On a windy night in Sidi Bou Said, patrons walk down the long, lit footpath toward the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra. Built between 1912 and 1922, the palace celebrates traditional Maghrebian and Andalusian architecture, with ornate gardens complementing iconic white-washed walls and blue shutters. To the right, a cypress bluff cascades sharply toward the marina below. A small arcade behind heavy doors opens into a hallway of marble columns and delicately-carved mashrabiya windows.
Ennejma Ezzahra was once the residence of Baron D'Erlanger, a French aristocrat with a passion for Arab and Islamic art. Today the palace serves as a museum and the home of the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music (CMAM), an institute tasked by the Ministry of Culture with the conservation of Tunisia's musical heritage.
On April 30, which has been declared International Jazz Day by the United Nations, CMAM partnered with the Jazz Club of Tunis (JCT) to present an educational lecture and jazz performance at Ennejma Ezzahra. Renowned jazz critic Michel Delorme shared his thoughts on the development of jazz, especially the music of John Coltrane, in a presentation entitled Universal Coltrane: The Man and His Music, accompanied by audio and video excerpts from the genre's greatest musicians.
Delorme describes jazz's development in terms of revolutions created by jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Coltrane. In his opinion, modern jazz has not experienced a revolution since the work of these performers.
Perhaps, but this and other events created by the JCT are helping to develop and transform the Jazz scene in Tunisia. The club’s roots go back to 2004 when a group of young musicians met at a Tunisian-Belgian jazz festival and started holding informal meetings. Unable to associate formally because of civil society restrictions during the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, members met in bars and cafes to share their love for the art.
After the revolution, the JCT was formed to spread awareness and appreciation of jazz and the values associated with it: openness to other cultures, tolerance, and innovation. Through master classes, youth workshops, live performances, and lectures, the JCT hopes to show that jazz is a young and vibrant art for the public, not just an esoteric enjoyment for the elite.
After Delorme's speech, musicians from JCT's collective take the stage. Sound-proofed by ornate tapestries, the warmly-lit salon seems strangely fitting for a jam session. The music starts slowly with a whimsical dialogue between acoustic guitar and piano, then builds to a passionate finish as drums, electric guitar, bass, and tenor saxophone join the conversation. The performers grimace and wince as they tear notes from their instruments. The music is emotional and personal.
Just like the palace where the concert takes place, JCT has a mix of influences. The club hopes not to replicate famous jazz, but to create a fusion that incorporates Tunisia's rich cultural heritage. A few days prior to this event, a performance by the Oriental Jazz Quintet offered its interpretation of jazz played with traditional instruments.
In its next program, JCT will host Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani, winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composer's Competition, at Ennejma Ezzahra on May 11. For more information about JCT's upcoming events, please visit the club’s Facebook page.