The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway
Some jazz festivals worry about bringing in enough listeners. The founders of Polarjazz were trying to keep the community from being cut off from the outside world most of the winter. Braathens Airline wanted a decade ago to reduce by half their six 737 jet flights between Longyearbyen and the mainland because of reduced winter passenger traffic. But Stein-Arve Soerensen, the airline's cargo director at the time, said winter was when demand for cargo peaked.
"Every year I have a fight with the planning department in the company about capacity," said Soerensen, now managing director of Jetpak, a Scandinavian cargo company. "They want to turn down the flights in the winter period and I want to increase the activity." On one plane trip he met Leif Vigstad, who was making his first trip to Longyearbyen to start a new job,
"He was, like me, interested in music," Soerensen said. "I told him about my 'problem'" and they contacted hotel and other officials in Longyearbyen about starting a jazz festival... We have in Norway a jazz festival in Oslo every year and I have a lot of people in jazz alignment," he said. "I told them about Svalbard and they were interested in coming up...A lot of them didn't even get paid for it. It was enough just to give them plane tickets and rooms free of charge."
Attracting an audience was more challenging at first, said Haakcon Sandvik, 26, a bassist who has lived in Longyearbyen nearly all his life. "All the musicians went to see the other musicians, but other than that they didn't have many listeners," he said. "Now they go beyond jazz to get more people."
Jazz was scaled back more than usual this year because much of the planning occurred late, but still included traditional big band, small ensemble cool/post-bop, a cappella and neo-Scandinavian experimental. Among the "other"and often better-attended concertswere well- known Norwegian artists, modern folk and Klezmer performers, plus an opening night of local musicians and a finale at the town's one church pairing a local gospel children's choir with singer Randi Tytingvaeg's quartet.
"We can use an all-round artist for the first concerts for one night to get the people out of their homes and on the second concert an artist that nobody knows," said Lasse Stener Hansen, a drummer who is this year's festival director, "but we know that the audience will get a nice experience and listen to some music they never would have listened to if it wasn't for this."
Nobody organizing or working during Polarjazz is paid, Hansen said. "I drink champaign all the festival," he added. "That is all."
Plenty of those earning a living in Longyearbyen have reason to toast frequently as well, with the festival bringing in money during one of the slowest periods despite increased winter tourism marketing. Hotels normally closed during the winter open and some tour companies use it as a warmup for the beginning of tourist season in mid-February, including dogsled operators who get their canines in shape.
"For me as a tourist manager it is a dream," said Unni Myklevoll, manager of Svalbard Tourism, the official tourist board. The festival might not draw large numbers on its own, but does provide an extra and potentially decisive lure for those thinking about coming for other activities. Many winter visitors are from northern neighbors such as Sweden, Denmark and England, but the Chinese and Japanese are also becoming a strong presence.... They come for the northern lights," Myklevoll said. "Newly married couples, if they can see the northern lights their first years it is a blessing on their marriage and if they have a baby it will be a happy baby."
Venues and adequate sound gear in Longyearbyen aren't a problem, even though there isn't a proper recording studio. Sound gear has been brought in largely by those producing the numerous documentaries and other presentations about the Svalbard region. Most concerts take place at the Radisson SAS Polar Hotel, promoted as the farthest-north full-serve hotel in the world, including a sauna, conference facilities, room service ($20 for a burger, plus a $16 service charge) and stunningly fast wifi (thanks to an undersea communications cable built by NASA for polar research). But getting bands here on a limited flight schedule that's at the mercy of the elements means more work than buying tickets.
"The big challenge in planning was in the logistics side," Hansen said. "You can imagine if you fly up there in Boeing 737 with (an upright bass), drums and other instruments. We have to load it into the cabin. It was a big logistics operation."