Susan Greenwood is wooed by the sounds of jazz as they echo off snow-bound mountains at a high-altitude festival.
'One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?" I was mulling this Bix Beiderbecke quote as I stared into the darkness outside Bad Hofgastein station. It was 11.30pm, I had no cash, no phone reception and a cab number that didn't work. I sat on my bag and wondered what the hell was going to happen next. After a while a car pulled up. The elderly driver said, "I have a daughter," and drove me to my hotel without another word.
Bad Hofgastein, in the Austrian Alps, is spa town first, ski town second. Bad Hofgastein, Bad Gastein and Dorfgastein make up a 220-kilometre ski area. But I am here for the jazz. You don't instantly think of Austria when you think of jazz. Yet for 11 years these towns have hosted the 10-day Snow Jazz Gastein festival (this year's is from March 15-24), at which some of the most creative musicians in the business play at venues in the valley and on the mountain. More than 6000 jazz fans descend for the festival: the 2013 theme is "Bella Italia" and performers will include pianist Antonio Farao and duo Musica Nuda.
Do not allow the oompah band in your hotel reception to put you off. There are musical rules to be broken in Bad Hofgastein.
My own musical education began the following night in Bad Gastein, 10 kilometres away. From the waterfall in its centre, I headed up tiny streets to the glittering casino, with its plush red curtains and giant chandeliers. On the stage stood an instrument that looked pretty much like a glockenspiel. I admit it - I judged.
It took Joe Locke and the New York Explosion about three minutes to change my mind. The American vibraphonist (the instrument does look like a glockenspiel) created a stream of jumping notes, darting around scales like flies in a jam jar. People craned their necks to see and packed into every space to listen.
Next morning, I grabbed my skis and headed for the slopes. Spring slush was fun and entertaining, although on the wobbly 140-metre Stubnerkogel suspension bridge, altitude 2300 metres, the wind whipped icily. I happily made my way to the Kleine Scharte restaurant in Bad Hofgastein to check out the Dixie Boys. The sun-drenched terrace had a 180-degree view of snowy mountains - not the usual backdrop for a band with strong bluegrass vibes.
"Are you here for the music?" I asked a table of lads drinking large beers. "Nope," one replied. "But it sure helps drown out the wind."
I sat in the bar later on with a group of women on a well-being jaunt - skiing plus spa visits - pondering which band to see that night. I favoured some New York free-form jazz over a more classical quartet in Bad Gastein. But I had time first for the Alpentherme spa (alpentherme.com/en), the well-being girls' favourite spot.
Sagewerk (jazz-im-saegewerk.org) is a venue in a former barn up a winding side street. From cold, dark silence into heaving, throbbing musicality - it was like jumping head-first into the rabbit hole. A strong New York accent silenced the crowd. The opening phrase of Mark Whitecage's alto sax heralded an extraordinary evening with Nu Band as curators.
Back at the bar of my hotel, the Palace Kur- & Sport-Hotel, entertainer Bruno was deeply into an interpretative Status Quo medley on keyboards. Now, I really didn't know that was going to happen. Does that make it jazz?
Getting there Austrian Airlines has a fare to Innsbruck from Melbourne and Sydney from about $2297 low-season return, including taxes. Fly with a partner airline via Bangkok and Vienna; see austrian.com. From Innsbruck, trains travel daily to Bad Hofgastein; see oebb.at.
Staying there The Palace Kur- & Sport-Hotel, Bad Hofgastein, has rooms from €90 ($114) a night; see kurhotelpalace.at.
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