Breda Jazz Festival

Article, submitted to:

The Charlotte Observer
31 May 2001
by Don Stewart

Holland Jazz

You never know how far a business card will take you. Mine took us to Holland.

I’m an artist. I make my living drawing humorous pictures, selling prints at area art shows and frame shops, and more recently over the Internet. For a long time I have printed the pictures on my business cards; the card in question featured a saxophone, made entirely of fish.

I specialize in visual puns: a trombone made of bones, a VW bug of bugs. The piscine sax is Musical Scales. Last year it caught the attention of a woman from Washington, D.C., who found my card in a specialty shop in Arlington. She mailed it to her mother in Breda, Holland, who was a member of Jazz Ten Toon, a committee responsible for providing art programs to accompany the city’s annual jazz festival. Eventually, the two women contacted me to request some sample drawings for their display.

Of course I was honored to send samples of my work, in spite of my complete ignorance regarding either the city of Breda, or its festival. Like most artists, I was delighted to receive such favorable attention from abroad (or anywhere, for that matter), and was eager to generate more.

A visit to their event website (www.bredajazzfestival.nl) revealed an undertaking far beyond my expectations. The Breda Jazz Festival, now in its 31st year, hosts dozens of musicians from around the globe, some as far away as Japan. The sheer volume of performers and number of venues scheduled on the site encouraged me to take the event, and the ladies’ offer, much more seriously. Over time, we developed a presentation of original drawings and reproductions along a musical theme, to be displayed in Breda as part of the overall jazz celebration.

As it happened, the opportunity to display and sell my work in Europe was just the beginning. Festival organizers next invited my wife and me to attend the festivities along with them, as official guests of the city. We were chauffeured from the airport in Brussels to the home of Frans and Willy Govaarts, who hosted us through our weeklong stay in Breda. After lunch of local fare (ham, cheese, pastries and the finest coffee on the planet), we were taken to a 16th century church in the city center, the Waalse Kerk, for the opening ceremonies of the Jazz Ten Toon presentation. Here my pictures were displayed among 500-year-old Huguenot frescoes and woodcarvings, and attended by opening remarks from the presidents of both the Jazz Festival and the Breda Museum.

At 750 years, Breda is itself an historical monument. Built around the Grote Kerk, a towering fifteenth-century cathedral, the city includes a castle built by William of Orange, and remnants of battlements and moats that protected the inhabitants at the close of the medieval period. Today, it remains one of the largest cities in southern Holland, connected by interstate-equivalent highway links to Belgium and Germany, and a main thoroughfare to the coast of Zeeland.

The Breda Jazz Festival was a celebration indeed. As guests of the Mayor at the grand opening on the town square, we were treated to coffee and cakes, introduced with New Orleans-style fanfare, and covered with confetti in the city colors of orange and blue. We were interviewed by the local media, and found the artwork displayed throughout the city on posters, and in a special feature section of the main regional newspaper.

We watched as the city’s population swelled to nearly a quarter million, as people from all over northern Europe streamed in for the four-day musical event. Brass bands roamed the crowded streets, and live stage performances ran continuously from eleven a.m. until well past midnight. Most of the music focused on Dixieland, blues and swing, with multiple covers and interpretations of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Gospel music was also well represented, along with some late-night ventures into modern jazz and rock, and any number of specialty acts from comedy to zydeco.

In addition to the music, the food was great. Local farms and dairies filled us with cheeses and whipped creams, fresh strawberries and mountains of white asparagus. Neighborhood bakeries kept us in rolls and pastries, and with just a week to visit, we could sample but a few of the 200+ regional brews available between Holland and Belgium. We did, however, find time to enjoy Belgian chocolates, waffles in the Brabant, the famous Dutch windmills, and the incredible waterworks of Zeeland, which keep the oceans at bay in a country that is 50% below sea level.

Wherever we went, the people were invariably friendly, open, and extremely hospitable. English was spoken just about everywhere, which was helpful when one’s vocabulary strayed beyond the basics of Koffie, Chocolade, Bier, and Toilet. And with an exchange rate of two and a half guilders to the dollar, the entire trip was wonderfully affordable.

It turned out to be a profitable venture as well. The artwork was very well received, and sold better, we are told, than at any previous Jazz Ten Toon exhibition. Beyond that, we came home far richer for the experience, the friendships, and the professional satisfaction of having the artwork accepted and affirmed in another culture.

We can’t wait to visit again, and perhaps one day we’ll even be invited back. I made sure to leave plenty of business cards.

Don Stewart