A Swiss Family Tradition
Since meeting as Berklee students during the mid-1980s, marrying in 1990, and settling in Fritz Renold’s native Switzerland, Fritz and Helen Savari-Renold have been tireless music educators and promoters of contemporary music abroad. They have cultivated ties with top American musicians and brought dozens to the Swiss canton of Aargau for their Jazzaar festival that marks its 25th anniversary in April.
In addition to fostering a love for African-American-based music among the countless students Fritz has taught at the Kantonsschule in nearby Aarau, the three Renold children—Lydia, Ben, and Sharon—also developed a passion for music. Lydia and Sharon have since followed in their parents’ footsteps to Berklee. Ben, a drummer in a Swiss rock band, may yet come enroll. For years, all five family members have worked together to fulfill the vision of Jazzaar as a music education program unlike any other in Europe.
Jazzaar had its genesis in the band Bostonian Friends formed by Fritz at Berklee with French pianist Christian Jacob ’86. Fritz began bringing the group to Europe annually. He and Swiss trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti decided to include Swiss students from the Kantonsschule big band on the tours and offer them a chance to learn on the bandstand, emulating an American jazz tradition. In a new venture dubbed Bands Across the Sea, Fritz organized the 1992 lineup to include him and Jerry Bergonzi ’68 on saxophone, trumpeters Ambrosetti and Wayne Naus ’76, bassist Gildas Boclé ’85, drummer Tommy Campbell ’79, and Jacob on piano. The project was later named Jazzaar.
“This is an amazing learning opportunity for the young students to tour and perform with American jazz musicians,” Helen says. “They sit beside the pros working on the music and then emulate them and become motivated.” In addition to rehearsals and concerts, the mentoring includes lessons, workshops, and clinics with the guests artists. Broadening the vision, the Renolds opened auditions to students from all 26 Swiss cantons for what became known in 1994 as the Swiss Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Helen shares that the approach to Jazzaar is akin to Albert Bandura’s theories about children learning by observing and modeling the practices of others. “I’ve seen this work in sports and music,” Helen says. “We had this vision for teaching music and we want more people to know about it.”
The Renold children grew up watching and working with musicians such as Benny Golson, Billy Cobham, Randy Brecker, Buster Williams, Gary Burton, Adam Nussbaum, Richard Bona, and more. The artists are also frequent guests at the Renold home in the hills of Schönenwerd. The girls grew up on the set at Jazzaar experiencing bandstand learning with top role models. “Each time we started the production for the festival, the kids were always on the set,” Helen says. “They’ve been exposed to this approach for their entire lives, and it was the most natural thing for them to pick up an instrument and just play.” All three kids started out playing piano and singing and before choosing a musical direction. Lydia is currently a Contemporary Writing and Production major at Berklee, and she is interested in composing. Sharon chose electric bass after watching a bass player in a Jazzaar gospel concert at five. She’s now a performance major at Berklee.
For a quarter-century, Fritz and Helen have managed the musical and logistical challenges of the festival, including securing state and private funding. They are currently looking toward more private sponsorship. State funds have come with requests to alter the Renold’s educational philosophy by using local guest musicians.
“There is another level of musicianship that the American players bring to the festival,” Fritz says. “So we are looking to American sponsors and foundations to help. There are advocates of European jazz here who frown on what we are doing with American musicians. But we feel that if our students are going to make a living in music, they will have to compete in the international scene as the American artists do.”
Fritz and Helen choose festival themes, write and orchestrate new music, and produce the weeklong event. The April 2017 festival will feature a blues night with guest artist Booker T. Jones and Sharon Renold will be the bassist. Lydia is among those shouldering music writing chores.
“Their roles in the festival have increased as they’ve grown,” Helen says. “They are involved beforehand, they always perform and then help with post production of the recordings of the concerts.” (The live recording from the 2016 festival Heaven Help Us All, reached number 23 on the January JazzWeek charts.)
Fritz reflects, “Our kids have become associate producers of the festival. They’d like to take this over one day.” All indications are that Lydia and Sharon will be up to the task.