Berlin Jazzfest turns 50 The First Half-Century

At the end of the Berlin Jazzfest 2014 the American jazz pianist Jason Moran presented his <i>Fats Waller Dance Party</i>, a very individual way of thinking about tradition.
At the end of the Berlin Jazzfest 2014 the American jazz pianist Jason Moran presented his Fats Waller Dance Party, a very individual way of thinking about tradition. | Photo: Ralf Dombrowski

With the Newport Jazz Festival of 1954, the impresario George Wein laid claim to having launched a new type of event. A decade later, Joachim-Ernst Berendt inaugurated the first Berlin Jazz Days and so created a German, and at the same time very independent, counterpart to Newport, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in November 2014.

In 1964, when the Berlin Jazz Festival, still then called the Berlin Jazz Days, was launched, it was a beacon in the European festival landscape. Berlin had been cut in half for three years by the Wall and was the hot-spot of the Cold War. In those days, jazz was above all an American affair. Getting hold of original records was difficult; making discoveries from the geographical standpoint of the Old World almost impossible. Joachim Ernst Berendt, the first and long-time artistic director of the Jazz Days, was assigned almost the role of a cultural saviour. If in Europe you wanted to know what was doing in the world of jazz, you had inevitably to look to Berlin.

For many American musicians, the Jazz Days, and later the Jazz Festival, was the gate to Europe; some even laid here the foundation for their future careers. John Scofield began his career as a bandleader in Berlin, and the one-time New York scene insiders, The Lounge Lizards, found international recognition for the first time at the Jazz Festival. By the end of the 1960s at the latest, a club and label landscape had emerged in Europe that for three and a half decades was considerably more stable and profitable for American musicians than that in the United States. And the Berlin Jazz Festival established itself as one of the main hubs of European jazz.

Noglik’s note

Fifty years after the festival’s founding, Bert Noglik is holding the artistic reins. Between Berendt and him, George Gruntz, Albert Mangelsdorff, John Corbett, Peter Schulze and Nils Landgren all left their very different marks on the spectacle. Naturally, it was impossible for Noglik to bring together the entire history of the festival in his last year. After all, the jazz landscape has changed extremely since 1964. Europe has come more and more to the fore, nearly every medium-sized city now has one or more jazz festival of its own, the Internet delivers all the information we could want to our doorsteps and the American scene has, since 11 November 2001, largely uncoupled itself from the jazz market of the Old World. Jazz festivals today have in general a different function from that before the turn of the millennium. They have been relieved of the educational tasks which were once indispensable for the popularization of this music. The Jazz Festival therefore can no longer serve as the beacon it once was. And finally, not all the festival’s artistic directors were such visionaries as were Berendt and Gruntz.

Noglik put the focus of the anniversary edition on three events that were of particular importance for the Jazz Festival. Two occurred in the year of its founding; the other is exactly twenty-five years old. For the first Berlin Jazz Days in 1964, none other than Martin Luther King sent his greetings. With the opening performance of the New York guitarist Elliott Sharp, which alluded to King’s message in texts and moods, Noglik paid tribute to this prominent assistance at the birth of the festival. At the 1964 inaugural edition, clarinettist Eric Dolphy also gave an acclaimed performance. No one could know then that this great surpasser of the Third Stream would collapse after the concert and die as the result of undiagnosed diabetes. The concerts by Alexander von Schlippenbach/Aki Takase and Silke Eberhardt were dedicated to Dolphy’s legacy.

Last but not least, a few days after the 1989 Jazz Festival, the absurd division of Berlin came to an end. The native Leipziger Noglik, who was one of the internationally recognized advocates of free improvisation long before German reunification, made the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of the Wall the occasion for commemoration. Ulrich Gumpert presented an opera in which he had broached the paralysis of East Germany at the end of the 1980s. And the American singer Kurt Elling, together with the WDR Big Band, celebrated a bizarre medley of freedom songs, documenting that not all concepts invariably work.

At the edge of the jazz tradition

Within the coordinate system of event culture and progressive participation in commemoration, however, Noglik’s third Jazz Festival cobbled together a bold programme. Not everything, perhaps, went off so well as it may have looked on paper, but that is the way of such a festival. Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch, the surprisingly down-to-earth trip-jazz quartet Get The Blessing and the doom metal-schooled power trio Free Nelson Mandoomjazz brought home to the audience that one of the most vital and innovative jazz scenes in Europe is currently running riot in the British Isles. From Leipzig Noglik fetched the young drummer Eva Klesse, who, despite her noticeable amazement at finding herself on the stage of this tradition-steeped festival, communicated her irrepressible energy over and above the band to the audience.

The New York pianist Jason Moran went to the start with two projects. His trio The Bandwagon once again gave a hearing to more tradition-charged jazz, whose high degree of abstraction at no point stood in the way of its accessibility. Proceeding from this experience, he drew a daring line to the Fats Waller Dance Party, with which he not only paid homage to early Swing music but also set off on a search for its traces in contemporary Harlem. The furious finale was marked by the current darling of the New York scene, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, which, increased to a septet, also catapulted itself through the 1920s at a crazy pace. Above all the banjo player Brandon Seabrook left the audience in sheer amazement with his complete re-definition of his instrument.

The fiftieth year of the Berlin Jazz Festival thus became a treasure trove of new and re-discoveries of very different kinds. Bert Noglik’s final Jazz Festival was at the same time also by far his most successful because his most adventurous. The bar for his successor Richard Williams, a sports reporter for the Guardian who has written books on Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Phil Spector, and is largely unknown even in professional circles, has thus been set high.