October 26, 2010

Night Life in the Walled City

Ferrara is a medieval city, constructed primarily during the period between 1100 and 1400 CE when the Estense family ruled the Po River delta region. As primary suppliers of grain, cheese, fruit and produce to the Florentine Renaissance empire, this city played a crucial role in maintaining the lavish lifestyle valued by those empowered during the time of this cultural pinnacle. As this brilliant rebirth of arts and culture diminished, so did the privilege of the Estense family fizzle into stardust. Ferrara's construction ceased, stilled despite time's passing, to stand as a monument to a time in Italian culture that valued beauty above much else.
From a Romanesque-style cathedral and a moated castle gracing its center piazza to twenty-foot walls with gates and turrets surrounding its perimeter, Ferrara still holds magical echoes of fairy tale mystique as compared with more recent American constructions. After dark, the intricately laid brick structures of walls, gates, palazzos and porticoes are illuminated by golden floodlights that lend a glow to the architecture.

When my father and I discovered that the local university's music conservatory had created a jazz initiative, we were intrigued to hear some of the musicians whom the department has both attracted and produced. Music history, when brought to life by its players, can display a richness similar to the kind flaunted by long-standing palazzos. Last night, we visited Monday Night Jazz Sessions at the Torrione to discover more.

This building, erected in the 1300s as a watchtower to protect the city against potential Turkish invasion, stands at the mouth of Corso Porta Mare, the road that 'leads to the ocean'. It is impressively round and solid from the outside. We run up the external staircase that leads to the second story entrance; a northeasterly wind from Yugoslavia, the Bora, is blowing through the only open alpine channel down the Adriatic Sea and filling the temperate fall air with a decisive chill. Once inside, the ingenious architecture is revealed. This massive tower has twenty sides, laid in hand-made bricks and upheld by oak posts and beams that still hold together thanks to their original wooden pegs. We look up at the ceiling in awe and notice the marks of chisels on the hand-hewn beams. "Per fortuna", my dad explains, "luckily the Turks did not invade, or this building might not be standing today".
Here is the Torrione:

We move curiously through the space, completely set up in the round with small black bistro tables both on the floor and on a balcony above us, each adorned with a single candle. When we encounter a twisting staircase and wind down into the first floor, we are met by a humming bar scene populated by bohemian characters between their thirties and sixties who are sipping cocktails and glasses of Italian wines. I look at the drink list and realize that local establishments in Italy can flaunt wines that local vinters will never release for export because they are the gems of their vineyards. I feel like I have stumbled into a treasure trove of counter-cultural delight.

The stereo system is blasting tunes by Tower of Power and sparkling laughter dominates the basement bar room, once a munitions storehouse whose ceiling still boasts an impossible spiral of bricks. We walk back upstairs to find seats not yet labeled with the tag "riservato" and explore the black and white photo exhibit along the round walls of legendary performers who have visited during the forty years that the nearby Bologna Jazz Festival has taken place. As people settle into their seats, I smile at the uniquely Italian fashion that surrounds me: men wearing jeans that might seem obscene to more conservative eyes; women with straight black hair and arched black eyebrows wearing anything elegantly, from baubled chains to flowery perfume and low-cut dresses. Thankfully, I already went to one of manh local shoe stores and found a classic pair of tall leather boots to place an Italian seal on my American wardrobe. The ones who stand out to me are a group of four women, two of whom appear to be natural blondes. I know that my alma mater, Middlebury College, hosts a semester abroad program in Ferrara. I imagine that they belong to that crew. They end up leaving before the evening's conclusion.
It's an ideal jazz venue:

As the music starts, the bartender pulls up a stool and sips his own glass of red, which Italians call calice di vino, a chalice of wine. The sound tech, dressed in a skin-tight black shirt that offsets his full head of dark curls, steps up to one of the on-stage microphones and welcomes the band, comprised of docents from the Conservatory. They are a hap-hazard group of men, some utterly polished in silk shirts and ponytails, others hopelessly bedraggled in adidas sneakers and rumpled vests. Despite their mis-matched appearance, they communicate seamlessly during the soul quintet set that starts with Horace Silver and bops the night away through Charles Mingus and ends with Cannonball Adderly. My father and I are tapping are toes and clapping alongside everyone else. When other locals are invited to the stage for a jam session, the audience turns even more lively and the round tower is energized by the convivial weaving of timeless cultural traditions.

Jazz Club Ferrara closes its soiree announcing future engagements and inviting us to attend the upcoming Bologna Jazz Festival, where Sonny Rollins will celebrate his 80th birthday. Two nights ago, I visited a local brewery that was recently opened by one of my friends from elementary school and listened to young people talk about Ferrara's lack-luster night life. Yet, last night, I sensed a secret brilliance radiating from the burgeoning jazz scene at the Torrione, medieval bastion turned house of swing.

For details, visit www.jazzclubferrara.com

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