German Jazz Expo Showcase for Jazz

The Zodiak Trio
The Zodiak Trio | Photo (detail): GJE / Helmut Berns

Again in April 2013 professional visitors to jazzhead! roamed through the Congress Centre Bremen. Discussions were held and information about new jazz CDs and tours exchanged. And amidst it all, there was the German Jazz Expo, at which ten German music groups performed thirty-minute presentation concerts before an international audience. A showcase festival, which is both a cultural export support and an exhibition of jazz from Germany.

The German Jazz Expo had a precursor. Beginning in 2006 the German Jazz Meeting took place three times as part of jazzhead! – last financed by the Bremen Fair and the federal funding body responsible for sponsoring jazz, the Initiative Musik. A jury consisting of music journalists, including native sons, selected German bands that were to receive the judgement of the invited organizers from all over the world. Because this is what it was about from the start: that musicians from Germany get the opportunity to be booked for festivals and concerts.

The three German Jazz Meetings showed that German musicians are on a par with their European colleagues in their concepts and instrumental technique. The jazz scene in Germany is disparate and heterogeneous, yet its results are vital and robust. The experimental improvisational music of a quartet such as Root 70 round the trombonist Nils Wogram reveals quite another aspect of this genre than does the rousing Modern Jazz des Trios [em] round pianist Michael Wollny.

New basis for the German Jazz Expo

“After the third edition, public funding for the German Jazz Meeting was cancelled”, says Peter Schulze, who launched the 2006 Meeting and is one of the artistic directors of jazzhead! “But jazzhead! wanted to keep German jazz in the programme. In 2012 therefore we started the German Jazz Expo.” It adopted the concept of serving as a showcase for jazz from Germany. But the German Jazz Expo’s approach was different: musicians have to apply for the event, supply their credentials to the fair, and then an international jury decides who will perform. Initiative Musik is also on board again, its means for financing music projects having been expanded in the meantime by funds for “infrastructural support”.

The issue of accreditation has been debated since the 2012 German Jazz Expo. The Union of German Jazz Musicians (UDJ) has at any rate come to an agreement with the management of the Bremen Fair. UDJ Chairwoman Julia Hülsmann: “Those bands that aren’t selected for a performance at the German Jazz Expo can cancel and get their money back”. But there is not much more than this; unlike its predecessor, the German Jazz Expo pays neither a fee nor travel expenses and accommodation. “It’s well-invested money on the part of the fair to pay for the costs of the invited guests from aboard: the idea is that they come here and get an overview of the German scene’s creativity. But it’s not right that we musicians don’t get any money at all”, says John-Dennis Renken, trumpeter of the Zodiak Trio, putting the conflict in a nutshell. The bassist Sebastian Gramss goes a step further: “If the conditions remain as bad as they have been up to now, the German Jazz Expo runs the risk of becoming an event only for young musicians, because we established musicians will no longer come to Bremen on such terms”.

From rock to Wagner

The question remains how musicians are to present themselves to the foreign guests adequately in a thirty-minute showcase performance. In 2013, too, the answers were as different as were the stylistic concepts of the ten bands. The high-energy rock music of the Zodiak Trio round John-Dennis Renken, for example, spanned a wide spectrum. Eric Schaefer, on the other hand, gave a pithy overview of his Richard Wagner programme. The Berlin drummer selected a few pieces that showed how Wagner’s complex compositions can be translated into a contemporary musical mixture of dub, jazz and rock.

Sebastian Gramss, despite his reservations, appeared twice at the German Jazz Expo. He found different answers to the presentation question for his quintet Underkarl and his Trio Fossile 3. “Because we have as Underkarl been playing together for many years, I can rely on the intuition of the musicians – even with regard to the length of the performance”, he explains. “With Fossile 3 I followed a concept that I call the “shellac principle”: no piece is longer than two and a half minutes; that means we can fit into the half hour as many pieces as other bands do in two regular concert sets.”
Subtone at the German Jazz Meeting 2013, source: jazzaheadtradefair / Youtube

The other bands also cover a broad stylistic range. The quartet of the Turkish-German singer Esra Dalfidan, for example, alluded to its multi-cultural roots and the saxophonist Uli Kempendorff introduced his new, contemporary-modern quartet Field with the guitarist Ronny Graupe. The pianist and singer Olivia Trummer bridged the way to song-writing, while the quartet Masaa investigated connections to Arabic music. Classical modern jazz was represented by the quintet Subtone round the trumpeter Magnus Schriefl and the avant-garde by the Clarinet Trio of the Berlin musician Gebhard Ullmann. So a lot of creativity presented itself in the compact concerts of the German Jazz Expo.

Export: need to catch up

But if we look at the many European countries that came again to the event with their music export offices so as to use improvised music as an instrument for presenting their national cultural scene, then it once again becomes clear how far Germany lags behind in this respect. So far it has been impossible to arouse sufficiently the interest of politics at either the federal or state level to consider jazz in Germany as more than a niche culture – although jazzhead! has been the only trade fair in the world for this music genre for the last seven years. But in the location of Bremen the German Jazz Expo has a resource to hand for providing adequate prospects of public funding for so important an event for “German” cultural export. A task for the future – and one that jazzhead must face.