Klaus Doldinger’s 80th Birthday Jazz as Elixir

Klaus Doldinger
Klaus Doldinger | Photo (detail): Jim Rakete / Warner

Klaus Doldinger is a saxophonist, composer, bandleader. He has written movie themes such as that for „Das Boot (The Boat)“ and heads Passport, one of the longest-lived jazz rock groups in the music world. And on 12 May 2016 he will celebrate his eightieth birthday. A look at his life work.

Klaus Doldinger was born in Berlin, but he spent his childhood in Vienna, where his family moved during the war years. It proved a good decision, for in the early 1940s you experienced fewer of the cruelties of war then rife in Europe on the Danube than on the Spree. Only once the Red Army reached the gates of the city did the family flee further and ended up in Bavaria. In a village in Lower Bavaria the then nine-year-old Doldinger first heard the music that was to influence the course of his life. “We had fled from Vienna in a lorry. The Americans marched in and had with them a combo that played something like jazz. At any rate, I was very impressed. When we moved in the same year to Dusseldorf, we lived in a house where another tenant was somehow able to get hold of so-called “V Discs” (= “Victory Discs”: Series of recordings issued during World War II by the U.S. government and various private American record companies.”) with jazz recordings, which we listened to enthusiastically. And so my passion slowly developed.”

From Dixieland to jazz rock

At first this passion was confined to listening, then it soon extended to performance. Doldinger met with like-minded teenagers in a bookshop of the Hot Club Düsseldorf. They talked with one another and played records. Out of these circles then arose the Feetwarmers, Doldinger’s first band. And the boy had chutzpah. At the age of eleven he already passed the entrance examination for the Dusseldorf Conservatory with a one-finger rendition of Hänschen Klein (“Little Hans”), which led the examining committee to accept him as a student. He went to grammar school, studied on the side piano, clarinet and musical theory, and in 1955 , still before his school leaving examination, held in his hands his first trophy as a saxophonist, the Coup Sidney Bechet, which he won at the Amateur Jazz Festival in Brussels.

This laid foundation for a career that was to bring Doldinger, in spite of detours, to the top of the young German jazz scene. His stylistic versatility and flair for popular trends enabled him, on the one hand, to appear on stage during the 1960s with progressive colleagues like Albert Mangelsdorff while, on the other hand, to link Soul and Rhythm and Blues with bebop-directed improvisations in his own traditionally-oriented band and in projects under the pseudonym of “Paul Nero”.

Doldinger became an export article. Beginning in the mid-1960s, on behalf of, among others, the Goethe-Institut and the German Foreign Office, he went on numerous tours, which took him as far as North Africa and South America. Albums such as Jazz – Made in Germany (1963) received international recognition because of their distinct musical mix: “After all, at the time it was an unusual sound. Everywhere you heard cool jazz, but we blended black influences, Soul and bebop and sounded different from many others. That certainly made people prick up their ears. But it wasn’t part of a plan. It just happened, as later too Passport simply followed the impulse to combine rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.”
Klaus Doldinger’s Passport, “The Cat from Katmandu”

Film and television

Over the years, the flirtation with rock music grew into an artistic marriage. In 1970 Doldinger founded the band Motherhood, with Udo Lindenberg on the drums, which passed into the fusion ensemble Passport in 1971 and, under this name, became for over four and half decades a jazz rock scene institution and one of the longest-lived German music groups ever. At the same time, Doldinger built up additional mainstays so as not to be entirely dependent on stage work.

When an offer reached him in 1967 from the still fledging medium of television to write a jingle to mark the introduction of colour TV, Doldinger tried his luck. Soon he was also adding soundtracks to cartoons, writing advertising music and film scores – for example, Negresco (1969) by the director Klaus Lemke. Through his colleague Will Tremper, he became acquainted with young film-makers such as Volker Schlöndorff, Margarete von Trotta and Hans Wilhelm Geißendörfer, and the way eventually led to commissions from television like the theme music for the series Tatort (1970) and major film work with Wolfgang Petersen, for Das Boot (The Boat) (1981) and Unendlichen Geschichte (The Never-Ending Story) (1984).

Lobbying and passion

Doldinger collected honours, ranging from the German Records Critics Award and the Echo Jazz to the Music Prize of the City of Munich. He was knighted, made an honorary citizen of New Orleans and from 1990 to 2015 worked behind the scenes of show business on the organizational design of German music life as a board member of GEMA. But above all he is one of the few musicians who has succeeded over the years, thanks to a precise feel for the power of melody that crosses stylistic borders, in reaching a wide audience.

And so it is music in general and the saxophone in particular that, now too in the year of his eightieth birthday, gives him the aplomb to remain a presence on stage as composer and promoter of jazz. “You can say a lot with words, but there’s no comparison with music. It goes beyond everything else and has an incredible expressive scope. This is the essential ingredient that you get laid in the cradle with jazz and it has to be kept alive. I’ve always been a performer, and have no ambition to sit back and settle down.”