Jazz has a suprizingly long history in Mongolia. Legend has it that first jazz artist to perform in Mongolia was an American working for the Ford Motor company in China who serviced the Mongolian market during the reign of the last Bogd Khan. The car dealer was also a jazz piano player and entertained at the Summer and Winter palaces for the Bogd Khan during his visits. In the middle of the century, the big-band of the then state circus used to swing larger dance halls on weekend evenings. During the cold war, most jazz music filtered in through Russia, where Mongolian artists learned the craft during their studies at music conservatories in Moscow and other major cities. It is some of these students who formed “Bayan Mongol Big Band of State Philharmonic” which in the late 1960s started performing, among others, light jazz arrangements. Yet, genuine In Ulaanbaatar young musicians buried under their blankets at night to listen to jazz on the Voice of America. Lucky few who got to personally visit the other side of the Wall were able to witness (and listen) jazz first-hand. Eventually, for lack of access to recordings and written music, the Mongolian bands disappeared and jazz faded into the background of the musical landscape.
Since Mongolia’s transition to democracy, musicians are free to listen to and perform any music they please, and jazz is becoming increasingly popular and available in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The oldest established jazz band, the Black and White Jazz Band, has been performing for over a decade. During the 1990s, jazz musicians still faced difficult challenges in trying to develop their form of this music. There was limited internet access and radio broadcasts were practically non-existent, except for what might be picked up on Radio Moscow or Voice of America on short-wave. Jazz recordings were difficult to find, with only a few occasionally appearing on the shelves of music stores. Written jazz music was almost totally unavailable.
Mongolian jazz musicians are dedicated, and a little help from friends goes a long way. Bob Bellows (piano/vocal, USA) first came to Mongolia in 1996, supported by the US Embassy, to teach jazz improvisation to the National Philharmonic Orchestra. It was then that he met Ganbat (piano/drums, Mongolia) and a lasting friendship was formed. Since 1998, Deb Rasmussen (vocals, Canada) carried in jazz recordings and written music for Mongolian musician friends. In the summer of 2001, these friends, along with three Mongolian jazz bands, came together at the White House Hotel Jazz Club for a night of jazz performances. In December 2002, a jazz benefit concert, supported by the Arts Council of Mongolia, raised the funds required to create Mongolia’s first-ever music listening library, the Jazz Listening Library at the University of Arts and Culture.
The very successful Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival in July 2004 was the next effort of this circle of jazz friends. Instrumental in the Giant Steppes success was once again the Arts Council of Mongolia. The Arts Council managed the marketing, fund raising and logistics of the Festival. Financial support from the US Embassy, the Teipai Trade and Economic Representative Office helped make the dream a reality and jazz music took to the air. The last three nights of July were devoted to jazz with performances at the Brauhaus restaurant, the National Opera Theatre and Rivers Sounds Live Music Club. Big bands, ensembles, instrumental soloists and vocalists dazzled sell-out crowds with their interpretations of standards, smooth jazz, fusion and original compositions. Featured artists included Khulan (vocals), Khishgee (vocals),Purevdorj (Puujee) with the Black and White Band, and Ganbat (drums/piano). International guests included Bob Bellows (USA), Debra Rasmussen (Canada) and Dima Tagan (Ukraine).
After the 2004 Giant Steppes Festival, the continued support of the Arts Council of Mongolia combined with new support from Mount Royal College in Calgary and the Music Department of the University of Saskatchewan allowed Ganbat to come to Canada for six weeks to study and practice jazz performance and composition. In addition to his more formal studies at Mount Royal College, he studied and played with the Northern Lights members Keith Smith (guitar), Bruce Petherick (piano), John Hyde (bass) and Robin Tufts (drums). In February 2005, Ganbat was featured in a concert with Northern Lights at the Beatniq Jazz and Social Club in Calgary.
Since Ganbat returned to Mongolia in 2005 (?), he focused his energies on his cherished dream of returning to music full time and devoting himself to playing and promoting jazz. The Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO was formed in the spring of 2006 with the objective of supporting the growth of the jazz audience in Mongolia and providing jazz education opportunities for local musicians. Organizing the Giant Steppes Jazz Festival every two years was one of the main activities of the NGO. In May 2006, Steve Tromans (jazz piano and composer, Britain) moved to Mongolia for a year to teach English. Through the Arts Council of Mongolia, he was able to contact Ganbat and they formed an immediate alliance. The Steve Tromans U-Bop Band, which included Ganbat and Andrew Colwell (double bass, USA), performed weekly at the Mealody Restaurant and Steve and Ganbat opened the Jazz Academy to teach jazz theory and performance. One of their first students was Purevsukh, pianist of A-Sound and Arga Bileg ethno jazz band.
Jazz and the Giant Steppes NGO and International Jazz Festival continue to grow. Festivals have been held in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Previous festivals have included more and more international and Mongolian musicians:
• The Steve Tromans U-Bop Band of (Ulaanbaatar - 2006)
• Bob Bellows (USA - 2006, 2010)
• Northern Lights Quartet (Canada – 2006)
• Northern Lights – Altai-Khangai (Canada/Mongolia 2008).
• Nils Petter Molvaer Trio (Norway - 2008)
• Anar's Trio (Mongolia - 2008).
• Djabe (Hungary - 2008)
• Pause with Khulan Khishgee (Mongolia - 2008).
• Khulan (Mongolia – 2008)
• Naran (Mongolia – 2008)
• Ari Roland Quartet (USA – 2010)
• Eliane Amherd (Switzerland – 2010)
• Tangos, Ballads and More (Norway – 2010)
• Skaidi (Norway – 2010)
• Enkhchimeg (Mongolia/Germany – 2010)
• Arga Bileg ethno jazz band (Mongolia – 2010)
The Giant Steppes Festival’s objectives are those of the Giant Steppes of Jazz NGO – to promote jazz to the general audience in Mongolia as well as to provide jazz education and career development opportunities for Mongolian musicians. Giant Steppes combines performance, workshops, collaborative efforts and nightly jam sessions between Mongolian and International musicians to achieve this. In 2011, the Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival becomes an annual event with another great roster of performers from around the world:
- Marc Brenken-Jean-Yves Braun Quartet (Germany)
- In the Country (Norway)
- Bob Bellows (USA)
- Deb Rasmussen (Canada)
- Purevsukh Pianist of A-Sound (Mongolia)
- Arga Bileg ethno jazz band (Mongolia)
- Enkhmunkh Jazz Singer (Mongolia)
- Chinbat Horn Player (Mongolia)
- Enkhchimeg Flutist (Mongolia)
In between the Giant Steppes of Jazz Festival, the NGO produced several jazz concerts by visiting foreign artists, namely, Ben McDonnell (guitar, UK, 2007), Bruce Petherick (piano, Canada 2007), Bob Bellows (piano/vocals, USA, 2006, 2009), Eliane Amherd (vocals/guitar, Switzerland, 2009).