Whereas countries like Norway, Italy and the Netherlands developed a brand of jazz one could consider a national ‘school’ rather quickly, the history of jazz in Belgium has been a different one altogether. Even though the genre has been practised since its origins, the American style served as the main example until the 70s. By the time you could speak of ‘Belgian jazz’, it had become so diverse that its pluralism might be its key ingredient and appeal.

Belgium gave the world the saxophone, boasted one of the first jazz magazines (Music) and some of the earliest jazz festivals, but the first few decades mainly created a few urban centres (Brussels, Antwerp, Liège) and provided good circumstances for foreign visitors. Django Reinhardt, a gypsy born in Wallonia, was the first one to get some recognition abroad, even in the United States. While the first jazz institutions and clubs were founded in the 30s and 40s, the lure of the US remained intact. You could argue that some of the crucial contributions - by a.o. Bobby Jaspar, René Thomas and Toots Thielemans - took place on American soil.

The post-war era was a fruitful time when countless magazines, clubs and books appeared all over Belgium, with Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels adding their own contributions. The genre’s popularity was short-lived, however, as rock music pushed jazz back to the margins. Despite those trends, the first festivals were founded (Comblain-la-Tour in 1959, Jazz Bilzen in 1965, Jazz Middelheim in 1969) and an artist like Fred Van Hove became part of a truly European avant-garde movement. Jazzrock became the thing of the 70s, with Philip Catherine as its foremost practitioner. 

Meanwhile, the jazz scene started to professionalise on both sides of the language border. The first jazz school was founded in Liège in 1979, it was to become the proper start of jazz education and professionalisation in Belgium. Labels like Igloo and Werf Records further mirrored the emergence of a new generation of musicians attempting to ignore stylistic borders, paving the way for the 21st century boom. Publications like J@zz@round, JazzHalo and Jazzmozaïek (nowadays Jazz & Mo’) kept jazz literature alive and the music especially had its share of national radio support. Several new support/network organisations contributed to the diffusion and promotion of Belgian jazz musicians.

The past decade has been truly remarkable, in that Belgian jazz has turned its multifaceted identity into an asset. It is so varied, in fact, that no artist can embody all of it (even though Melanie De Biasio, De Beren Gieren and STUFF. will surely ring a bell).  On top of that, even the mainstream media wrote about a so-called ‘new wave of Belgian jazz’, with musicians now also performing at venues and festivals for pop/rock music. On both sides of the language border, we are witnessing a boom of emerging artists, some still firmly rooted in the tradition, and many others breaking barriers, creating a crossover with pop and electronic evolutions. Cities like Brussels, Ghent, Liège and Antwerp in particular have thriving jazz scenes where the genre in its many guises is once again at the forefront of musical innovation and excitement. As such, Belgian jazz has become a veritable 21st century music, increasingly picked up abroad as an example of the sound of surprise.

Guide compiled by VI.BEWallonie - Bruxelles Musiques & JazzLab