Interview with Estonian Jazz Union Co-Founder & Jazz Musician Jaak Sooäär

In today’s interview, we talked with Jaak Sooäär, prolific Estonian jazz musician who has made a significant impact on the jazz scene in Estonia and beyond, with a career spanning over two decades. He is also an accomplished music educator and he has been actively involved in promoting jazz in Estonia and abroad, co-founding the Estonian Jazz Union in 2004. 

We discussed the importance of young people in the jazz audience, overcoming obstacles as an emerging jazz musician, and the challenges in promoting Estonian jazz music abroad. 

You can find the full interview below, but here are some takeaways that we think are important.

  • The best promotion for an album is a good concert and the word will spread. Building an audience step by step is key.
  • To get people to turn up to watch live jazz, it is crucial to reach young people and offer them possibilities to see and listen to jazz music live.
  • The main obstacles for emerging jazz musicians are the fear of leaving their comfort zone. 

Here’s the full interview…

You’ve been described as “one of the busiest jazz musicians of the Baltics” – what’s your gig booking process and how has that changed over the years?

I have not had an agent or management, I have done the bookings myself. Or my bandmates have done it. A good way to develop an international career is to play with musicians from other countries and hope that they will organize some gigs in their homelands. This has worked very well for me. 

If you were a new artist on the scene with a brand new album and $1000 to promote it, what would you spend it on?

This is a good question. I never had the budget to promote my albums, so I do not have effective experiences on which to rely on. In my opinion it is hard to find focused target groups whom to reach effectively, the best promotion is a good concert and the word will spread. 

So, playing a lot and well is probably the best promotion. Building an audience step by step. So maybe I would use this 1000 for supporting travels to some foreign festivals and concerts.

The Estonian Jazz Union has organized hundreds of jazz concerts all around the country; what have you learnt about getting people to turn up to watch live jazz?

At the beginning of our activities almost twenty years ago we experienced a surprisingly big interest from a very young audience, high school students and a bit older, which lasted for several years. Looking at the jazz audiences in Estonia now it feels like the same people are still the biggest age group in the audience. 

So it is crucial to reach young people and offer them possibilities to see and listen to jazz music live. And the best connection will happen if the musicians are from the same generation or at least not too much older than the audience.

In today’s world, what is the main obstacle you see for emerging jazz musicians to tackle, and how does Eesti Jazz aim to support that?

In my opinion the main obstacles are always inside ourselves and the most common one is the fear of leaving the comfort zone. Jazz musician’s career might be a lot of fun but it is definitely not comfortable. Jazz musicians must be flexible and open for the situations both musically and in real life which just happen. 

From the artistic point the main question is why the audience would pay money to come to listen to one’s music. And it is not easy (and comfortable) to find the way of expression which will reach and touch the possible audiences. I think that many musicians are not aware of the question of why to go to the stage and what is their message. If these questions are well solved the practical matters are already easier to handle. 

You’re an established jazz artist and now you’re helping others on the professional side. What did you learn during this process?

I learn all the time. I think that doing something new always teaches something. I teach in our music academy and I have learnt so much from the lessons. In my own music process I really try to follow the instructions that I have given to my students. 

The same goes for the organization side. I encourage the young musicians to go out and organize their own concerts, even little cafe evenings. Some students have become active in Jazz Union. And I can really see that those who invest time and energy in organizing start to understand how things work and often get results which the others do not reach. All kinds of experiences are very useful for establishing a career as a jazz musician.

What should international musicians know about the Estonian jazz scene and how it works?

Jazz was almost prohibited during Soviet times, though we had a handful of excellent musicians already back then. But generally we were not a part of the jazz history of US or Western Europe from the 40s until the end of 80s and also the knowledge of jazz history has not been very strong here. 

The freedom at the beginning of the 90s brought wide interest in jazz which is a music of freedom and many aspects and even styles of jazz were new and fresh for us. Based on this we do not have a long and strong jazz tradition in a traditional way, which has its bad and good sides. The word jazz has an open meaning in Estonia and is not strictly connected to a period of jazz history. 

The country is small and the jazz community is not big but we have a wonderful international festival Jazzkaar organizing concerts all over the year, a few smaller festivals booking mostly local artists and local clubs co-operating with Estonian Jazz Union. 

Part of the Estonian Jazz Union’s aim is to develop Estonian jazz music abroad. What are the main challenges around this and how have you overcome them?

We are far away and outsiders of the traditional jazz history. We have been very active to inform the international jazz community about our existence. We are a member of Europe Jazz Network, we have organized the European Jazz Conference twice in Estonia and also worked closely together with well-known Tallinn Music Week. Since 2010 Estonia has been actively present at Jazzahead. 

We have had quite a clear plan, how to establish contacts with important organizers and how to get these people to see Estonian jazz musicians. And this process has been quite fruitful, today we have several Estonian jazz musicians who are really busy working internationally. 

The challenge is that the market is saturated and we are not really needed but Estonia has strong traditions in music which has grown interesting acts. Our main concern has been how to connect these musicians with the right people on the market and I guess that this process has been successful. The union organizes cooperation between musicians and organizations, including for financial resources. 

Do you think there are untapped opportunities for musicians outside of the traditional government-funded world?

The activities of the Estonian Jazz Union have mostly been funded by the government. Estonia is a small country and the union does not want to compete for private sponsorship with our good partners in jazz like Jazzkaar. 

For musicians that don’t have access to a national union that does this sort of work, how could they go about recreating some of the benefits together?

Once again, Estonia is a small country and every musician has access to the union. But we have not drawn the line between our members and non-members, so the possibilities are open for all Estonian musicians. 

With jazzahead coming up, what’s your #1 piece of advice for first time attendees?

In my opinion, the most important thing is to meet with as many people as possible and keep eyes and ears open. I think that sticking to a concrete plan can be limiting as there are many accidental possibilities around. My experience is that several totally random meetings in Bremen have developed into long time co-operations.

About Jaak Sooäär

Born 1972 in Tallinn, Estonia.

His first concerts (all over the Soviet Union) took place as a member of the Estonian Boys’ Choir in which he started singing at the age of seven. Since 1989, he has been active on the Estonian scene ranging from jazz to rock and folk to classical. Since the late 1990s, Sooäär has performed with many internationally known jazz musicians, including Tony Allen & Joe Lovano.

In 1999, Sooäär toured with The European Jazz Youth Orchestra and, in 2003, took part in the EBU Big Band in Istanbul, Turkey. One of his Estonian groups, Eesti Keeled, was given the Estonian Music Award as the best etno/folk artist both in 2003 and in 2005. In 2013 the quartet “Mustonen-Sooäär-Remmel-Ruben” received the Estonian Music Award as the best jazz artist for album “A Tempo” (AVA Muusika). In 2007 Sooäär was the first jazz musician to get Estonian Annual Jazz Prize. He has also received the annual prize of Estonian Culture Endowment (Eesti Kultuurkapital) both in 2007 and 2018. Jaak Sooäär appears on more than 40 jazz CD-s. In 2004 he established the record label AVA Muusika which has released nineteen albums by now.

In 1994, he graduated from Tartu University (major in international economy), in 1996 from the Music College in Tallinn and, in 2001, from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. Since 2001 he has taught guitar and ensemble at the Jazz Music Department of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and was elected to a professor position in 2010. In 2004 he was one of the founders of Estonian Jazz Union which has promoted jazz very successfully in Estonia and Estonian jazz abroad. 

Jazz Estonia (Estonian Jazz Union) 

International Festival Jazzkaar 

Jaak Sooäär 


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