The week-long festival, held in early April, kicked off in the city's Fountain Square with an open-air brass, bass and drum performance that celebrated the legacy of the State Popular Orchestra, Azerbaijan's first official jazz ensemble, founded in 1938. The music may have brought to mind more St. Louis than Saki, but many of the renditions had deep Azerbaijani roots.
Jazz mugam is a home-grown specialty, a sultry combination of Azerbaijani folk music and traditional American jazz. The style reached its full fame in the 1950s and 1960s under the influence of composer Rafig Babayev and his Gaya quartet and jazz pianist and composer Vagif Mustafazadeh. These sounds gave Azerbaijani music its identity within the jazz genre. Dizzy Gillespie, the legendary American jazz trumpeter, reportedly lauded Mustafazadeh for creating "the music of the future."
Today, Mustafazadeh's daughter, Aziza, ranks as a star on the global jazz circuit with a fusion of classical and jazz scat styles. Another celebrity who has crossed the musical divide between East and West is Rain Sultanov, the 39-year-old jazz saxophonist whose band, The Syndicate, is based in Baku. For Sultanov, jazz is a family affair: Sultanov's two older brothers, Rauf, a highly accomplished bass player, and Ramin, a percussionist, also perform with The Syndicate.
But at the Baku Jazz Center, one of four venues used for the festival, the names of the performers did not seem to matter to members of the audience. Baku residents who listened to outlawed jazz on the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s stood alongside urban professionals who came of age following the country's war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh during the early 1990s, when Baku enjoyed a cultural rebirth. The festival itself began in 2002, some 33 years after Baku's first national jazz festival in 1969.
Musicians from some 12 countries arrived in Azerbaijan for the event, playing 18 concerts overall. Headlining the international selections was Austrian-born jazz veteran Joe Zawinul, late of the Weather Report, with his band, The Joe Zawinul Syndicate, featuring a combination of jazz and world music. Other jazz artists included Germany's Christoph Busse Trio, Russia's Yakov Okun quartet, the UK's Frazer Fifield trio and Kayta Surikova trio and US jazz singer Debora Carter and saxophonist Greg Osby.
Thousands of visitors packed the venues, according to organizers, and the festival brought in musicians from three times as many countries as in previous years. Said organizer and jazz musician Anar Usufzof: "There hasn't been such an event before." Baku jazz aficionados can only hope that there will be one again.
Isshad Duncan is a freelance writer based in Baku.