Belgium’s jazz masters

The Brussels Jazz Orchestra has gone from being a lesser-known ensemble to a Grammy-nominated outfit that plays alongside some of the biggest names in jazz. General manager Koen Maes explains how

I studied classical trumpet at the Lemmensinstituut in Leuven and played in the school’s big band, which needed jazz trumpeters (we’re a kind of rare species). After finishing school, I heard that the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, which was established in 1993, was looking for an assistant. I called [co-founder and artistic director] Frank Vaganée about the job, and he said I could start right away.

After three months, the acting manager decided to leave the orchestra, and the position was offered to me; then 25, I was fresh-faced and eager to learn. I was immediately aware of the big responsibility that I had as a manager for this group of very talented musicians.

Just before I joined the orchestra in 1999, the BJO was fortunate enough to receive structural subsidies from the Flemish Government. That vote of confidence really gave the orchestra the opportunity to build a solid artistic and business strategy. In short, we wanted to evolve from an ensemble that mostly played music for musicians, to an orchestra that plays music for an audience – first building this audience at home in Belgium and then gradually making our name on an international level.

The first pillar of our strategy was to offer a very diverse and varied programme. We have always included other art forms and musical genres in our concerts; it’s become one of our trademarks. Over the years we have produced projects that feature silent movies, tango, poetry, graphic novels, theatre, all without compromising on artistic quality.

This kind of programming is ideal for small to mid-size cultural centres, which are typical for Flanders. In the region, every town and small city has its own cultural venue with a broad programming strategy. Our ‘crossover’ concerts are a good way to reach a broader audience than the pure jazz lovers you’d expect.

The second pillar of our strategy was to invite internationally famous guest musicians to play with us. People like Maria Schneider and Kenny Werner gave the BJO the necessary credibility to open the door to large jazz festivals at home, such as Jazz Middelheim, which takes place in Antwerp. These guests were so enthusiastic about working with us that they became international ambassadors for the BJO, creating a buzz in their own country.

We created new projects and albums with musicians like singer David Linx, accordionist Richard Galliano, guitarist Philip Catherine, and saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano. This led to concert tours all over Europe, the US and even Asia. In the meantime we continued to play at small clubs and jazz venues, never losing sight of our hardcore fanbase.

Koen Maes © Phile Deprez
Koen Maes © Phile Deprez

I think the third pillar of our success has really been our musicians and the sound they create together. As a freelance orchestra, we’re able to attract some of the best jazz musicians around. We also have access to a uniquely talented pool of soloists, composers and arrangers. BJO is their playground, the place where they can go all the way and play at a really high level. Bert Joris, Lode Mertens, Dieter Limbourg, Pierre Drevet and Vaganée are among the composers who create music for the orchestra.

We also organise a biannual composition competition which gives us the oportunity to discover new international talent. We commission the finalists of the BJO International Composition Contest to write music for the orchestra. Recent winners include Carlos Azevedo (Portugal), Klas Lindquist (Sweden), Sakiko Masuda (Japan), Jan Torkewitz (Germany), and Thomas Haines (UK).

This year our latest album Wild Beauty, with American saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano, secured two Grammy nominations, in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and Best Instrumental Arrangement categories. We didn’t win, but the entire American music industry has heard our name now. It’s really been the cherry on the cake of 20 years of passionate and dedicated work – and a great reward for all our musicians, staff and board members. We hope to be around and continue playing for another 20 years at least.

The big challenge for the future will of course be financial: will the government continue to support us? In our country people pay high taxes so we expect the government to do sensible things with these funds, such as supporting the arts. There is also a drive towards sourcing funding from the private sector; but high taxes and a lack of incentives for corporations to donate is a mix that doesn’t work. Cultural patronage has been the motor of the arts throughout history. Let’s not forget that the work of so many great musicians, both now and in the past, was commissioned by some sort of governor.