May 28, 2024

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I am a seeker. Rolf Kühn survived as a child the Nazi period in Leipzig. Later he became famous as a jazz musician: Video

Although he has little time between recording studio, jazz arrangements and clarinet practice, Rolf Kühn makes an exception that day to tell from his life. “There he comes,” the waiter of the Italian restaurant calls into the room as Rolf Kühn gets out of the car.

The 88-year-old is a star – an internationally known jazz musician, winner of many prizes, including two jazz echoes. These days, he makes himself a gift by picking up a record again. Only about the title he still ponders. Maybe “Best of your Life”? Or “From both sides now”?

“The clarinet is my friend and enemy in personal union,” he says as he sits down. He practices two to three hours a day. He’s just getting started and getting better, he says with a smile. With this statement he recalls the cellist Pablo Casals, who spread the same age wisdom. The clarinet was “an unsympathetic lady”, she was the worst of all his women’s acquaintances, says Kühn. If he neglects her for a few days, she’ll resent him. “The punishment comes immediately, because the muscles around the mouth immediately subside.” Nevertheless, he is looking forward to it every day when he takes the black wood out of the box, strokes his fingers over the flaps and gets started.

For practice, he usually drives to Deutschlandradio at Innsbrucker Platz in a decommissioned studio, where he rehearsed in the 50s with the RIAS Big Band. If this should be busy, he practices in the coffee kitchen. He also gets into conversation with those who want to make coffee. Rolf Kühn likes to talk, looks open and interested, wants to know everything and captivates with a disarming friendliness. Self-expression is not his pitch.

CIRCUS Rolf Kühn was born in Cologne in September 1929. Actually, he should be something completely different, namely acrobat. “My father was an artist and trained me,” he says. Already as a child he had appearances every now and then. Photos from this period show a boy with a tight handstand on the arms of his father.

Kurt Kühn did not divorce his Jewish wife Grete Moses in the Nazi era – even though all of his six sisters were married to NSDAP members and pressed him along with the three brothers to separate from Grete. “He was so hurt and hurt that he broke off contact with everyone and never talked to them again,” says the son.

Kurt Kühn had to pay for this attitude with years of forced labor in the Leipzig camp Todt. “He was such a kindhearted and good-natured man,” says Rolf Kühn. His parents had met in Cologne – Kurt, who was a circus artist in the city, fell in love with Grete, the girl behind the department store. They married and moved to Leipzig, where in 1930 the Jewish community counted around 13,000 members. He often went to the synagogue with his mother, recalls Rolf Kühn. Often the family accompanied the father on tour. The babble of voices from all languages, the costumes, masks, the audience, the music fascinated him.

First he wanted to get a good education, then become an artist. But his interest changed abruptly one morning when he heard on the radio »Albert Vossen and his soloists«, a swing group with accordion and clarinetists. The music never left him, and he wanted a clarinet – which his father promptly gave him. After a long search, his mother found a teacher – Hans Berninger, clarinetist at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and a piano and theory teacher. Although they were not allowed to, they teach him. He practiced ten hours a day. He did not want to become an acrobat anymore.

FEAR But in 1933 the plans broke up. His father was expelled from the Reichstheaterkammer, while his mother ran a tobacconist until the pogrom night. At night the windows were smashed and the goods looted. “Everyone knew that the Nazis had broken our business, there were remarks at school, there were also fights with my classmates.” For only eight years Rolf was allowed to go to elementary school, another forbid the Nazis to Jewish children.

But at home, the family did not always want to talk about their own feelings of anxiety. After all, she was able to live on savings for the time being. But her mother’s oldest sister came to Lodz in 1941 with the first deportation, and from there to Kulmhof, where she was killed in a gas van. Another was murdered in Auschwitz. The youngest became a pianist and was able to flee to Switzerland in time with her husband, a drummer. For 35 years, the couple played as a duo every night in a hotel.

And then came the “blue letter from the Gestapo” to his mother, who had just given birth to her second son, Joachim. Thanks to relationships, his father auditioned at Gestapo headquarters, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. The letter would then be postponed again six months, more would not be, he was told.

“It was terrible. My parents were very scared, and of course that’s what’s going on. “Fortunately, the war ended earlier. In the spring of 1945, the Jewish Community of Leipzig recorded just 24 members. Today, with 1300 members, it is the largest in Saxony. Years ago, she organized a stumbling block transfer for Rolf Kühn’s aunt, who also lived in Leipzig. The musician was very moved by the celebration. “It was a memorable, important day, because it is the only visible memory.” He had also learned during the Nazi period that he would not give up so quickly, but had a pronounced stamina.

AMERICA »After the war everyone was hungry for music«, says Kühn. At 16, he played the piano at the Opera Ballet School – where he had to improvise already. At 17, he became a saxophonist and clarinetist at the newly founded broadcaster Leipzig, the Central German Broadcasting Company. In 1947, he first met jazz in the Leipzig Radio Dance Orchestra and listened to records by Benny Goodman (1909-1986). “It was all about me, I was so impressed by his clarinet playing and his music.” Three years later, he moved to Berlin for the RIAS Dance Orchestra.

But he sensed that there was no musical challenge for him there. He wanted to prove himself and compete with the best musicians in the world – and bought a ticket for the US, New York. That was in 1956. “It was bottomless recklessness,” he says today. Without having connections or engagements, he set off. It took six months to get the union card without which no musician could work in the US. After three months, his savings had been used up, and he sold shoes until, after four weeks, he lost his job due to incompetence.

He went to the park to practice. But he was lucky and met the right person – often by accident. He met the pianist Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), whom he knew from Germany, on the street again. He introduced him to Caterina Valente, who asked him if they wanted to play music together in the hotel. He had just received the longed for union card and was able to accept the job.

He met the great music producer John Hammond and was invited by his idol Goodman to a prelude, even made it to the orchestra. With Benny Goodman, who came from a Russian-Jewish family, grew up in poverty in the Jewish quarter of Chicago, and was educated at the age of ten in the Kehillah Jacob Synagogue, he often talked about his Jewish family. “He likes to hire Jews,” Kühn says of Goodman. Goodman was also the first to put together mixed bands – with black musicians. “As a band leader, Goodman was tricky – sometimes we sat on the tour bus in the morning and did not know which stage we’d be on in the evening.” The concerts were just as insecure. Often with just a single glance, Goodman has signaled to his musicians that they should now play the solo. “You never knew when it was your turn.”

SPEKTRUM In 1962, Kühn sensed that he was barely able to keep afloat financially in America and returned to Germany. There he headed the NDR television orchestra in Hamburg and recorded many records. He also used the 60s to study conducting, composed for series such as Tatort, Derrick and Dr. M hits.
His family situation also changed: years later he managed to get his brother Joachim from the GDR into the FRG with the help of his friend Friedrich Gulda. His parents were now able to leave the GDR as pensioners and moved to Hamburg. “That’s how we all lived in my Hamburg two-room apartment,” says Rolf Kühn.

It was a happy time. A year later his father died. “I think Todt left his mark on him.” His mother joined the Jewish Community of Hamburg. “In the meantime, I had rented a house for my brother and mother. I thought we could take care of our mother like that. “But she moved out again, because she preferred to live alone. At the age of 96 she died and was buried in the Jewish cemetery.

Kühn’s musical spectrum ranges from classical to jazz, free jazz, jazz rock. Benny Goodman has also recorded records with classical concerts. For example, Goodman’s interpretation of the clarinet concerto by Mozart is still considered a musical reference. In 2008 Kühn founded the ensemble »Rolf Kühn Unit« with Christian Lillinger, Ronny Graupe and Johannes Fink. He still tours with this band. He also makes a lot of music with his brother Joachim, a pianist – “he is much more famous than me,” says Kühn.

LUCK Famous is also his second wife, actress Judy Winter. He has been married to Melanie, his third wife, for more than 25 years and lives with her in Wilmersdorf. »I was and am a learner, a seeker, and I was very fortunate in retrospect. But it was not a comfortable way, “he concludes. His greatest wish: that the inner spirit and his curiosity remain.

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