Necessary Niches – The Discussion on Jazz 2012
It all began quite soberly: like several of her colleagues, the Berlin pianist Julia Hülsmann, one of the few Germans active on the international label ECM and a figurehead of local jazz, had had enough of the increasingly adverse working conditions. In the name of a newly founded jazz syndicate she published in November 2011 an “Initiative for Vigorous Jazz in Germany” (signed initially by about 100 musicians, then by over 1,200), which, among other things, calls for basic security for musicians, publicly funded venues and “jazz houses”, export promotion and representation of musicians in the relevant committees. The idea was to have something concrete to discuss when, in March 2012, the German parliament addressed the subject of music funding.
Except for a few half-hearted comments, the press at first paid little attention to the subject. At the start of 2012, however, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) opened the journalistic debate with a condemnation of German jazz as “copycat jazz” for the supposedly “oldest audience in the world”. A reply in the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel responded to this charge with a cautious defense, but also gave an ear to “contradictory signals” emanating from the jazz scene. The author of another article in the SZ declared that he missed the “great moments” of music, which occur not so much in reflection as in the improvisation of live concerts. Clearly, all this needed to be debated.
The discussion really gained momentum when at the end of January, in the SZ again, a jazz musician himself came to speak. In an article entitled “Breakdown” (“Betriebsstörung”), the saxophonist Michael Hornstein took the opportunity to deliver a sweeping attack on colleagues who “have been stagnating for 20 years” and the multipliers who have, in his view, been enriching themselves on jazz. “Only editors, journalists and organizers”, he wrote, “can live well off jazz in Germany”. Conclusion: “In its present form, German jazz can have no social relevance whatever”. That was a provocation, and it was greeted by contradictory voices.
Though omitting to clarify in what the demanded relevance would consist, the debate turned into a heated pro and con. The Cologne pianist Florian Ross, for example, wrote a letter to the editor, reinforced with signatures; countless musicians, journalists, organizers and bloggers singled out what concerned them. Other publications continued the discussion – for example, the weekly Die Zeit and professional journals such as the Jazzzeitung, while in Question Time in the German parliament the issue met with only a muted resonance, which in turn provoked journalistic comment. The SZ gave the debate a preliminary rounding off in an article that demanded “respect” for the artists whom the paper had previously certified as participants in a “breakdown”. Finally, two further articles asked for the black roots of the music.
Past and present
Surprisingly little was said in all this about artistic content. Jazz today is more than its history. It stands for a diversity of stylistic ramifications beyond its American origins, for a globalized network of musical improvisation cultures. Not without reason a discussion is currently underway in the United States about whether jazz should be renamed BAM for “Black American Music”.
We ignore the development of the past two decades if we mistake the sales crisis in the musical industry for a crisis in music. Germany today has more excellent young musicians than ever before, not least thanks to the jazz departments created nationwide at music schools during this period. Prominent artists such as Michael Wollny, Angelika Niescier, Henning Sieverts, Nils Wogram and Johannes Enders may be taken as representative of hundreds of other talents.
The problem of German jazz is therefore not one of quality but rather of communication. People have to learn about jazz – also as listeners. But its musicians, concerts, recordings and CDs reach too few interested people. Yet these consumers exist. This is confirmed by the success stories of cleverly managed clubs such as Birdland in Neuburg/Donau, the Cologne Stadtgarten and the A-Trane in Berlin, of booming series of events such as “Enjoy Jazz” and long-standing festivals such as that in the Lower Rhenish town of Moers. Hardly anyone in the jazz debate has spoken about this aspect.
Nevertheless, the future
No one who takes up the profession of jazz musician expects to become a star and be showered with riches. He does plays jazz because he has the talent and because he wants to do it. But it is only reasonable that he expect, as an artist in general and as the representative of a music that embodies freedom and democracy, at least a part of that recognition and support which is taken for granted by members of the established canon of art. In this respect the situation differs from region to region. In artistically vibrant but financially bankrupt Berlin, or in traditional, recently festival-loving Hamburg (“Jazz in Crisis” was the title of an analysis of the local scene by the Hamburger Abendblatt), artists usually work under more austere conditions than in, for example, Stuttgart or wealthy Munich.
Central funding of the cultural infrastructure, ranging from the creation and safeguarding of venues and a reform of GEMA to subsidies for tours at home and aboard, would be one possibility; an increased engagement in early education would be another. More listening and unbiased curiosity could also help some media professionals and decision makers discover the many charms of current, progressive, improvisational music.
So far the mills of the public sector have been grinding slowly. This has only spurred on the musicians: Julia Hülsmann and her co-initiators have now taken over and restructured the Union of German Jazz Musicians, which was founded in the 1970s but which had long been hardly active. And the Berlin forum Dach/Musik, founded in March 2012, is already seeking collaboration with all representatives of the independent music scene. “It’s about enabling the art form jazz to evolve further and avoiding it’s standing still at some point because the musicians have to drive taxis to earn a living”, said Hülsmann, who was again active here, this time in the background. First steps in a new direction and still much to discuss.
works as a cultural editor for the Newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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