The republic pays tribute to two jazz activists: About artists of this genre who are supported by the state, from the USA to Vienna.
I prefer to talk more at home than in public, but I would like to thank all my friends and my wife.” Austria’s parade guitarist Karl Ratzer murmured after receiving the certificate that entitles him to use the professional title “Professor”. He was touched. But after all the ups and downs of his life, such a late honor is just an ornament. In the 1960s he haunted drug dens like San Remo (now Camera Club) with his beat band Slaves, accompanied heroin-addicted trumpeter Chet Baker in the 1980s and often stumbled because of his demons. It was unimaginable at the time that he would one day be honored by the state.
In general, state honors for jazz musicians, who seldom recommend themselves through bourgeois lifestyles, are a fairly recent affair. In the USA, people used to recognize the magic of jazz, which also propagated the free, American lifestyle. From 1958 onwards the State Department practiced something like jazz diplomacy. It sent grandees like Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck out into the world to promote the American way of life. Richard Nixon honored Duke Ellington with the Freedom Medal, the highest civilian honor, in 1969. Jimmy Carter became the first US President to host a jazz festival on the South Lawn of the White House. In addition to consensus musicians, he also brought in proven avant-gardists such as Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.
Would something like that also be conceivable in Vienna? Christoph Huber, maître of the jazz club Porgy & Bess and laudator for Ratzer, says yes and refers to the jazz affinity of the last three Austrian federal presidents. Thomas Klestil was not only a friend of Joe Zawinul, but also one who loved the genre. Likewise Heinz Fischer, who liked to turn up at Ahmad Jamal and Cassandra Wilson concerts in the pre-election period. And finally Alexander Van der Bellen, who asked Ornette Coleman for fresh jazz at a book presentation held at the Porgy about 20 years ago.
Very different from Bob Dylan
Although jazz enjoys an image as resistant music, its protagonists are happy to be officially hugged. Not so Bob Dylan, who kept his sunglasses on when Barack Obama put the Peace Medal on his head. Or the local electronica duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, who didn’t have time for 14 years to accept the Golden Medal of Merit from the State of Vienna (the time had come in 2017). In France, deserving artists, including foreign artists, are included in the Legion of Honour; in Great Britain they are ennobled by the Queen or Prince Charles or at least awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire). Even representatives of the angry working class become tame. Ray Davis from the Kinks, for example, or the blustering Van Morrison. Mick Jagger, too, buckled as the monarchy’s saber pounded on his shoulder. Keith Richards opposed. Like the Queen herself, who took sick leave – Prince Charles had to take over.
“We have long called Ratzer Sir Karl. Now the Republic is following suit,” joked Huber, who received the Cross of Honor for services to science and art. Finally, Ratzer intoned Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy.” The initially hesitantly played, somewhat disheveled Blue Notes nestled together elegantly at the end.