an increasingly depressing climate where most jazz festivals have diluted their programmes with too many unrelated acts”. Zerafa also stresses how the MJF has increasingly paved the way for important collaborations between local and international musicians.
“The best example being The Blue Tangerine - a collective project co-led by Maltese and French musicians. Local saxophone player Carlo Muscat also recorded an album with some international musicians whom he met at the festival, while pianist Joe Debono will be recording his first album in the fall, with Italian musicians, some of whom he met on stage at the festival.
Charles ‘City’ Gatt echoes the sentiment, from a vantage point that certainly offers the clarity of hindsight and lucid perspective.
“Without a doubt, the Malta Jazz Festival has fuelled the formation of young jazz musicians whilst strengthening the jazz following in Malta,” Gatt says
The Malta Jazz Festival - Online Edition is happening between the 13th & 18th July. For more information visit www.festivals.mt/mjf