April 20, 2024

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German jazz is becoming more international, languages and styles are intermingling … Videos, Photos

German jazz is becoming more international. Languages and styles are intermingling, artist-run spaces are encouraging experimentation and musicians are defying the precarity of their situations – especially in the country’s capital.

In early November, German artist Daniel Richter spoke about his fascination with free jazz. On the occasion of his London show, he told the Financial Times that free jazz had helped him find out what the promise of non-narrative art was all about: “There was a certain radicalism in it – and I was interested in chaos, when a structure is so overloaded that it may not be readable anymore.” Back in 2011, self-proclaimed jazz fan Richter designed the Nightingale sculpture for the German Record Critics’ Award (PdSK), which recognises “outstanding musical achievements”. This year, the PdSK’s non-monetary honorary award went to saxophonist Heinz Sauer, born in 1932, for his life’s work.

Sauer, however, was not one of the “founding fathers” of German free jazz. Emerging in the mid-1960s, this scene included such artists as the six-year-younger pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach (now 85) and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who died this year, both of whom also pioneered European free jazz. For the Berlin Jazz Days in 1966, von Schlippenbach founded the international free jazz Globe Unity Orchestra, which is still going strong today. How the group interacted, how von Schlippenbach “played” the entire keyboard with a wooden board, how the simultaneity of noise and intensity brought what Richter described as an “overloaded structure” to a physically tangible climax – all this can be gloriously relived in the film Tastenarbeiter, a sensitive portrait of von Schlippenbach by director Tilmann Urbach, which premiered at this year’s Jazzfest Berlin. Appearing with his wife, pianist Aki Takase, in the festival’s opening concert, von Schlippenbach demonstrated that he can still perform with the same virtuosity and enthusiasm as he did in the early days of his career.

DEATH OF PETER BRÖTZMANN

Peter Brötzmann (1941−2023) heavily influenced not only German and European free jazz but also the free improvisation scene in the US from 1997 with his Chicago Tentet. After performing at the 1966 German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt for the first time, he said he was interested not in “tentatively expanding traditional design principles, but in dissolving them”. His 1968 album Machine Gun, the title borrowed from US trumpeter Don Cherry’s nickname for Brötzmann, fundamentally changed perceptions of jazz and reflected the political turmoil triggered by Germany’s failure to reckon with its Nazi past, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the US. Brötzmann told SPIEGEL magazine in 1969 that “a brutal society that allows for Biafra and Vietnam inevitably also provokes brutal music”. That same year, Brötzmann, Kowald and von Schlippenbach set up the internationally influential free jazz Music Production (FMP) label with FMP co-founder Jost Gebers, who also died in 2023. Brötzmann continued to perform live until the beginning of 2023, the last time in February as artist in residence at London’s Cafe OTO and shortly before in one last spectacular and moving solo gig at Club Manufaktur in Schorndorf.

Energetic improvisation and the questioning of traditional structures – this also characterises the music of pianist Joachim Kühn, who was born in Leipzig in 1944. Joachim und his brother Rolf Kühn, who passed away last year, received the 2023 German Jazz Prize for their life’s work. Another award this year, the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize, went to the now 80-year-old free jazz trombonist Konrad “Conny” Bauer. Worth € 15,000, the biennial prize is awarded by the German royalties collection organisation GEMA and the Deutsche Jazzunion. For Bauer, however, this recognition comes rather late: “I’ve done a lot for jazz,” he said in an interview with the author. He was not only a musician and member of East Germany’s most famous jazz band Zentralquartett, he also helped organise concerts in the former GDR. Even now, 34 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, says Bauer, the east and west German jazz scenes have still not grown together.

JAZZ IN GERMANY IS STILL PATRIARCHAL

Acknowledging older musicians as pioneers of the young jazz scene – this could be one of the guiding principles of the jazz year in Germany, even though honours in 2023 went exclusively to male musicians. Structures in German jazz are still patriarchal, especially in public service institutions, as revealed by a jazz study published by the Deutsche Jazzunion at the end of 2022. There are only three female professors at German music academies and virtually no female instrumentalists play in the major radio big bands – despite gender awareness-raising in recent years, especially in the programming of major festivals like Jazzfest Berlin or Enjoy Jazz Festival. Nadin Deventer, the first woman to head Jazzfest Berlin, which was founded in 1964, takes the discussion one step further. “Apart from gender issues, I’m also concerned with diversity,” she said in an interview with the author, “especially in terms of the relationship between the Global North and Global South. It’s also important that we question established privileges, step out of our personal comfort zones and examine our own standpoints. This changes music, it changes programmes and it changes our own perception and the way we see ourselves. A government-funded platform as big as Jazzfest has a responsibility to do this.” Deventer has launched an online magazine on the festival website entitled (Un-)Learning Jazz.

For Deventer, collaborative approaches are also a central festival theme. “It’s really important for me to connect the local scene, either through my own projects or with international artists.” This year, for example, a collaboration took place with Chicago saxophonist, flautist and composer Henry Threadgill, only the third jazz musician after Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman to win the Pulitzer Music Prize. The 79-year-old Threadgill composed the commissioned piece Simply Existing Surface for his own ensemble Zooid in collaboration with the Potsa Lotsa XL ensemble of Berlin-based saxophonist Silke Eberhard, which premiered at this year’s Jazzfest. Deventer describes the local scene as cosmopolitan and diverse, with musicians from all over the world living and working in Berlin either permanently or temporarily. On the festival stage, she has showcased the work of artists such as Argentinian saxophonist Camila Nebbia, Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Swedish trumpeter, singer and sound artist Ellen Arkbro. Coming from the independent music scene herself, Deventer is all too familiar with the constant struggles and precarity of artists’ lives. In an interview with the author, she called for an unconditional basic income. “I think that this would unleash incredible potential in a number of ways.” Urs Johnen, bassist and managing director of the Deutsche Jazzunion, adds: “As a society, we must ask ourselves where we want to go with culture. This doesn’t just concern jazz. COVID has forced many artists to use up personal reserves too. The situation is alarming.”

“ME TOO” IN JAZZ

For SWR2 jazz editor Julia Neupert, the “me too” debate about sexism in German jazz academies and the events industry has been a key topic this year, triggered by a blog post from musician Friede Merz. She would have liked to have seen a broader discussion. Asked what she thinks about the planned merger of ARD’s jazz programmes and the reduction in content this would entail, Neupert said she did not believe this will be an issue in the near future or that it would make any sense. For Rainer Kern, artistic director of Enjoy Jazz Festival, however, public broadcasters’ practice of making artists surrender rights on concert recordings for longer periods and large geographical areas in return for minimal royalties is “a scandal”. Kern believes “sustainability” is not just about reducing emissions but also about fair payment for artists and cultural sector employees.

But there are positive things to report, too. This year, Enjoy Jazz Festival presented the Christian Broecking Award for Arts Education, a new 10,000-euro prize named after the journalist who died in 2021, which honours researchers and artists for their social relevance. This year’s award went to US drummer and professor Terri Lyne Carrington for the work of her Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice in Boston.

2023 also saw a number of exciting new releases, including Four Hands Piano Pieces from pianists Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach, Beyond Dragons from saxophonist Angelika Niescier, bassist Tomeka Reid and drummer Savannah Harris, and Chamber Works by saxophonist Silke Eberhard with her ensemble Potsa Lotsa XL. Other important recordings were Velvet Revolution by saxophonist Daniel Erdmann and Umbra from duo Christian Lillinger (percussion) and Elias Stemeseder (piano). Catching Ghosts from saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, a live recording of his concert with drummer Hamid Drake and oud player Majid Bekkas from Jazzfest 2022, was released posthumously.

These and many other recordings in 2023 are proof that despite continued precarity, artists’ commitment to jazz remains unbroken.

By Maxi Broecking

Saxophonist Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa XL ensemble performed the piece “Simply Existing Surface” together with Henry Threadgill at Jazzfest. | Photo (detail): © Oliver Potratz

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