The jazz faces of Vojislav Pantić

My conversation with Vojislav Pantić, or Voja as everyone calls him, was like a real jazz play. Turbulent, curious, unexpected in places, brimming with information, but at the same time charming and pleasantly cosy. The Music Director of Belgrade Jazz Fest has been the main person responsible for the festival’s quality program since 2005 and his tireless passion for music is evident. A passion that has translated into his new book Jazz Face, with over 50 of his interviews with some of the biggest names in jazz. A mathematician by training and a jazzman at heart, Voja has dedicated his life to music. To that real, honest music that makes you think and feel. We talked about it on a warm Belgrade afternoon, somewhere between two bitter coffees and a lot of musical notes…

How did a mathematician become a music director?

Voja: Mathematics has been my passion since I was a child. I had good teachers and went to competitions. I entered the mathematics school here in Belgrade, where I now teach. On the other hand, it’s always been music. Even when I was young I had the opportunity to go to concerts and share these musical experiences with my friends who also loved good music. I come from the new wave generation. But it was a period when punk and disco were also popular. In 1979 I had the opportunity to see Eric Clapton here in Belgrade, and then Weather Report when I was only 15. That concert blew me away and sparked my interest in jazz.

A few years later I was invited to share my collection of blues recordings on the “All That Jazz” program on Yugoslavia’s national radio at the time. When the show’s main host was on the verge of retirement and lost interest in exploring new music, I had the opportunity, little by little, to take over some of his duties and began to get more and more involved with jazz. Eventually it was almost twenty years before I had my own radio show, which I only started in 2001. By that time I was already working as a music promoter, writing articles for newspapers and magazines. I attended classic jazz festivals like North Sea Jazz, Jazz à Vienne and was often the only journalist from Yugoslavia and later Serbia at these events.

When they restarted Belgrade Jazz Festival in 2005, the team contacted me and invited me to take the position of artistic director of the festival, which I accepted with great pleasure because I was a child of this festival. In its last editions in the 80s – 1988, 1989 and 1990, I was already partly working for the festival – I was PR manager, communicating with the media and working on the catalogue. It felt natural to be at this event. I would have been very sad if I hadn’t been invited. (laughs)

photo: Vojislav Pantić with his new book “Jazz Face”

How has the festival changed over the years?

Voja: When we started in 2005, the common idea with Dragan, the artistic director, was to respect the traditions of the festival from the 70s. We still have a lot of followers of the main traditional styles of jazz from the 60s and 70s – bebop and fusion. The first editions of the festival in the 70s included mainly American, Yugoslavian, Eastern European groups, as well as musicians from Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Poland.

The exception was the 1982 edition, which was almost entirely sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union. After Tito’s death in 1980 (Josip Broz Tito – president of Yugoslavia from 1953 to 1980) there was a major financial crisis in the country and without this support the festival could not have happened. Thanks to this, over 50 groups from different European countries took part.

Since 2005 I think the situation has changed dramatically and this can be traced very easily in the festival programme. Now the percentage of European jazz is, I’m not sure exactly, but between 60 and 70-75%. We consider it our mission to promote the best of contemporary European jazz. We do it with great pleasure. That’s the difference between our festival and other European music events where American and local bands still dominate. Our desire is to try to position Europe as a strong contemporary jazz scene.

photo: Belgian formation Flat Earth Society

Now that the festival is over, what are your personal highlights from this edition?

Voja: It’s hard to say. The festival conventionally has main and additional programs. But for me the main program is actually all the concerts between 7 pm and 1 am. The difference is that some of the concerts work better with the main audience, who might want to go to bed at 11pm. And other concerts work better with younger audiences who might stay up later. Some events need the conditions of a classical concert venue, such as the recently refurbished Kombank Dvorana, while others work better in a more club-like setting such as that of Dom Omladine.

Kombank Dvorana Hall was the original festival venue in 1971, so that makes it really special for us…

photo: Concert of Diane Reeves in Kombank Dvorana Hall

photo: Concert of Jazzmeia Horn in Dom Omladine

Back to the roots a kind of…

Voja: Exactly! For me, Stanley Clarke as a headliner or Henry Spencer as a relatively new artist – they have the same position emotionally and philosophically because they’re part of a common musical space. But for me, a festival wouldn’t be any good if it only consisted of headliners. We have this kind of events in the European festival network. A festival needs established names to reach a wider audience as well as the media, which you can’t achieve with new bands alone. So there has to be a balance. Of course, we all have a favourite artist and mine is a well-known secret in Belgrade – Charles Lloyd, who presented his latest project Kindred Spirits at this year’s festival.

Another one is Wayne Shorter. It’s been a decade since his last visit to Belgrade. And the last name I would mention is Sonny Rollins, who unfortunately is no longer performing.

These are my personal preferences, but I can’t be guided by them for the festival. I plan the concerts as an overall project, and even if an artist or a particular band doesn’t overlap 100% with my personal taste, I have to respect their role in a particular musical style and try to fit that band or artist into the overall program.

photo: Stanley Clarke

How do you manage to remain objective when choosing artists? As you mentioned yourself, each of us has personal taste and is bound emotionally, besides the number of artists is huge. What are your criteria when listening to music? What do you look for?

Voja: The best way is if you have the opportunity to see the artists live. I travel to festivals regularly and so I get to see a lot of them. And if a concert impresses me in some way, if I like it, then I start thinking about what I can do in the future with that. I listen to records and if the artist has current projects/albums we can submit, even better. It’s also important for me to check out what’s new in a particular scene. We are a small country and we shouldn’t pretend to know everything. For example, if I want to invite a band from Austria, even though I’m very familiar with the Austrian scene, I reach out to my fellow journalists there to see what they think is important at that particular moment, and I try to take that into account when choosing as well.

photo: Austrian band Shake Stew

As a journalist I’ve had access to a lot of music over the years and we all have some favourite labels, I make no secret of that. Mine are UCM and The ACT from Europe, Blue Notes for world jazz bands, Pi Recordings – a label for avant-garde bands from America, Clean Feed from Portugal. This is the territory where I expect to hear something that can grab me. Of course, that’s not the only criteria, but if you have 20 new UCM records, there’s going to be at least one that’s interesting. And if you look at our program for the last 10 years, in every edition we have two or three UCM artists and two or three ACT artists who are probably the most valuable in Europe nowadays.

Another criteria that we established a year ago was not to repeat artists in a certain period of time. That’s probably the hardest criteria because now, for example, I can hear a great recording of Christian Scott, but he’s already performed in the festival some time ago. Or Terence Blanchard, Emile Parisien, who produce something new from year to year. But fortunately the scene is so wide that we can still find many new artists. The only one who escaped that criteria this year is Charles Lloyd. And you already know the obvious reason for that.

photo: Charles Lloyd

Your favourite…

Voja: Yes! (laughs) That’s the most obvious reason. But he’s also got a new project and hasn’t been touring much lately, so if there’s any chance of his tour fitting into our dates, that’s something to seriously consider and try to make happen.

This year a special part of the programme is the Serbia Showcase, where Serbian jazz bands are given a platform. What can you tell me about the jazz scene in Serbia? How has it developed in recent years?

Voja: This is something that was very important for the festival, and for me personally from the very beginning. We started in 2005 with a plan to present local bands. At that time, the idea was to include all new projects by Serbian musicians. Because it was a time when the number of new projects was one or two records a year. And in 2008, I think, we said, “OK! Additionally, we will create one project as a festival production, a kind of commission, offering an artist to create something new to present during the festival”. So, following these two ideas, at one point it turned out that the annual production of Serbian bands is starting from 10-15 records. Two years ago the number reached 25 records and everything was interesting, mostly from young artists. We had to make a selection, but it was the criterion of not repeating artists that helped us here.

In 2015 we started dedicating one of the festival nights to new projects that have been released within the last year. For the last edition, we chose the quintet of Milan Stanislavljevic, who lives in Slovenia and works with musicians there; the quartet of Rastko Obradović from Belgrade, who works with Norwegians; the Novi Sad band Dragon’s Fuel. Three completely different projects in terms of style. One melancholic, UCM type, one more classical and one avant-garde. This year was the best possible choice of only three bands with their three completely different stories.

photo: Milan Stanislavljevic Quintet

photo: Rastko Obradović Quartet

photo: Dragon’s Fuel

And the festival itself was opened by the extremely interesting Nikolov-Ivanović Undectet…

Voja: A phenomenal project! Beautiful music, complex and simple at the same time. The wide range of territories it covers, so ambitious. It will be very complicated to introduce them abroad because they are 11 people. But they really are one of my favorite bands. After hearing their first album, I invited them to open the festival and promote their second album. That motivated them to invite Magic Malik as a special guest.

That’s why we’re considering the idea of including a showcase afternoon where new local bands can present their latest recordings and projects in 30-minute sets. This program will be mainly geared towards foreign media and festival guests. But, of course, also to the regular audience who can come to listen to music in an atypical concert setting. We will try, if we have enough energy, not energy, but…


Voja: Yes, an opportunity to organize this idea plus all the other projects. It’s very important and we want to help young bands to create their music as much as possible. It has to be original music composed by them, at the level of creativity we have in Europe, so that we can present them abroad and not just locally. Overall, I think Serbian jazz is in its golden years because there are many opportunities for musicians to record their albums. The National Union of Composers funded between 80 and 85% of the recordings of the bands that applied last year. It’s phenomenal that nearly 41 of the 46 projects received financial support.

We need to follow that trend. I myself organize recordings under the umbrella of the Metropolis Jazz Music House. But it’s difficult because nowadays almost nobody buys CDs.

The distribution of music is proving more complicated than the creation of music?

Voja: Yes! One good opportunity for bands is to play festivals where they can sell their music. The main bands from Serbia – Eyot, Hashima and Schime Trio, have already been invited to some events around Europe, which will definitely help them.

Yes, they played in Bulgaria recently at the invitation of Alarma Punk Jazz as well as the band Fish in Oil. And in this regard, how do you see the future of jazz?

Voja: Bright!

Bright? This is an optimistic view…

Voja: Jazz has managed to survive the biggest problem of many other musical styles. Not only does it change from within, offering a “museum collection” of rhythms, harmonies and approaches, but it accepts that anything can be called jazz. If you talk to the old jazzmen, the true masters, they will tell you that there is only good music and bad music. Louis Armstrong said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Maybe that’s true even on a higher level now, because you can’t say that only improvised music is jazz or that only swing is jazz. Nor that following the bebop path is jazz or that only the A-A-B-A structure is jazz. You can’t really define any of those. Sure, some artists follow certain paths, but then a new musician comes along and you hear all sorts of influences from different periods, territories, and you can’t even classify it.

photo: Theo Ceccaldi and his Freaks sextet

So jazz is reinventing itself from within?

Voja: And that’s the thing I see as the future of our festival as well, because it’s happening smoothly. We have no stress in preparing it or getting the audience here. They love what they hear. And the other important factor is that our audience is young. So in 5 years we won’t have a problem who to approach – something that happens elsewhere in the world. Tom Conrad told me that in America, for example, jazz is already getting old in terms of the audience that comes to see it. I think the situation in Europe in general is great at the moment.

One last question. What do you prefer – watermelon or melon?

Voja: Melon! I like the Italian combination of melon with prosciutto. The problem with watermelon is that you have to remove the seeds.

interview and photos: Sofia Hussein for Dinya

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