The Aesthete in the Background – the Arranger and Composer Claus Ogerman
Claus Ogerman has no illusions: “Arrangers are a dying breed. Pop music today is produced up to 99 percent electronically. It’s very rare that a producer still hires a living musician. Symphony orchestras in the United States, for example, no longer make recordings in studios, unless the ensemble itself is the producer. Record companies at any rate have given that up completely. What you get now are mainly recordings of concerts or good rehearsals – the attempt to make the best of it”.
This fundamental change has affected him only marginally. Strictly speaking, Ogermann already ceased doing arrangements in 1979 when, in the first thrust of progress, the rapidly developing keyboards began putting paid to the expensive studio orchestras. Instead, he concentrated on managing as publisher the work he had already created, and probably would not have returned actively to the business had not a couple of old friends made the effort to get him back in again. In the past decade he again worked on scores to provide the jazz singer Diana Krall with an orchestral framing, though not without an ulterior motive. For in return for Ogerman’s collaboration, the record company promised to publish his symphonic works.
From Silesia to New York
It was once again a job as it used to be, with an 80 piece orchestra and a budget that allowed for opulence. Krall’s albums The Look Of Love (2001) and Quiet Nights (2009) were successful; for the arrangement of the title song of the latter Ogerman was even awarded a Grammy in 2010, his second after the one for George Benson’s Soulful Strut (1979). But, with the exception of an album for the pianist Danilo Perez, he could not be persuaded to do more. Understandably, when one realizes that he had already worked with many of the greats in the business.
The path into the league of illustrious personalities, however, was windy and marked by many hazards. Ogerman was born in the Silesian town of Ratibor (today Racibórz in Poland). As a child, he learned to play the piano, listened during the Nazi years to jazz on the Volksempfänger, or People’s Radio, but studied classical music after the war in Nuremberg. His first jobs were with Big Bands (for instance, Kurt Edelhagen’s) and through the saxophonist Max Greger, for whom he did many arrangements in the 1950s, Ogerman landed in Munich, where his publishing company still has an office.
When he had saved a little money, he travelled for the first time to New York in 1959 to take a look at the metropolis of jazz. Fascinated by the city’s urban and artistic flair, he stayed and, thanks to a talent scout and the later Vice President of Mercury Records Quincy Jones, got his foot in the door of the business. Ogerman’s litmus test as an arranger, Leslie Gore’s It’s my Party (1963), was a hit; he could stay on and was soon regarded in jazz circles as a sure thing for delivering orchestral color. Thus he worked for Salomon Burke and Ben E. King, Bill Evans, Johnny Hodgers and Wes Montgomery. Entertainers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra booked him; but above all he developed a close friendship with the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose bossa heaven Ogerman wrapped in strings. Then came the boom years of the seventies when he was allowed to provide stars such as guitarist George Benson (Breezin’, 1976) with timelessly crafted orchestral sound.
First cassettes, then the Internet
But then the trend changed. Punk, electro pop, fusion jazz called for gaunt and innovative synthetic sounds; the classics fell out of fashion. In retrospect, Ogerman looks more mildly upon this development which, back then, induced him to retreat from the daily business: “The great progress made by the avant-garde initially yielded little. You have to think of the listener you want to reach, and in my case that was the person who listened to traditional music. In my view you can raise the level of dissonance every few years, but to destroy harmony completely – that goes too far. That leads nowhere”.
Nor would it fit well to Claus Ogerman. He is an analog, conservative man. There is no e-mail address he can be reached at, and his music publishing company in Munich still does without a website. His only concession to the demands of the communication age is a telephone number. This is risky and at the same time consistent. For Ogerman is a composer, arranger and publisher of the old school. With marvellous lightness, he knows how to guide an orchestra and structure its sound appealingly and effectively. His tools are pencils and scores, not loops and programs.
He has created a sufficient body of work to be busy for years to come with winnowing and ordering it. Ogerman has also long since put behind him fears of the collapse of the music industry because, for him, it is nothing new: “It already started more than thirty years ago, with the introduction of the music cassette. You could feel then the first slide of the mechanical rights. Now the technology has simply created a fait accompli, which we can no longer change. On the other hand, people still like to go to concerts”.
So no need to worry so long as music is part of people’s lives. Perhaps it will even be arranged in the style of a “real 360 degree musician” (Quincy Jones), a musician about whom Antonio Carlos Jobim once said: “For me it wasn’t only a joy to work with the master Claus Ogerman, but also a must”. For quite a while now younger colleagues such as Maria Schneider have paid tribute to Ogerman, and pop stars such as Phil Collins, Prince and Jay-Z declared themselves to be his fans. This is a good basis to avoid being forgotten, even without the spotlight glare of celebrity.
works as a music journalist for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bayerischer Rundfunk and many music magazines.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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