Malta Jazz Festival: an enduring tradition | Charles ‘is-City’ Gatt

We speak to Charles ‘is-City’ Gatt, veteran jazz drummer and founder of the Malta Jazz Festival ahead of its 23rd edition next week.

Charles 'is-City' Gatt. Photo by Joe P. Smith.
Charles 'is-City' Gatt. Photo by Joe P. Smith.

To say that Charles 'is-City' Gatt has been a fixture of the local jazz scene would be something of an understatement, largely because he's also responsible for creating one of the cornerstones of Maltese musical culture: the Malta Jazz Festival, which he founded in 1990.

Though the veteran jazz drummer (also a painter) no longer helms the Festival - the role of artistic director having ceded to fellow musician Sandro Zerafa in 2009 - he will be performing during this year's edition - ushering in its 23rd edition on 18 July with renowned international performers Gerald Clayton Trio, Logan Richardson and Robert Glasper Experiment.

Gatt, who will be performing with Vibraphone Quintet - consisting of Claudio Angeleri on piano, Rino Cirinná on tenor sax, Mátyás Szandai on bass and Karl Jannuska on drums - recalls how his formative years as a musician eventually led him to the decision to kick-start the Malta Jazz Festival twenty-odd years ago.

"My journey as a musician started with a varied menu of styles from pop to rock, jazz, classical and contemporary percussion. After playing with local musicians and other international artists like Albert Mangelsdorff, Bobby Shew, Bertil Strandberg and Gilbert Holmstrum I was involved with Charles Camilleri's  percussion music and then went to study in Boston."

It was in Boston, while studying at the Berklee College of Music, that 'City' met such luminaries of the jazz scene as Joe Hunt, Pascal Mereilles, Andy Jaffy, David Kikoski while also playing regularly with the Melrose Symphony Orchestra and Joe Makholm Big Band.

Gatt's time at Berklee College was indeed influential: in fact, he claims that the experience was key to his decision to kick-start the Malta Jazz Festival in 1990.

He remains confident that the Festival - being one of the most enduring events on Malta's cultural calendar, having existed for a largely uninterrupted long haul from '90 to the present - has had a direct impact on the 'health' of the local music scene.

"Thanks to the Festival, we have had more musicians, a more receptive audience towards jazz music, bars and restaurants with jazz music, jazz education and even local musicians studying and playing abroad. I think that, directly or indirectly, the Festival has generated work for musicians and more activity in the catering and cultural industry."

But despite the sterling reputation the Malta Jazz Festival enjoys among local music lovers, it actually ran the risk of losing its prestige between 2006 and 2008, when NNG Promotions took over the organisation of the Festival and morphed it into a more 'commerical' venture, rechristening it the 'Rock and Jazz Festival' and populating the lineup with tribute bands and prog rock ensembles, leaving little room for the kind of high-quality contemporary jazz that the Festival had become identified with - both locally and internationally.

Luckily, the Festival is now back to operating on its original brief, and 'City' speaks about its infamous three-year 'lull' with some bemusement. While claiming without and qualms that "whoever tried to change the direction of the jazz Festival did not have enough knowledge of the music or any respect for it," he also admits that "the idea of change is not bad in itself".

"There comes a time in every form of art when changes take place and new movements are created. This happened many times in the short history of jazz. Today there are many young musicians who are trying to break free of idioms and conventional styles in order to attract a wider audience.

"It's impossible, for example, to appreciate Robert Glasper without absorbing  hip-hop, just as 'Bitches Brew' by Miles Davis couldn't be understood without foreknowledge of the music of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown."

But for precisely these reasons, Gatt says that sensitivity to the overall context and history of the musical genre at hand is essential to anyone organising a festival.

"I think that even if an event is to be commercialised in any way, it has to be the artistic coordinator who really knows their job, and not someone who's only in it for the money. When projects of this kind end up in the wrong hands they become self-punishing exercises," Gatt says.

But he appears more than happy about his successor, Sandro Zerafa.

"Like many younger local musicians, Sandro grew up with the Festival. He is a well-schooled musician who knows what's happening. He knows the way."

The Malta Jazz Festival will be taking place at Ta' Liesse, Valletta from 18 to 20 July. For more information log on to