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Italy: Land of Opera and…Jazz?

When you think of Italian music, you think of opera—and for good reason!  Opera was born in Italy, (Florence in 1598 to be precise) and spread from there to the rest of Europe.  For hundreds of years, despite other countries having their own opera traditions, Italy is where great composers flocked.  Heck, even though he’s Austrian, some of Mozart’s most famous works are his Italian comic operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, etc.

Of the top ten most performed operas in the world, six are by Italian composers, and of the remaining four, two are in Italian!

Oh, speaking of Italy’s contribution to classical music, did I mention Antonio Stradivari?  He wasn’t a composer or anything; he just made a few violins and stuff back in the day.  No big deal.


don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it…

And let’s talk about singers!  You’ve got Enrico Caruso, Cecilia Bartoli, Andrea Bocelli, Mirella Freni, and, of course, my personal favorite of all time, Luciano Pavarotti.  (Seriously, follow that last link and it’ll brighten your whole day.)  And while Italian singers may not run the table like the composers do, every great singer—heck every singer—has at least some Italian repertoire.  If you’ve ever taken voice lessons, there’s a good chance you’ve sung some Italian.

There's a reason every voice student you know has this book

There’s a reason every voice student you know has this book.

Why?  Partly it’s because Italian has the best vowels for singing.  There’s no better way to learn about tone and placement than to sing an Italian aria.  Or maybe it’s because Italy is where Giuseppe “La Traviata” Verdi and Giacomo “Madam-freaking-Butterfly” Puccini were from.

Seen here in the poster for their heavyweight title fight. Puccini's got the height advantage, but nobody hits harder than Verdi.

Seen here in the poster for their heavyweight title fight. Puccini’s got the height advantage, but nobody hits harder than Verdi.

So yes, Italy and Opera go hand in hand like America and Jazz, or Germany and Theoretical Physics.  But wait!  You just remembered that weird title you clicked to get here.  What does Italy have to with Jazz?  You’d be surprised.

For one thing, probably the most important international jazz festival in the world is held every summer in an ancient Italian city 100 miles north of Rome.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.  The history of Jazz in Italy is worth mentioning.

According to the Internet (give me a break, I’m not a music historian) Italians first heard this newfangled American syncopated music in 1904–a good 15 years before the rest of Europe.  But Italian Jazz orchestras like Arturro Agazzi’s unimaginatively named Syncopated Orchestra really hit the scene in the 1930’s.  Which is pretty impressive when you remember that Jazz is and was very American, and Mussolini’s fascist regime was not known for it’s pro-American cultural policies.  But no one can resist when they hear that swing, and even old Benito’s own son became a noted jazz pianist.

"What are you gonna do, ground me?"

“Shut up DAD.  You’re not the dictator of me!”

After the war, while we in the States were going crazy for a couple of Italian-Americans over on this side of the Atlantic…

It may not be Opera, but here are a couple of Italians men who can SING.

It may not be Opera, but these cats can SING.

…in Italy, jazz clubs were coming up like weeds, and it never really stopped.  Again, according to the Internet: “There are dozens of jazz festivals each year in Italy, the best-known of which is the Umbria Jazz Festival,” and “In Italy, today, it is virtually impossible to find a medium-sized city without a jazz club.”


That festival they mention is the one I referred to earlier.  Like I said, I’m not a Jazz historian or musician, so when I heard that Performing Arts Abroad launched a new program at the Umbria Jazz Festival I had to do some research, and guys.  Holy crap.

It’s been running since 1973 and the list of people who’ve performed there is like the lineup at Woodstock…if Woodstock were a Jazz festival and ran for 40 years.  Here are a few names just to give you a glimpse: B.B. King, Chet Baker, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Elton John, Alicia Keys, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Charles Mingus, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, Sting, James Taylor, and Prince. This year’s line up includes Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett and Herbie Hancock with Chick Corea.  (Am I the only one dying to know what Sting, Prince, and Lady Gaga sound like at a jazz festival?)

So there you have it.  Italy’s got more going on than you knew.  There’s also a pretty sweet Indie Rock scene too, not to mention Gospel, but that’s probably another blog post.

Viva l'Italia!

Viva l’Italia!

Ben Abbott is the Outreach Coordinator at Performing Arts Abroad.  He is tall and has long arms which helps with the “reach” part.

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