A weekend of jazz at the first Singapore International Jazz Festival
Sing Jazz, a catchy short-hand for the Singapore International Jazz Festival, unfolded from Thursday, February 28th to March 2nd, 2014 at the Marina Bay Sands. The inaugural festival brought together classic jazz legends and jazz-inspired contemporaries that cut across genres like R&B, pop and rock, celebrating the organic, freewheeling essence of jazz. Sing Jazz‘s aim was to enrich the cultural scene locally by exposing Singaporeans to diverse, excellent live music, while simultaneously providing local musicians with the opportunity to perform alongside an all-star line-up.
James Morrison, the esteemed multi-instrumentalist, kicked off Thursday’s gala opening with classics like “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “Just Another Rainy Day,” charming the audience with laid-back, humorous, and sometimes melancholy performances. Jamie Cullum then took the stage, gleefully alternating between playing the piano and jumping off of it, all while singing and giving the numerous female members in the audience plenty to scream about. After playing a string of his high-octane hits (my personal favorite was “Save Your Soul,” off his latest album), he took things down a notch by playing a handful of dreamy, thoughtful covers like “What A Difference a Day Makes” and “Blackbird,” followed by a quick, fun medley of contemporary songs like “Get Lucky” and “Royals.”
Over the next three days, Marina Bay was transformed into an open-air, waterfront concert hall, and its stage was graced by jazz legends like Natalie Cole, Incognito, Roberta Gambarini and Roy Hargrove, pop/rockers the Dirty Loops and Allen Stone, rising jazz star Gregory Porter and R&B artist India Arie. Besides a section for ticket holders, the public was allowed access to the areas further away from the stage, where they could sip on some wine and eat some food while enjoying a rare evening of live music. They could even get a ticket to the main section, if so desired. Families, amorous couples, and jazz aficionados alike flocked to the event, drawn in by the luscious, languorous strains of the saxophone, the rich, belting vocals, and the high energy brass bands.
But beyond the immediate success, and the instant, visceral gratification of a perfectly hit note, technically and emotionally, the true test of Sing Jazz will be how far it impacts the local community, the region, and most of all, Singapore’s jazz community. During the gala opening, after guest-drumming with James Morrison, local jazz legend and proponent Louis Soleamo was honored with the first Sing Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award, described by festival founder Michael Tay as exemplifying “an artist, who is like an institution…more like a monument, in a good way!”
To enrich the local jazz scene, La Salle College of the Arts partnered with the festival to host a Jazz Academy, which granted local bands and students the opportunity to participate in workshops and master classes with world-famous artists like Bluey from Incognito. Sing Jazz also gave individuals the opportunity to gain real festival experience by book performances in venues around the Marina Bay Sands during the festival.
“The more exposure there is to culture, the more exposure there is to diversity. Really, it’s something that cannot be got[ten] by just being taught in a classroom. So having people here who have played that music, first hand, who have seen that life, [who] can share that experience with people who desire to do it – that’s wonderful,” said Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick from Incognito. “If you don’t feed the spirit of the individual so that that individual has a shining spirit, he’s not going to pass anything on.”
In a society that prides itself on its cutting-edge modernity, an unfortunate by-product particularly relevant to Singapore is the hyper-consumerism expressed in the many high-end malls, none more extravagant than the shops at the Marina Bay Sands itself. Singaporeans are taught to succeed within the narrow parameters traditionally associated with success, like the sciences, engineering, finance, and the professional sectors, and compete in a focused paper-chase leaving the arts to flounder, unattended. The value of a person is not in his or her economic output, but in what they experience, enjoy, and the ideas they shape. By being open to new music and becoming a part of the scene and community, the individual has much to gain, regardless of their musical proclivity.
The greatest impact the first Singapore International Jazz Festival can have is to come back next year, and the year after that, with increasing strength each time, keeping this model of almost-open public access to free performances and events.
Jazz may not be the music of the masses now, but in the 1920s it was a social movement. The music originated from the Southern United States among African-American communities, combining elements of the European musical tradition with an African musical basis. In the 1920s, besides being forced to sit in separate sections of buses, drink from separate water fountains, and use separate washrooms, blacks were not allowed to share the stage with white musicians. By the 1930s and 40s, as black musicians became increasingly visible on stage in concert venues and on the radio in living rooms across America, their music took root in the imaginations of young people everywhere, black and white, and the treatment of the African-American population slowly began to change.
Against this backdrop of increasing social awareness of racial injustice, Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to move to the back of a bus to the section designated for “coloreds,” and with that, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.
Sitting by the bay with a stupendous view of the city skyline, the occasional breeze in your hair, the night buzzing with humidity and energy, the lush, sultry sounds of a saxophone wafting through the air, it’s easy to forget the suffering endured by generations of African American slaves. It was music that gave them peace of mind and jazz that inevitably mobilized a movement towards justice and liberation.
Singapore is a country removed from natural disasters and social instability, and in its short history, has always seen peace and prosperity (apart from some racial turmoil in the early years). But recent interruptions like the Little India riots last year, involving South-Asian immigrant workers, and the bus strikes by Chinese drivers the year before, suggests that the illusion of order and equality is fragile, and local and international communities are beginning to see right through it. The more Singaporeans are exposed to different perspectives and different music, the quicker they can extricate themselves from their closed circles of privilege and material ambition and start contributing to a better, richer world regardless of race, gender, orientation, or ethnicity.