Crazy days in Comblain: How a tiny hamlet nestled deep in the Belgian Ardennes became home to the world’s biggest jazz festival.

From the late 50s through to the mid-60s, Comblain-la-Tour – a small, run-of-the-mill village nestled deep in the Belgian Ardennes – played host to the world’s biggest jazz festival. Spearheaded by Joe Napoli, a returning American soldier whose enduring gratitude to the village residents that had sheltered him and his troops during the War led to the festival seeing the light of day, Comblain saw a roll call of international jazz greats – John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Nina Simone, Stan Getz and Cannonball Adderley – come through. Lander Lenaerts takes a trip down memory lane, speaking to locals and performing artists about the festival’s enduring legacy, its liberating ethos and the lasting impact it had on the country’s jazz scene.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

It’s dead quiet in the streets of Comblain-la-Tour, a small, nondescript village of a few hundred residents some 30 kilometres south of Liège. A cyclist takes a rest, tired from climbing the steep Ardennes hills while further on a lone fisher tries his luck on the banks of the river Ourthe. The silence is only sporadically disrupted by cars driving past on the main road, although none of them crosses the only bridge that leads towards the centre of the village. Fact is, if you have no reason to be in Comblain, it’s the kind of village you pass through without even noticing it exists. With this in mind, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine that this village once hosted the world’s largest jazz festival. Indeed, between 1959 and 1966, some of jazz’s biggest stars – John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Nina Simone, Stan Getz and Cannonball Adderley to name a few – performed here before crowds of tens of thousands of local and international jazz fans. And, as I park my car near the Saint-Clément church, I can’t help glancing at the church’s roof. Because, believe it or not, it was this very roof that kick-started the International Jazz Festival of Comblain-la-Tour.

G.I. Joe

Almost 75 years ago to this day, Joe Napoli strolled through the streets of Comblain-la-Tour. Napoli, then an 18-year-old American soldier, had taken part in the grueling Battle of the Ardennes in December 1944 and, in between combat, his troops were brought back to the villages behind the frontline where they were housed and sheltered by locals. One of these villages was Comblain-la-Tour, a hamlet of Hamoir where the people were so friendly and caring that Joe Napoli would never forget them. Once back in the United States following his tour of duty, Napoli embarked on a career as a jazz impresario, working with such luminary figures as star trumpeter Chet Baker.

Then, whilst touring Europe once in 1955, Napoli insisted to use a pit stop in Belgium to return to the Ardennes to meet up with the very people who had taken care of him a decade earlier. And so it is that, only a few hundred meters away from the church down Rue des Ecoles, I’m only somewhat surprised to see a banner with a drawing of Joe Napoli on the façade of a beautiful white house. Inside, I’m greeted by Irène Pirotton (84) and her daughter Sylvia (49), whose family house was Napoli’s home-away-from-home since his return to Comblain-la-Tour in the 1950s. “One day, a friend came by with Joe, and asked if his American friend could stay with us for a week,” Irène recalls. “Eventually he stayed for 35 years! We got along with him immediately. He visited regularly and even had his own room in our house. He was like a godfather to my children.” Sylvia agrees: “It was a party every time Joe came over, he was like our uncle from America. He’d come two or three weeks every year. He’d even go to the butcher across the street and buy meat for our dogs and cats. He’d just call a few days upfront and say: ‘I’m on my way!’ And we were happy because we knew it would be great.”

“One day, a friend came by with Joe, and asked if his American friend could stay with us for a week. Eventually he stayed for 35 years!”

It was during one of his many trips to Comblain-la-Tour that Napoli told Irène he wanted to do something for the villagers in return for their hospitality. “At that time, he had heard that the roof of the church needed to be repaired, so he wanted to organise a festival to raise money,” Irène recalls. Napoli’s plan for a festival in Comblain was ambitious to say the least. He drew inspiration from the legendary Newport Jazz Festival in America, at the time the most important jazz gathering in the world, organised at a unique outdoor location near the seaside in by Rhode Island’s seaside. Napoli translated that concept to the village of Comblain, where he placed a large colourful tent in the midst of the meadow next to the local football field, surrounded by the hills, rocks and trees of the Ourthe valley. “If Joe started something, he went all the way,” Irène explains. “He was rather persistent in that way.”

Comblain-la-tour, European Capital of Jazz

The very first edition of Comblain-la-Tour’s International Jazz Festival saw the light of day on 2nd August 1959, with over 13 hours of nonstop music courtesy of artists from over a dozen or so countries. You had the Jump College from Belgium, Albert Mangelsdorff from Germany, Hot Club of Warsaw from Poland, Romano Mussolini from Italy (the dictator’s son was one of the country’s finest jazz musicians and even made his international debut at Comblain) and, as the undisputed headliner, Chet Baker from the USA. The honour of opening the festival went to Robert Jeanne, a saxophonist from Liège, who fondly recalls running into Napoli and Nicholas Dor in town one day. “Nicholas introduced me to Napoli and told him I was a musician. To which Joe replied, ‘Nice, why don’t you come and play at the festival?’ Just like that, no contract or anything.” Jeanne remembers his first concert at the festival as a special experience. “It was really impressive. It was early in the day, but there were already two or three thousand people present on that large field. We were used to playing in small cafés around the corner, but this was the first time we played in front of such a big crowd.”

“If Joe started something, he went all the way,” Irène explains. “He was rather persistent in that way.”

Despite the rain – a stubborn tradition at the Comblain-la-Tour festival – the first edition proved to be a resounding success. The numbers vary, but depending on who you ask, between six and ten thousand people attended the festival on that day in 1959 and needless to say, Napoli was already looking to the future. Case in point, over the next couple of years, the festival evolved into a two-day affair, continuing to grow and attract tens of thousands of international music lovers from all over Europe. This uninterrupted run culminated, in 1961, with the festival being attended by a crowd of 30,000, which was more than the festival of Newport recorded that same year. Comblain-la-Tour was now officially the biggest jazz festival in the world.

More funfair than festival

One of the many jazz fans in the audience was Jean-Marie Van Grudenberg (82), an avid jazz collector since he was thirteen years old. Working for the record company Vogue, Jean-Marie attended Comblain to accompany some of the label’s artists on and off stage, giving him the opportunity to attend the festival from the front row and to photograph and meet some of his favourite jazz musicians. “Comblain was formidable. I saw some incredible things down there. Chet Baker, Jimmy McGriff and Benny Goodman,” says Jean-Marie. “At night we didn’t sleep, we were too busy drinking beers with one musician or another. One time I tried to sleep under the stage, but it was full of people. You had drunk musicians trying to play but they were so far away that it sounded horrible. Other people were just sleeping on the sidewalk, you had to be careful not to run them over,” Jean-Marie recalls with much laughter. “Nobody ever imagined that it would become that big. And it rained so terribly hard at every edition.

One time, singer Diana Dors was booked, wearing a beautiful long dress. Organisers had put some shelves on the ground for her to walk on, but they were quickly submerged by mud. We literally had to carry her on stage. Incredible.” he muses. “Back then, the youth was still somewhat oppressed, and Comblain was the first time that they could free themselves up,” explains tenor saxophonist Robert Jeanne. “It was a beautiful gathering of young people who had never seen anything like this before,” tells musician André Brasseur, who performed numerous times at the festival. “It was a great encounter of people, to show who they were, to enjoy music, to sing and to dance.” Comblain’s reputation soon spread to international music spheres, surprising even the international press.

“Back then, the youth was still somewhat oppressed, and Comblain was the first time that they could free themselves.”

Indeed, in its 1962 review of the festival, the leading French magazine Jazz Hot referred to Comblain-la-Tour as La Kermesse Belge. As they put it back then, “The manifestation of Comblain-la-Tour is more unfair than it is a jazz festival. It takes place in a meadow of 4 hectares, divided into two parts, with the front part reserved for the actual concerts and the back part devoted to stalls that pretty much sell anything: cigarettes, drinks, sandwiches, cheese, cakes and above all fries – those famous fries with mustard which the public consumes impressively.” Comblain’s reputation was cemented.

La mère Mussolini, in my shop!

For the people of Comblain-la-Tour, the arrival of the festival was an astonishing experience. For a few days every summer, their otherwise quaint and quiet village became a world of its own. And, as welcoming as they had been to Joe Napoli and his soldiers during the War, they embraced the arrival of the festival just as much by actively participating in it. “The village was literally invaded,” recalls Robert Jeanne, “and people opened their own little shops, selling waffles and the likes.” Irène, too, saw her close village community transform. “Some of the villagers worked as volunteers for the festival or would pick up the artists from the airport. A friend of mine babysat on Chet Baker’s son when he was here.” Irène didn’t have much time to attend the festival herself unfortunately as she was too busy running her grocery store in the centre. “Let me tell you, during the three or four days around the festival, we were short of hands. The store would completely sell out in a day’s time and at night our liquor would be raided. When Mussolini’s son played, his mother was here. La mère Mussolini, in my shop! It was crazy, crazy, crazy,” Irène recalls with much pleasure.

For a few days every summer, the otherwise quaint and quiet village became a world of its own.

“Playing in such an environment definitely influenced your work as an artist”

The International Jazz Festival of Comblain-la-Tour was not only a great way for jazz fans to see their favourite artists live, but also boosted the local Belgian jazz scene, exemplifying the impact a festival can have on its immediate musical and artistic ecosystem. Indeed, Comblain was the place where bass player Benoît Quersin played with Bud Powell, where Chet Baker asked saxophonist Jacques Pelzer from Liège to join him on a tour through Italy or where Philip Catherine, aged merely 16, showed himself to the jazz world for the first time. Truth is, Comblain’s unique setting encouraged Belgian jazz musicians to surpass themselves. “When you’re asked to play that kind of gig, you prepare better, you’re more focused. You just make sure you’re good because you don’t get these kinds of offers every day. Comblain surely opened doors for me,” explains Robert Jeanne, who played there four times.

André Brasseur, the now-legendary Hammond organist from Namur, agrees. “Playing in such an environment definitely influenced your work as an artist. It gave us a feeling of freedom, of grandeur.” Originally a pianist, Brasseur’s performance at the 1962 edition actually set his career off on a different, and defining, path. “That year I did my military service, and was asked to put together an orchestra of soldiers to represent the Belgian army at Comblain-la-Tour. We rehearsed at the Petit-Château in Brussels, but obviously, there were no instruments there, so we had to rent them out. I had always been drawn to the sound of the Hammond organ, and it turned out that the price to rent one was the same as for a piano. So I chose the organ, and it was fantastic!”

As it were, this tiny, seemingly banal occurrence would, to a certain extent, go on to shape Belgian music history as, in 1965, Brasseur released his iconic instrumental single Early Bird which, thanks to its unique Hammond sound, became a worldwide hit. Because of that, Brasseur was booked at the Comblain festival again that summer. “NBC wanted to broadcast our concert live from the festival. So I asked my orchestra to put on their stage costumes. But the crowd in Comblain was largely made of jazz purists, and they didn’t know yet what kind of music we played. So we said to ourselves, ‘Whatever happens, we just keep on playing.’ We ended up getting pelted with just about everything, including tomatoes, but we kept on playing. After that, we played a few jazz songs and everybody was happy.”

Truth is, Comblain’s unique setting encouraged Belgian jazz musicians to surpass themselves.

Sacred ground

Time, it seems, has stopped in Comblain-la-Tour. Next to the train station, a modernist statue of three jazz musicians – a gift from sculptor Georges Paulus to Napoli – greets incoming tourists. On the other side of the river, a little house carries a weatherworn sign that reads “Festival Building – A Joe Napoli Production.” And just two hundred meters down the road, next to the local football field, lies a wide-open meadow surrounded by the breath-taking hills that border the Ourthe valley. This is it. This is the original spot where the festival took place during those eight crazy years, and it still looks exactly the way it did sixty years ago. Alongside the festival field sits Camping le Rocher de la Vierge, that already existed when the festival took place. “Originally, I had a farm right here,” says Alois Quoilin (86) when I meet him inside the camping’s cafeteria, “and tourists would come to ask if they could put their tent up here. I always agreed, but the mayor complained because I didn’t have a license. So I just opened a camping.”

Little did Alois know that an international festival was about to take place on the grounds next to his new camping site. “I was completely overrun when the festival began. The cafeteria didn’t even have a roof yet, it was made of plastic sheets. People came from just about everywhere – Holland, Germany – and they just put their tents up everywhere, one on top of each other. They all stayed for free because it was completely unmanageable for me to welcome all those people. Luckily they came to buy drinks.” Nowadays the camping is managed by Alois’ son André (49), who is too young to have witnessed the festival, yet regularly shouts “C’était la folie!” during our conversation as if he experienced it himself. “My mother was a nurse at the Croix Rouge and worked at the festival,” André enthusiastically explains, “and they were short of hands. People jumped in the Ourthe, butt naked and drinking,” Alois nods. “At night, people were so drunk they couldn’t find their tents. Those who didn’t bring a tent ended up sleeping on my farm, where they smoked all kinds of things, des herbes et tout. I was so afraid,” Alois recalls, visibly still somewhat bewildered.

The mother of all festivals

In 1966, Napoli organised the last edition of his festival in Comblain-la-Tour, but nobody seems to exactly know why. “In the end, people wanted to be paid. They had initially worked voluntarily, but those things never last,” explains Irène Pirotton. “I believe there were arguments over money, but we’ve never exactly known what happened.” Whatever the case, by that time, Comblain had earned its nickname as being “The Mother of All Festivals”. André Brasseur recalls, “From 1963 and 1964 onwards, you could see similar, albeit smaller, festivals appear.” In 1965, for instance, the first edition of Jazz Bilzen was organised in the Province of Limburg, which would eventually go on to become Europe’s largest rock festival, attracting up to 28,000 visitors at its height. Then, in 1976, came Werchter, one of the world’s most revered festivals. “Comblain was the basis of festivals as we now know them,” Brasseur concludes.

“In the end, people wanted to be paid. They had initially worked voluntarily, but those things never last.”

Even after the festival’s ending, Napoli f,aithfully returned to Comblain-la-Tour every year, until one day in 1989. “Joe had plans to start a festival again, but he passed away all of a sudden,” says Sylvia Pirotton. “He called me one day and said ‘Irène, I can’t come to Comblain because my legs hurt and I need to go to the hospital.’ And that was the last time I heard of him,” Irène continues. Up to this day, the village of Comblain longs to revive its golden years. “We started the festival again in 2009 to celebrate its 50 year anniversary,” continues Sylvia. “It’s a bit ironic, because the new festival lasted exactly as long as the original one, until 2016. But it was simply financially unviable.”

Her mother reminisces further. “We will never forget those times. It was an interesting chapter in our lifetime. We felt so young, with that jazz music that sounded so new to us, oh la la! Before the festival, Comblain was just a village like any other. It’s thanks to Joe that they heard about us all the way in America.” Her daughter agrees. “If I go on a holiday and tell people older than me that I’m from Comblain-la-Tour, they always say they went to the festival. And they talk about Joe Napoli.” As I prepare to leave the village, I’m approached by a kid on a bike, curious about what I’m doing there. Before I can finish the sentence, he interrupts: “You know, a very long time ago, there used to be a festival here,” the kid says, attesting to the festival’s enduring reputation amongst the village’s residents, and the place it still holds in their heart.