Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jazz in Germany (Essay)

" If we cannot conquer the communist world with weapons, we will do it with the jazz trumpet."

--British Field Marshall Montgomery

What was the most important event in German history between 1980 and 2000? That's easy: the destruction of the Berlin wall. What was the worst thing that happened to German jazz musicians in the same era? Same answer. Tearing down the Berlin wall. Many Germans want to put the wall back up, and not just jazz musicians.

The wall itself was just a symbol for the divided Germany, whereas it was reunification that put the German government so far in the hole that arts funding had to be sliced into like a Bavarian ham thigh. The jazz scene on either side of the wall had much in common with the train system in Germany, and America for that matter. Neither jazz nor choo choo can pay its own way.

Musicians would earn less than dishwashers if it was left up to the public. In the old East German system a guaranteed wage was provided for those players who had been approved by an official panel of appointed music experts, a process that sounds threatening but is really is not much worse than getting a big name booker to touch a demo tape. Similar panels existed to green light new jazz clubs or performance spaces, some of which were like social meeting halls. In West Germany, a similar process had helped create a network of youth clubs, performing art centers and other venues, in villages as well as big cities

The post-war era was when the German "trad" jazz scene ruled whichever local gasthaus could put up with it, but from the 60's onward free jazz became a popular mode of expression. In the west it was seen as a music of rebellion and freedom. The fever took hold on both sides of the wall, and ironically, free jazz was something communists and capitalists seemed to agree about. Some eastern bloc governments regarded free jazz as a musical attack on the western capitalist system, and decided to encourage it. This included the ultra-repressive Caecescu government in Romania.

Among European nations, Germany was the king of free jazz. Not everyone was thrilled with this in an era when animosity between the old and new was at a height. Guitarist Attila Zoller, up til then one of the few German jazz musicians to make a name for himself in the United States, took strong exception to the music of young Peter Brotzmann. Despite Zoller's his own barbaric first name, he actually comparied Brotzmann to a Hun gone berserking.

Others looked for positive rather than negative connections between free jazz and the country's history, finding free jazz to part of a tradition of self-criticism dating back to Goethe. Original players such as guitarist and instrument inventor Hans Reichel, saxophonist Rudiger Carl, bassist Peter Kowald, and Brotzmann were furthermore part of a Ruhr Valley Style based on the idea that inhabitants of this overly populated, extremely busy industrial region had a special kind of energy sucked in from the surroundings, industrial pollution included.

Another explanation that has been offered for the popularity of free jazz in Germany is other styles of jazz required a feeling for playing the blues, something East Germans in particular were said to lack. "We really cannot play the blues. It is really quite impossible," was a stock explanation for this cultural drawback offered to musicians visiting East Germany. The sounds of an East German blues club might back up such an opinion, but it still runs contrary to the notion of blues being played best by people who have actually suffered. And suffering was how most jazz musicians on the German scene in the 70's and 80's would have described their lot, east or west. Little did they know they were actually really thriving compared to the future.

East German jazz players wound up feeling like they had been dropped off the edge of a cliff. The entire government program supporting them literally vanished overnight. It was also like waking up to every jazz recording company out of business, since the state-operated recording monopoly Amiga had been flushed down the drain along with the rest of the eastern bloc.

In West Germany, foreign musicians were hurt by the cutbacks as well as German passport holders. West Germany's arts subsidies had stuffed the wallets of many jazz and avant garde players from the United States, Japan and other European nations. Prior to the reunification, some of these musicians estimated a third of their income was Deutsch marks in a given year. Smaller audiences in all parts of Germany for jazz or improvised music events was also part of the cash crash. In the former Eastern bloc countries this was interpreted as a depressing trend in which the newly liberated youth embrace mainstream culture and in the words of Czech organizer Borek Halacek, "are no longer the slightest bit interested in anything alternative."

Falling subsidies were the largest problem for organizations such as Free Music Productions, a Berlin-based record label and concert organization responsible for much politically important musical interaction between East and West German improvisers. Its festivals such as the Total Music Meeting had always been well attended, but were never able to rely on ticket sales to pay all expenses. By 2000, FMP was in such bad financial condition it almost aborted its annual events-in the end, the festivals took place with musicians donating their services for free, a situation that would have been unheard of in the fat funding days. The creation of new enterprises with as epic a scope as the FMP catalog seemed unlikely in the future, although new jazz labels did crop up in Germany. These ranged from wee enterprises such as Grob which burn limited editions to the ambitious Between the Lines, a label backed by a German bank and windmill manufacturer.

The large scale jazz festival scene did continue, although Germans complained the events had gotten more expensive and too commercial. Compared to the United States, on the other hand, Germany would still seem to have many darn good festivals, no wall or no wall. These include events in Berlin, Nurnburg and Munich and the summer Moers Jazz Festival in the Ruhr. Sadly, the latter event's important improvisation project was scaled back drastically.

Darmstadt also holds an annual Jazzforum in which professionals convene in panels to discuss topics such as the changes in the jazz scene since the old days. There was the time, for example, when East German jazz drumming legend Gunter 'Baby' Sommer was finally allowed to come to West Berlin for the Free Music Workshop. He sat in the dimly lit café of the Berlin Latin Quarter club and watched a waitress calmly mash down the remains of a candle with an entirely new one. "In the east, we have no candles at all, so we would keep every scrap. In the west, they just put another candle on top of the old one and waste it," Sommer observed. That was the late 70's. By the late 80's, musicians from the east such as the trombone blowing brothers Johannes and Connie Bauer were no longer comparing candles with their West German brethren, but the scarcity of gigs. Total Music Meeting had become almost Total Lack of Gigs.

This no doubt made the increase in interest in European jazz among the American audience in this period all the more exciting, especially since it is said that

the dream of every German boy is to travel to America. Players would have gladly hitched themselves to covered wagons if that was necessary. Some German musicians had toured the states in the 80's--most notably the crazed Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartet with Reichel, Carl, the fire-breathing East German alto saxophonist Ernst Ludwig Petrowsky and goofy drummer Sven-Ake Johansen-but activity of this nature increased tenfold in the 90's. The most ambitious of these treks was that of bassist Peter Kowald, who claims to have landed 20 gigs in one night simply by posting his intentions on the internet. He not only likes to drive a band, but also likes to drive, period. Amongst German jazz musicians, it is known as "pulling a Kowaldsky" if one decides to drive home at night after the last gig of a tour no matter how far away home happens to be. Kowald arranged to buy a station wagon upon his arrival in America in 1999 and was off touring coast to coast for the next two months. He estimated that he performed with some five dozen different American improvisers and got in one car wreck in the process, all in all a much more successful tour then it would have been had these figures been reversed.

The amazing synthesizer player Thomas Lehn also toured in the late 90's with American percussionist Gerry Hemingway under the cartoonish name of Tom and Gerry. Big sound and big man, tenor saxophonist Brotzmann proved himself to be just as big a draw in the USA as any American free jazzer. And in a slight bit of payback, he was one of the few German players to benefit from some form of American funding, namely the McArthur grant that Chicago musician Ken Vandermark decided to spend a wad of mounting a Brotzmann large band tour.

The most famous German jazz musician of them all, the virtuoso trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff who comfortable in both free and swing styles, easily held onto his international reputation while doing most of his playing in Germany. He consolidated his considerable power on the scene by taking over as musical director of Jazzfest Berlin in the early 90's. and finally got to make a recording with one of his big influences, saxophonist Lee Konitz. What is considered a relative lack of animosity between young and old generations of players in Germany is often credited to the senior statesman Mangelsdorff's calm and engaging personality, setting a good example -- which is a lot more than anyone can say for Brotzmann! ~ Eugene Chadbourne

by Eugene Chadbourne


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