Jazz in the Snow

The jazz singer Kate Westbrook has travelled all over the world. She began her career as singer/instrumentalist with the Mike Westbrook Brass Band, a group of versatile musicians who played anywhere from concert halls to city parks. She subsequently married Mike and has since earned her living performing and touring. For two decades she has gone back to Sweden every other year or so, in all seasons and in all musical guises.

Very early on in the life of the Westbrook Brass Band, before they had a manager, I wrote to the Kulturhuset arts centre in Stockholm suggesting that we might play there. The director of music, Johan Etzler, sent back a charming letter, inviting us to come. Over the decades Johan has become a close friend, and Sweden one of my favourite countries. The Swedes, though apparently so reserved, really respond to our music and I have the warmest feelings for the people and the countryside.

My most recent visit was to perform with a southern Swedish Big Band, the Tolvan Band, playing a piece that Mike and I had created using themes and arias from the work of Gioacchino Rossini. I had toured with the Tolvan before. They are excellent musicians and great people to work with (even if they do chew gum a lot, only removing it to eat or to put their instrument in their mouths). On this occasion the band was joined by soloists from other parts of the country - a cellist, a bass player, an accordionist, a percussionist, as well as Mike and myself from England.

I was the only woman in the band. Not unusual in a country like Britain, but slightly surprising in Sweden, where I have come to expect more enlightened attitudes. Nevertheless, I was never made to feel uncomfortable as the sole female. It may well have been an advantage that I only speak a few words of Swedish and so have no idea what people are saying to each other. Usually when travelling I at least make an attempt at the native tongue - I speak French and Italian fairly well, and sing in several languages (including a Swedish dialect song) - but I've barely made any progress in Swedish since my first trip. It's all too easy to become lazy when everyone, even in the most remote corners of the country, speaks English so well.

On this trip with Tolvan we had a rehearsal period in Lund, at the southwestern tip of the country, before setting off on tour around Scandinavia in a fine big bus. It was autumn, my favourite season in Sweden. The silver birches had turned, along with all the other deciduous trees, and harebells lingered in the scrubby heath and flat grey rocks. Farms dotted the landscape, many of them painted a marvellous deep terracotta red, reminiscent of parts of New England. I've been told that the red paint was originally used for the boat bottoms of fishing fleets, and was taken up as a cheap protective cover for wood-frame buildings, proofing them against the severities of the climate. A white line painted around the doors of barns points up the entrance in the dark, and the window frames of the houses are usually painted white too.

In the windows, above the ubiquitous gingham and lace cotton curtains, hang coloured hearts made from wood, or small glass ornaments, or dried flowers in bunches. The Swedish love arranging domestic trivia like this, and really go to town at Christmas, when small children wear crowns of evergreen studded with lighted candles. Travelling round Sweden at Christmas time I have seen moose in a snowy landscape, and skiers hiking across the flat countryside on short skis. I have seen people pushing sledges bearing children, or wood, or groceries. On reaching a downward slope the "driver" steps onto the long runners at the back and rides down. When the ground is level again the tall handle at the rear of the sledge serves to steady the person pushing, rather like an elegant wooden zimmer frame.

Once, we were travelling in the coldest part of the winter with a small band, in an English mini-bus. This is the equivalent of going to the North Pole in a cotton frock. The inside of the windows towards the rear of the vehicle were caked with ice, and our skimpy tyres skated about on the surface of the road. At one point we were driving along a straight stretch beside a frozen lake when suddenly the bus performed a graceful pair of revolutions in the face of an oncoming truck, and landed in snowbound reeds at the lakeside. Within seconds an ambulance arrived out of nowhere, made sure that no one was hurt and disappeared again into the white empty landscape. Eventually we were helped by passing motorists to push the bus back onto the road and, miraculously, made the gig that night.

In such severe weather it's always good to have what's known as a "suede shoe gig", where the performance space and sleeping quarters are under the same roof or have inter-connecting doors so you don't have to mess up your suede shoes by going out in the street. A few years ago our trio (Mike and I and saxophonist Chris Biscoe) went to play in Härnösand on the east coast - not as far north as the Arctic Circle but north enough. Again it was winter, with the temperature at minus 24ºC and falling. We were booked into a hotel only a short walk from the club, but during these few steps the moisture in our noses froze, tickling uncomfortably, and every breath hurt. The water in the inlet was iced over, leaving tankers and boats stranded like beached whales. Upstream a factory emitted a vile smell, made sharper still by the intense cold. There was a large illuminated print-out of the temperature and time over the other side of the bay, and I spent much of the night staring out of the window in fascination as the recorded temperature dropped, and numbered minutes and seconds ticked by. The only other lights in view were the appallingly clear stars.

With these long, dark winters, the suicide rate is high. During interminable journeys on the road, and in spite of myself, I frequently found my thoughts turning to death. There's a skeleton in the city museum in Stockholm, dating from two thousand years ago or more: a small person, buried in the foetal position. Oddly enough, I found this a very comforting image. Having summoned that creature to my mind's eye I could return to my book or get into conversation again.

After the long winter come the welcome signs of spring and the big thaw. Great icicles fall from the eaves of buildings, creating a real hazard in town for pedestrians. Everywhere there is deep slush, and the streams, rivers and lakes are full. Water is never very far away in Sweden.

Swimming in the summer is a bracing experience, with no Gulf Stream to take the cold edge off the sea. Inland lakes aren't much better, but the sun can feel wonderfully warm, shining late at night and coming back after only a few hours. The Härnösand promoter told us that she hates the summer. It is so short that she feels under tremendous pressure to get a tan, to have barbecues, and to relish the fact that it never quite gets dark. And the weather is not all the people of Härnösand have to be concerned about. The concert promoter also told us of the terrible effect the Chernobyl disaster has had on the region, which received one of the highest doses of radioactive fall-out outside Kiev. Local people are still bitter. They're no longer able to supplement their tables by gathering berries, fungi, and roots, and won't be able to again for many years.

On the autumn trip with Tolvan we were booked to play towns and cities in the south of the country before heading on to Gothenburg, a town which I find reassuringly familiar. Over the years I have been to the same hotel, the same clubs in Gothenburg and, on the whole, they change very little. I was outraged on this occasion when "our" Chinese restaurant, where the waitress used to expect to see us every year or so, had been transformed into an anonymous Japanese place. Although Gothenburg has a jazz club, the Nefertiti, for some reason we have never played there. We have, however, played in the rather grand theatre, the university, and in the art gallery flanked by sculpture and fine paintings. For several seasons we did concerts in a shambolic private museum/club owned by Sven, a dear friend. Touring as we do, we make friends along the way and intense bonds spring up, kept alive with occasional letters and postcards and rare visits. Sven was ancient and tall, immensely cultured and gracious, living with the cancer that made him as pale as Swedish porcelain and with his hair dyed brick red. He has since died and the venue has closed down.

From Gothenburg we travelled north to Stockholm. This time, instead of icing up, the bus overheated badly. We watched videos in the sweltering atmosphere until we could stand it no longer. In a rainsoaked industrial wasteland, we unloaded our gear and waited while relief buses were summoned, both inadequate. The original bus was fixed at last; the journey took eleven hours in all and we turned up at the club, tired, damp and late for the soundcheck.

Stockholm's Fasching Club has been host to all the great American and European jazz musicians. The room is long and narrow with a balcony round one end, and the management are forever trying to make the space work, in spite of its awkward skinny shape. They've tried putting the band below the balcony so that those above look down on the tops of the musicians' heads. They've put the stage on one side of the room, flanked by two blocks of audience. It was like this the night I sang there with Tolvan, meaning, in effect, that I spent the evening turning from one side to the other, or else looking straight into the eyeballs of the sound engineer who had his desk against the wall opposite the bandstand.

Almost all our Stockholm friends turned up for the concert. Poor Frippe, with his clean-shaven upper lip and chin, and wispy beard below, and emphatic be-bop talk that keeps him just this side of madness, clutching an alto saxophone and forever waiting to "sit in". Lovely deaf Gunilla, who spends all night driving taxis after the Fasching closes, was there, fragrant and in peach silk. One of her delights is to feed surströmming to the many jazz musicians she knows. Considered a great delicacy by the Swedes, surströmming is rotten herring and, as one musician so elegantly put it, "makes a bad fart smell like a breath of fresh air".

These days the Fasching can only afford to put on jazz a couple of nights a week, though one of my favourite Swedish singers, Monika Zetterlund, can still be heard there at regular intervals. She has performed with the best Swedish and American jazz instrumentalists. At the Memorial Concert for the assassinated prime minister, Olaf Palme - a champion of the arts who had many close friends among the artists and intellectuals of his country - she sang a politicized Swedish version of As Time Goes By, lamenting the country's loss to an audience mute with shock.

Apart from Fasching Club, Stockholm has a number of small jazz clubs, and a Radio Station concert hall where we once played a lunchtime concert. With the Radio Band, and various other groups, we have performed at the handsome concert hall in the Kulturhuset, an arts complex in a modern shopping mall, overlooking a fine example of 1950s' fountain design. Despite the drug addicts who inhabit the underground pedestrian area outside, I feel quite safe walking round here on my own. Indeed Stockholm is a lovely capital in which to wander. A great sweep of water reaches right into the heart of the city, where the public and commercial buildings are situated, bringing with it a glorious light and all the attendant bustle of a port. The old town is quaint and well-heeled, while the newer parts are spacious and clean, if a little soulless. There's a delightful sculpture down at the water's edge, of a person, apparently below ground, raising the lid of a manhole cover and poking his nose out into the air. He has been there, fooling passers-by, for at least twenty years.

The Museum of Modern Art, jutting out on one of Stockholm's many promontories, is one of my favourite haunts. The collection is good, and they occasionally host concerts in the main gallery. It's a splendid thing to listen to music with a backdrop of Matisse's massive collage of "Apollo". You can get a good cup of coffee in the café, too, along with those strange bright green cakes that appear in every Swedish eatery.

With Tolvan we went to Västeršas, stopping off several times to eat in motorway cafés. The menu never varies at these places, and the choice, though limited, is good. There's Pytt i panna, hash with an egg on top, very tasty nursery-type food. Or Köttbullar, which are meatballs served with Lingon berries (cranberries). I like the large flat wheels of crispbread that hang on specially designed wooden spikes, that never seem to go stale and that go with absolutely anything. The Swedes boast that country people eat bread made from the bark of trees but I've never come across it.

On reaching Västeršas, we drove into an industrial estate, totally deserted and cloaked in darkness with warehouses towering between vast areas for loading and unloading. In the centre of this concrete park stood a small single-storey building, entirely on its own. Inside this odd venue there turned out to be a restaurant with a stage at one end, a manager who loves the music, and, later in the evening, a packed house and a terrific reception. It was all very Swedish.

At the end of a tour we often move on with the band to Finland. Though in the aftermath of two ferry disasters it will never feel the same again. I used to love taking the overnight boat from Stockholm to Turku or Helsinki, especially in the depths of winter with the sea frozen over, the small islands of the archipelago standing out dark against the glistening whiteness, and a great roaring noise of ice being riven by the prow of the ship. After the smörgšasbord, we would go up to the main lounge where there was invariably a singer with electric keyboard and rhythm box churning out ABBA songs (even the most sophisticated Swedes are proud as punch of ABBA). Then we would take a last look out on deck before turning in. Stepping back inside from the darkness to the light, it was always startling to be confronted by the sight of lots of gypsies. Many of the travelling people have family in Sweden and come from right across Russia and Finland to take these boats, bedding down for the night on the elaborately patterned carpet in all their finery. The women wear massive crinoline skirts, layer upon layer, each shot with gold or silver on vibrant colours. Small girls in elaborate dresses are festooned with ribbons and cloth flowers, while the men and boys wear tight-fitting waistcoats and flamboyant shirts. It was like stepping from the cold north air into a painting by Delacroix or Matisse.

ROUGH GUIDES had this text online for several years. Since they took it off some time in summer 2000 I reproduce it here with a link to their current travel guide.

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