August Offers a Buffet of Music in Basel Music festival "Em Bebbi sy Jazz"

The jazz festival "Em Bebbi sy Jazz" has been held since 1984 on the first Friday after the Basel school summer holidays. Visit 31 venues (including open airs) and enjoy over 500 musicians.

It is usual in Basel that one Friday night in August, the city is filled with the sounds of jazz.  The particular event is called "Em Bebbi sy Jazz."  This may be the largest one-evening Jazz festival in the world, with over 70 groups performing New Orleans Jazz, Dixie, Free Jazz, and even Big Band music.   Musicians travel from afar, their goal to bring the city to life on stages and flat street cross sections, witnessed by as many as 70,000 spectators.  This year, this spectacle takes place on August 19, 2016.

My husband and I experienced the 25th annual Basel Jazz Festival a few years back.  I remember it with such clarity.  People gathered to drink beer and wine, eat pretzels, sausages, pies and ice cream, dance to swing bands, sway to acoustic jazz, and walk the alleys of the medieval city while maneuvering the maze of one jazz group after another.

We had the sense of being in the midst of something very special.  The stage lights of the various groups cast long shadows and rays of light across the medieval alleys that we passed through while moving from one jazz group to another.  The alleys fascinate me.  I imagine the people of centuries ago stringing their laundry between the buildings and shouting family news across the divide: the neighbor boy is getting married, a daughter had a baby, a husband likes his drink a bit too much.

In the alleys, sides of buildings rise up, their scattered, square shuttered windows forming a broad checker board pattern against the stucco concrete walls. There are small arched or square doorways people have passed through maybe 700 years ago.  The alleys wind and turn as they climb or descend to a different height on a city street.   We walk through with reverence.  I sense the thousands upon thousands of souls that have passed through over the centuries, as if each one has left a footprint, faintly visible still.  Perhaps other wanderers experience the same wonder, as the conversations in the alleys are only a whisper.

We followed the drifting music, reaching another main street and finding another jazz group.  An upright bass, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, tuba or sousaphone - vocalist too sometimes - all playing to their own music and blending into one sound  of celebration … trumpets and trombones marching around the crowd, all musicians taking turns to run with a solo and show what they are made of.

There were also all acoustic groups ... electric bass, electric piano, soft shimmering drums in the background and velvety singing of laid back jazz.  Every restaurant, bar or pub spilled out into the streets with rows of tables, benches and chairs, waiters working the seated spectators while serving wine or beer.  The unconscious  smile appeared on every face, people swaying side to side while they sipped, children jiggling and bouncing up and down to the rhythms, with chubby little fingers gripping greasy sausages smothered in mustard, and slightly bent grandparents clapping crooked hands ever so softly while their eyes beam down on the children.

Such is an evening of Jazz in the sultry summer heat of August in Basel, the music and the setting mingling to form something transcendental.

This article is also published in The Basel Journal in 2014.

Author: Mary martha Wadowick Al-Akhdar

I live for the aesthetic experience, be it in words, music, or visual experiences. I am an English teacher, writer and editor. I have just relocated back to the U.S. from Switzerland. My dreams are filled with trams, church bells, verdant valleys and bare mountain peaks. I miss my Swiss home. One day I will return.

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