Born into an orphanage in Rotterdam and adopted at six months, Michael Varekamp did not discover his true lineage until the age of 35.
Nonetheless, he felt his birth mother’s Jewish blood and his birth father’s jazz genetics flowing through his veins from the very first day he picked up a horn.
“I was about ten when I started playing the recorder,” Varekamp recalls. “After a couple of years, I had this intuition that the trumpet was the ‘right’ instrument for me.”
While most children are drawn to clunking out pop songs on the guitar or forced to memorize solfège during after-school piano lessons, there was something oddly alluring about the brassy growls of a trumpet for the aspiring Dutch musician.
Varekamp attributes his unique passion to the late, great Louis Armstrong, to whom he will pay tribute on June 21 at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in Tel Aviv.
“I first heard Louis when I was sorting through my father’s record collection. My father only had one of his albums, The [Complete] Town Hall Concert of 1947. That album was a wakeup call from some greater power; it stuck with me to this day.”
At a young age, Varekamp had already started piecing together his black and musical identities through jazz, which he later found out were shared traits with his birth father, who was a saxophone player.
Fittingly, he started feeling an unspoken connection to his religious roots around the time a young Jewish boy traditionally becomes a man.
At 13, while other boys his age were practicing their parashot, Varekamp was practicing for his very first bandleader gig: fronting a small jazz band that performed at birthday parties and similar events – an ‘improvised’ bar mitzva one might say.
“That’s when the fun part started,” his tone softens.
These gigs spearheaded the budding bandleader’s career, both locally and internationally.
Not only was Varekamp having fun as he took his trumpet on the road, he was meeting tons of interesting musicians around the world. This opened up his mind to his own origin story, and in turn, encouraged him to set out on a search for his birth parents.
“I had this theory since the age of 16 that I might be Jewish,” Varekamp explains.
When he finally found his birth mother at 35, who happened to live not too far away in Holland, Varekamp also found out that his theory of Jewish-ness was, in fact, a reality.
From where did that theory stem? Varekamp believes that “it had to do with feeling comfortable with the idea of understanding your people. I met some people while traveling in Israel, and I just knew it; I strongly felt it was my place.”
Interestingly enough, the jazz trumpeter’s Judaism was stitched into the history of his next gig with the Dutch Swing College Band. Like many cultural fields in Europe during World War II, jazz music was banned in the Netherlands. Following the war, a secret group of young musicians realized their shared dream to found a music school, which they called the Swing College.
Speaking about the band’s history brought to mind his recurring nightmares about concentration camps as a child.
“I played a concert in December at Bergen-Belsen and had the same nightmares at 28, but the tour helped me come full circle, and strengthen my Jewish identity.”
Just shy of 50, Varekamp is heading to the Holy Land to rekindle his religious bonds with the country and musical bonds with the band – and Armstrong by extension.
The challenge in paying homage to such a monumental figure in jazz history is capturing that extraordinarily charismatic stage presence. “What’s amazing about Louis is that he’s not just a player, he’s a messenger of humanity. That’s what I try to emulate. In the essence of jazz music, one cannot be shy,” Varekamp explains.
Stage presence: check. Trumpet chops: check. So how does one set themselves apart from the thousands of other tribute bands and make Satchmo’s music their own? Varekamp strongly believes that it is his responsibility as a jazz musician to express his own musical style within Armstrong’s scores.
“It’s all about adding your own touch and creating your own path within that genre,” he says. “When I play Louis, I want people to see my rendition. Not just as a copier, but as an artist.”
For instance, in his upcoming set in Tel Aviv, he has chosen to introduce two trumpeters into the mix to spice things up. And despite having visited Israel many times before, Varekamp has quite the hopeful goals for the New Orleans Jazz Festival this month.
“I think that this particular style of music makes people happy. It gives power and joy – something we could all use a little more of. There has also been this evolution of jazz music that is more of an interior process.
It’s more egocentric: you’re standing up and saying ‘look at me, let me play a twenty minute solo and you’ll see exactly how I feel.’” “This old music needs some freshening up. It started during a really rough time, where people used swing to keep their spirits up. It’s a good time to lift spirits in Israel. That’s what I’m looking forward to most.”Michael Varekamp performs his tribute to Louis Armstrong with the Dutch College Swing Band at the New Orleans Jazz Festival on June 21. For tickets, visit hotjazz.co.il
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