Aiming to get better, faster, lighter; both physically and mentally

Dimitri Vassilakis

Jazz Democracy

Text: Dimitra Kehagia || Photographs: Dimitri Vassilakis' archive
Dimitri Vassilakis
Dimitri Vassilakis

If he had to single out a jazz album that would be Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a difficult pick out of a really long list that includes albums by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Dexter Gordon.

He has performed at dozens stages in various countries of the world, he is considered a regular in New York and London, but the most memorable experience of his career took place in South Africa, «in this mother-continent for jazz music, too», according to the sax player Dimitri Vassilakis.

“There, I played alongside great Abdullah Ibrahim at Pretoria’s State Theater, but also in the slums of Johannesburg, in Alexandra township, where I had a unique experience: as I was improvising with my sax in the middle of the street, some kids stopped playing football, formed a circle around me and started dancing and hugging me. I will never forger this incident! At their age, nothing could have made me take a pause from playing football.”

Since 2013, he has been promoting the idea of “Jazz Democracy”, through speeches and presentations showcased in TEDx events, festivals and TV programs. “The fact that jazz musicians, regardless of color, education, age, language, gender or cultural status, are performing before the audience in the four corners of the planet, in a state of equity and creative discourse, with mutual respect and meritocracy, makes us wonder how things would turn out if we implemented these ideas into politics and the social sphere of everyday life. We can learn a lot from the complex yet expressive language of jazz,” explains Dimitri Vassilakis, who is delving into jazz’s connection with artificial intelligence, neuroscience and robotics.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that he has been a member of the Delphic Games Festival committee for 20 years now, having showcased events of music, poetry, dance, theater and visual arts, as well as experimental multi-performances that make use of new media and artificial intelligence.

The improvisation and the mapping of jazz language are among his research interests, within the framework of neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics, in close collaboration with two prestigious universities based on Atlanta, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. In addition, he works as a teacher and a researcher at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, focusing on jazz improvisation and A.I.

Dimitri Vassilakis was the first Greek to earn a contract with a top-notch international jazz record label. “It happened in 1998, as I was in search for a record label to release my debut album, in London. I had a few rejections, but I ended up being accepted by the cream of the crop. It was a mesmerizing moment that makes you feel as if endless possibilities have opened up. A huge responsibility fell upon my shoulders, as Candid Records is a legendary jazz label, with a great history in social and racial justice struggles, and iconic names such as Charles Mingus, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach under its belt.”

In 2018, he had the chance to present “Jazz Democracy” before the United Nations following an invitation by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the occasion of the International Jazz Day; an invitation he considers a great honor. However, he detects a lack of support on the part of the Greek state in the fields of art and research. “We see other countries having set up programs that offer support to artists. I would love to see an organized effort taking place in Greece, too,” he goes on to say.

He believes that Greek audience loves jazz and stresses out the good level of work carried out in music schools, in the fields of both traditional music and overall education and cultural upbringing. The point is to “support and promote the educational system, art venues, festivals and mobility”, according to Dimitri Vassilakis.

In the 80s, he played the bass and was the frontman in a punk/new wave/electro/pop band called “Art of Parties”, alongside his brother Pantelis Vassilakis and his classmates from the Evangelical School of Nea Smirni, Thanos Economou, Giorgos Orfanoudakis, and later on Kostas Kyriakidis and Giorgos Katsoufis. Recently, they have performed some gigs, in the form of a reunion, releasing old material. Taking part in a band is “the hunt of the forever elusive teenage dream, which fuels you up, urging you to seek answers through art,” he points out.

He has always been a fervent admired of the great jazz musicians for their profound knowledge and sheer power of expression, and entering the world of jazz felt like being swept away by a strong current that carried him into an ocean of self quest. “The way I see it you have to keep moving – each of us has a different destination – aiming to get better, faster, lighter; both physically and mentally. The goal is to get wiser and younger as years go by.” What does it take though to perform jazz on a high level? The training and the devotion of an athlete, the mental concentration of a yogi, as well as the creativity, the resourcefulness and the humor of a storyteller, is the answer by Dimitri Vassilakis. “And coming to terms with the fact that you may not be able to earn a decent living,” he goes on to add. His son, Nestoras, follows in the footsteps of his father, studying at Guildhall to become a jazz sax player. “Parenthood is a far tougher challenge than being a mentor or a teacher”, he concludes.