Even during the politically difficult years in the Soviet Lithuania jazz was played in the capital. On 13 March 1963, the Vilnius jazz club was founded in a youth cafe/reading room (current Vilniaus street). It was the first club dedicated to this music genre, which lived for merely a few years. Held there were not only gigs by musicians who were forming the Lithuanian jazz scene of that time but also lectures on music.
The long-time traditions were continued by the legendary Neringa restaurant located in the very heart of Gedimino avenue, the facade of which is currently covered by scaffolding, while resounding inside, instead of jazz, are the sounds of construction tools. Although the history of that place is closely related to the activity of the Soviet government’s security structures, it was here that jazz evenings began taking place in 1969. Playing here were not only Ganelinas, Tarasovas and Čekasinas’ trio but also Leonidas Šinkarenka, Vytautas Labutis, Petras Vyšniauskas, Gediminas Laurinavičius and others.
After the country regained independence, jazz continued being played. In Autumn 1992, in a house number 8 on Ašmenos street, in an abandoned hall of the House of Athletes Petras Ubartas-Sniegius held an unusual party of young music bands the result of which was the first live music club in independent Lithuania under the name Langas (Window). There, alongside other music styles, jazz was often played. The club discontinued its operation some time before the dawn of the 21st century.
The most durable and decades-long part of Vilnius jazz culture is festivals. Vilnius Jazz is perhaps the most deeply rooted of them in the capital. This festival, which started at the initiative of the jazz enthusiast Antanas Gustys and his friends in 1988, is continuing until today. The annual event held in mid-October now became an integral part of the city life attracting music gourmets not only from Lithuania but also from abroad. The fact that Vilnius Jazz is not a little elite festival on the periphery is evidenced by the reviews of the festival that appear on pages of such publications as Jazzwise Magazine or the All About Jazz platform.
Over its history spanning more than three decades, many world-renowned musicians have demonstrated their mastery on the festival scene. They include not only the older formation of free jazz stars but also the younger generation of experimenters. Thanks to the Vilnius Jazz festival, Vilnius audiences have had the opportunity to enjoy not only the classics of the genre, such as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Han Bennink, György Szabados or Peter Brötzmann, but also the music by the most prominent contemporary performers like Mats Gustafsson, Alexander Hawkins, Nate Wooley or Cuong Vu.
The organisers of the festival do not hide their desire to include the younger generation in the country’s general vortex of jazz. To this end, the Vilnius Jazz Young Power competition for young Lithuanian jazz musicians and bands is being held alongside the main Vilnius Jazz programme. It is a great opportunity for young performers to go public and showcase their work to wider audiences. Sheep Got Waxed, one of the most promising bands of the new generation which often performs abroad, as well as the pianist Dmitry Golovanov and others have won this competition.
For those looking for lighter sounds and melodies, the Lithuanian capital offers an alternative – Vilnius Mama Jazz. Of course, this festival also sometimes incorporates free and avant-garde jazz into its repertoire, but much more pronounced here is the tendency towards jazz-rock, fusion or nu- jazz. This year, the festival, initiated by Judita Bartoševičienė in 2002, took place for the 19th time. Like Vilnius Jazz, Vilnius Mama Jazz takes place in autumn, only a month later, in November. So, autumn in Vilnius means not only puddles and falling yellow leaves but also jazz echoes.
Over the nearly two decades, the Vilnius Mama Jazz stage hosted a constellation of musicians representing various schools and generations: from guitar legends John Scofield, John McLaughlin or the pianist Chick Corea to such personalities of the young generation as Geral Clayton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Marius Neset or Mathias Eick.
Vilnius Mama Jazz does not limit itself to just principal evening concerts. The festival organisers also invite audiences to their showcase format events that present on stage various collectives and performers from Lithuania and beyond. Also, various talks are held within the frame of Vilnius Mama Jazz during which participating musicians and guest representatives of music industry discuss the prevailing tendencies in the music world and gladly answer the questions of the festival visitors.
Sometimes it happens in Vilnius that even the most incredible ideas get realised. In 2017, the New York-based percussion master Dalius Naujokaitis and his friends initiated Peronas Jazz festival which took place in the space of Peronas bar located in immediate proximity to the railway station tracks. The festival offered the most varied sonic experiments that often transcended the jazz definition lines, however, sadly, after just two editions, this initiative that relied on DIY principles slumped into lethargy. But who knows, maybe this festival or other new jazzy initiatives will shake Vilnius up again. Stay tuned!
At the end of 2015, the jazz gourmets of Lithuania heard the news about the opening of a club specifically dedicated to this genre in the capital. The tiny yet cosy basement located near the icon of the Gate of Dawn Madonna (Aušros vartų st. 11) in Vilnius became home to jazz.
The club’s repertoire is particularly varied. By opening the doors leading to Jazz Cellar 11, one can hear not only the lexicon of swing or bebop era but also unpredictable whirls of free jazz. On your trip to the club, don’t be surprised to see the expressive guitarist Juozas Milašius, the legendary composer Vyacheslav Ganelin, the ingenious percussion masters Arkady Gotesman or Vladimir Tarasov, alongside such wind virtuosi as Petras Vyšniauskas or Liudas Mockūnas. Unquestionably, besides the old-timers of the Lithuanian jazz scene, the club is also open to the creative and promising representatives of the young generation. Here one can listen to the pianists Domas Žeromskas, Giedrius Nakas, Mantvydas Leonas Pranulis, the drummer Augustinas Baronas, the guitarists Mindaugas Stumbras and Deimantas Balys Jurevičius and many other future stars.
It would be hard to imagine a jazz club that doesn’t hold jam sessions. That is an important and old tradition of this musical genre, and Jazz Cellar 11 cherishes traditions. Those visiting the club will have an opportunity to enjoy the dialogue between the musicians in the process of being created here and now. Moreover, this club distinguishes oneself with evenings dedicated to jazz classics (Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker and others), which invite audiences to hear the works and interpretations of world-renowned creators, and often, as the evening progresses, to dive into the whirlwind of a jam session. Who knows, maybe in the future this basement club will be compared to the legendary Krakow cabaret Piwnica Pod Baranami that is still going strong.
Those willing to listen to jazz standards or tap lightly to the rhythm of swing, unfortunately, won’t be able to do that here, however, if you are hungry and seeking to taste exclusive sound delights, the experiment-loving Improdimensija should absolutely be in your field of vision.
Collaborating within the walls of Mama Studios are not only the old-timers of the stage (Dalius Naujokaitis, Eugenijus Kanevičius, Vyacheslav Ganelin and others) but also musicians of the young generation (Kazimieras Jušinskas, Mėta Pelegrimaitė, Dovydas Stalmokas and others), who, together with their older colleagues, create memorable performances.
As Improdimensija project is gathering its speed, Vilnius is increasingly frequently visited by international improvisational music stars. The concerts of this cycle already presented percussionists Christian Windfeld, Håkon Berre and Kresten Osgood, the Spanish pianist and composer Augusti Fernandez, the Polish trumpet player Tomasz Dąbrowski, the bass virtuoso from Norway Per Zanussi, while in May 2019, one of the brightest jazz and improvisational music stars the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson held a three-day residency at Improdimensija.
Following the half-century-long silence, the youth cafe where jazz lovers used to gather mentioned in the introduction became filled with sounds of jazz once again. Several years ago, the space reopened its doors as the bar Vėjai (Winds, Vilniaus st. 22), the name of which, it seems, was inspired by the Keturi Vėjai (Four Winds) magazine published in the interwar period by Lithuanian avant-garde poets.
Located on one of the busiest streets of the capital (in terms of bar-goers rather than the transport), this bar has become a real point of attraction. People pop in not only for a pint with friends but also for some jazz! The absolute majority of bands and performers playing in Vėjai are local representatives of the young generation who do not lack the imagination to be able to surprise their audiences with unexpected musical solutions every time. Raising the roof in Vėjai are members and friends of such bands as the experimenters Sheep Got Waxed, the irrepressible Džiazlaif or the leaning-towards-fusion Castor Stetson. Sometimes, Dalius Naujokaitis or Juozas Milašius bring an onset of a storm to Vėjai. Of course, there are also guests from abroad.
With Vėjai growing increasingly stronger, new winds in the form of Nauji Vėjai (New Winds) started blowing in the distinct building at number 27 on Gedimino avenue. It is a more spacious brother of the Vilnius street’s Vėjai and the majority of concerts is now being held there. Both spaces are similar in their unconstrained and free spirit. Exactly the kind that lives at the heart of its majesty jazz. Besides, just like with the building on Vilniaus st. 22, a historic undercurrent also runs through Gedimino av. 27. Firstly, it is one of the most precious examples of interwar modernist architecture in Vilnius. Secondly, it was here where in 2010, inspired by the Fluxus founder Jurgis Mačiūnas’ manifesto, active townspeople and their friends established Fluxus Ministerija (The Ministry of Fluxus). Despite the briefness of its existence, the ministry managed to become a true art mecca. It is a delight to know that, in a sense, the art baton of this building has been relayed to Nauji Vėjai. Currently, the space is being ravished by nothing less than Zephyr which, according to Greek mythology, brings the gentle spring and early summer breeze.
The above-discussed spaces actively host concerts dedicated to jazz, but there are also other venues in Vilnius where many a jazz lover could enjoy the music they like.
Rūdninkai Bookstore, just like Jazz Cellar 11, organises jazz classics evenings during which audiences can hear well-known jazz standards and their interpretations performed by Lithuanian musicians. The bookstore is the place where one can hear Liudas Mockūnas’ saxophone roaring, Dmitry Golovanov’s lyrical passages on keys, Viktorija Gečytė’s and Veronika Čičinskaitė-Golovanovas’ lush voices, the melancholic saxophone of Jan Maksimovič, the frenetic percussion performances by Arnas Mikalkėnas and Dalius Naujokaitis or even the hell-raising experimenters Sheep Got Waxed. This summer, the bookstore tried out the Piano Jazz Night idea – every Thursday evening Rūdninkai Bookstore was filled with live piano music.
One more interesting place is the former flower shop that has become Pavilion Bar (Paviljonas, Pylimo st. 21B). This space, which swapped the smell of flowers with the buzz of townspeople and music, sometimes also welcomes jazz performed by both Lithuanian and foreign musicians. Paviljonas hosts not only organise performances but also jam sessions that sometimes turn out to be madly exciting.
A long time ago, in the third decade of the 14th century, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas was writing his famous letters to western Europe. Promising favourable conditions, he was inviting various craftsmen, merchants and clergymen to come to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including Vilnius, to settle down and take up their activities here. Six centuries later, with the threshold into the 21st century behind us, his campaign could be repeated. Only this time, the letters should state that here, in the capital of Lithuania, spectacular jazz festivals are being regularly held, while all kinds of variations of this genre can be heard not just in the club dedicated specifically to this genre but also in other venues of the city. So, if you consider yourself a jazz music lover – welcome to Vilnius!
Translated from the Lithuanian by Julija Gulbinovič