Jazz music has a surprisingly long history in Joensuu. The town’s first jazz establishment, the Jive Club, first opened in 1948, and by the 1960s, the local jazz scene was maintained by the Karelia Jazz Club.
The Jazz Club 76 was established in 1976 as its name suggests. After the great enthusiasm of the first years, the club’s activities gradually died down. A new revival was experienced in 1987 in the wake of a musical endeavour titled “Northern Karelia Project”, jointly conceived by Jazz Finland and the Joensuu Conservatorium.
According to its rules, the association’s solemn aim is to “advance jazz music and serve as a central body for jazz enthusiasts and professionals in Northern Karelia”. In practice, the most significant form of activity by far has been to organise jazz concerts, thus providing regular high-quality jazz music offerings for our region.
This task has been undertaken in a fairly ambitious manner. Over the last few years, some 30 concerts have been organised each year, in addition to the annual September event “Jazz in Ilosaari” which in 2020 will expand into a three-day festival. The association has also been in charge of organising the annual Koli Jazz event since 2013, as well as reaching out to other regional centres through various concert activities. The Jazz Club 76 can thus be considered as a significant player in the Finnish jazz field, as well as internationally to an increasing degree, and the club’s productions seem to project an aura of confidence and professionalism. The association’s long journey has taught many lessons, even though the picture was less than rosy in the beginning.
The very first concert in the history of the Jazz Club 76 was presented on 28 October 1976 in the hall of the local music institute (now Joensuu Conservatorium). The association had secured a British quartet to perform, consisting of Elton Dean, Keith Tippett, Hugh Hopper and Joe Gallivan, who were paired with the group Vanessa from Norway. A dizzying debut, but we were a fearless bunch back in the day. At that time, it was not possible to get municipal or any other kind of funding for jazz music, or at the very least it was difficult. The situation remains unchanged today for any new organisations wanting to break into the scene. In order to receive a grant, you need to have credibility, which is difficult to prove without any history. The inaugural concert’s funding base had been slowly built up by monthly donations of 50 Finnish Marks from the association’s committee members. The rationale behind this fundraiser was simple: why fork out for an expensive trip to Helsinki, including hotel accommodation, in order to hear a jazz concert, when we can organise one at home in Joensuu with the same amount of money.
Is jazz considered fun? Does it attract an entertainment tax?
Obtaining a concert permit from the local authorities was a whole different ball game! In the 1970s, entertainment events attracted an “entertainment tax” (yes, you read that correctly). Thus, the entertainment permit applications lodged by the Jazz Club 76 stated the following: “The event will not include dance or popular music, or anything comparable to it”. The permit had to be signed by the local police chief, who would carefully examine the application each time, inquiring without fail: “Will there be dancing?”
There was one time when the police chief’s imposing figure was witnessed in a concert. Towards the end of the evening, the chief, who was visiting the venue for a completely unrelated reason, found himself surrounded by a free improvisation ambiance. Duo Edward Vesala and Tomasz Stanko were in full swing on the stage. The chief spent another moment teetering at the bar, squinting towards the stage, before making for the exit. He was never again seen attending any gigs. It is ironic that there were only two tickets sold to that particular concert, to a couple who came to the restaurant with the intention to dance. They, too, left the venue soon after realising that their familiar dance steps simply failed to lock in with the free rhythms. The concert was funded by a short-term loan (you can google “vekseli”).
We had the stamina to endure tilting at the windmills for a few years, sometimes with surprisingly good outcomes. In the early 80s, the Joensuu music scene slowed down and went into hibernation for a few years.
The Jazz Club was revived in 1986 through the “North Karelia Project”, conceived by Jazz Finland with its then General Manager, Timo Vähäsilta, acting as a driving force. Right away, things got off to a solid start, thanks to various useful collaborative partners, including the Conservatorium. Another support measure was introduced in the form of a small annual grant from the local council, acting as a guarantee against a potential loss. The amount of municipal funding and the level of activity then remained at a steady level for a long time. The association organised ten concerts annually. The overall activity was modest but of good quality, with high artistic standards as a priority. This was eventually acknowledged by the town’s department of culture, by giving the 2001 Joensuu City Cultural Award to the Jazz Club 76. However, it was typical of the city’s decision-making processes to cut the association’s annual funding the following year, citing that the Cultural Award was equal to the amount of the city’s annual budget towards concert presentations. The city leaders did not recognise the opportunity of using the extra funding from the award to boost the association’s activities, in turn benefitting the wellbeing of the locals. The association was seen by them as a hobby undertaken for fun.
Jazz scene becomes more professional
Towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the winds of change began to blow throughout the jazz scene, at first faintly, yet hopefully. Thanks to the efforts of a few competent individuals, activities started to take on new features and the “professionalisation” of the scene began in earnest.
Jazz Finland was heavily involved with the inception of VAKA, a national club and project incentive which tested new types of support measures. The two-year project was implemented with the help of a substantial EU grant and also benefitting from large-scale collaborations. Following on as a direct continuum from this project, MES (The Finnish Music Foundation) began to grant live music subsidies to jazz professionals and promoters. This incentive was crucial in lifting the Jazz Club 76’s funding base and general activity into a whole new level. This same sentence could be used to describe many other jazz associations as well. As a result from this incentive, a new Club Network was established, enabling more touring productions and thus improving musicians’ employment prospects.
The VAKA project was a ground-breaking initiative in terms of improving the funding situation across the whole jazz scene. The funding base has since continued to improve even further, especially due to the significant boost in government funding. Funding at the local council level, however, is unfortunately still trailing behind. Out of 4.5 million Euros, representing the total funding pot for the jazz scene in 2019, less than 30 percent came from the municipal sector. If our four largest cities, where funding is largely directed at major events, are deducted from the total, the municipal funding portion falls under 10 percent. This can be seen as a problem as the largely government-based funding gets distributed through local funding bodies, to benefit the inhabitants of the municipal area. This is the case in Joensuu as well. Although the overall funding for the city has increased, the percentage of support from the city has been reduced.
The responsibility for bringing local council funding up to date is in the hands of local jazz activists and their networks. Finnish jazz music sits at the highest international level, and the standards have increased significantly over the last couple of decades. This has been noted favourably by the national cultural decision makers. At the local sector, however, there is still work to be done.
Jazz Club 76, Joensuu association (Jazzkerho -76, Joensuu ry), Chairperson
Jazz Finland (Suomen Jazzliitto ry), Member of the board