2014 was a year of jubilees – in the jazz as elsewhere in German music. The Berlin Jazztage celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the 45th edition of the German Jazzfestival (started up in 1953) was held in Frankfurt. Rather than looking back with nostalgia, however, German jazz is looking forwards: a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, young up-and-coming jazz musicians from Western and Eastern Germany alike came centre stage, and efforts to improve working conditions for jazz musicians finally bore some fruit. Meanwhile, new festival concepts are delighting diverse audiences from all walks of life.
German jazz kicked off the year 2014 with a fitting birthday celebration: pianist and free jazz pioneer Joachim Kühn turned 70 last spring – fêting the occasion on stage at the Internationale Jazztage Stuttgart with a large handful of guests who’ve played with him for ages, including drummer Daniel Humair from the Kühn/Humair/Jenny-Clark trio, one of the pre-eminent French trios of the 1980s, as well as Majid Bekkas and Ramón Lopez, the other members of his current “African” trio. Also on stage was his brother Rolf, likewise an international jazz musician with a “round-figure” birthday in 2014: Rolf Kühn turned 85 last autumn, so in November the brothers got to fête a “double birthday” by performing as a duo, and enjoying their mutual zest for experimentation, at the Enjoy Festival in Ludwigshafen.
Reason to celebrate!?
So German jazz got off to a festive start last year – and with good reason. Jazz is plainly doing fine in Germany. What was once avant-garde music is now established high-brow culture proudly presented in well-appointed concert halls and festivals, and on public radio programmes, whilst winning awards at music industry galas. You can even study jazz nowadays at any of 18 different conservatories around the country.
And yet, despite all that festiveness, this is where not everything is coming up roses for German jazz. The annual crop of 200-odd superbly-trained graduates of these music school programmes are competing with thousands of their peers in what is still a small cultural niche. A report on jazz clubs by the Darmstadt Jazzinstitut counts nationwide only 420 venues that put on a jazz programme at least once or twice a month, only 65 of which host jazz gigs several times a week, and a mere 16 almost daily. Jazz accounts for a measly 1.4% share (as per 2013) of the recorded music market, which in turn is shrinking. Not to mention the fact that a niche repertoire like jazz is an “invisible genre”, disappearing from the grids on the steadily ascendant streaming services, as Julian Dörr warns in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article headlined Es hat sich ausgejazzt.
And yet, being improvisers by trade, jazz musicians are used to “rolling with the changes” – and in recent years have already begun working up a host of initiatives and activities that are now visibly starting to kick in.
In Cologne and Berlin, young musicians have joined forces in collectives to present their own unconventional current-day jazz renditions at self-started festivals. The Jazzkollektiv Berlin, for instance, invited various musician friends to play at the 10th edition of their “Kollektiv Nights” last year, including the Zeno De Rossi Quartet from the Italian collective El Gallo Rojo and two veterans of the East German free jazz scene in tandem, Ulrich Gumpert and Günter “Baby” Sommer. Last spring, the Cologne collective Klaeng (Jonas Burgwinkel, Tobias Christl, Pablo Held, Tobias Hoffmann, Niels Klein, Frederik Köster and Robert Landfermann) put out their first three CDs at once on their own label, Klaeng Records: Tiefgang by a sextet fronted by Robert Landfermann; Basz by a quartet of bassists Dieter Manderscheidt, Sebastian Grams, Joscha Oetz and Robert Landfermann; and 11 Famous Songs Tenderly Messed Up by the Tobias Hoffmann Trio presenting fresh takes on hit pop songs of yesteryear.
And yet the Klaeng collective is just one element of the thriving Cologne jazz scene. On the first January weekend, the winter jazz festival at the Stadtgarten, for its third edition to date, rounded up 21 bands to play five stages on a single night. The sound spectrum was diverse: for openers, while the breathing sounds of the avant-garde trombonist duo MM Squared Session (Matthias Müller and Matthias Muche) were scarcely audible in the packed house, the nearby Club Zimmermann’s was vibrating to the TAU Quartet’s solid blend of electronic, rock and jazz, and the Vinograd Express, fronted by clarinettist Annette Maye and trumpeter Udo Moll, rolled mightily down the tracks of folklore and modal jazz traditions.
Winterjazz is another musicians’ self-starter. Saxophonist Angelika Niescier brought the idea back from New York: a jaunty showcase for the multi-faceted jazz scene – with free admission.
The long march through the institutions
But the concert stage isn’t the only place in Germany where jazz musicians are banging the drum to make themselves heard. They’re also represented at a national advocacy group called the Bundeskonferenz Jazz, alongside other stakeholders in the jazz sector ranging from concert organizers, promoters and record producers to music schools and radio broadcasters. And their lobbying efforts are gradually beginning to bear fruit: in June, spokespersons for this special interest group handed Siegmund Ehrmann, head of the committee for media and the arts in the German Bundestag, a report on the state of jazz music in Germany. This report may take the whole discussion to the next level, for it prescribes concrete steps to improve the precarious prevailing conditions in today’s German jazz scene.
In 2013, as one step towards shoring up the jazz infrastructure, the German government established awards for the best music club programmes. In September 2014, for the second time around, awards went to 31 venues and 27 concert series in 14 German Länder, in the categories of jazz, pop and rock music, with prizes of up to €30,000. Two of the three main prizes went to jazz clubs: the Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld and Jazz im Paradies in Jena.
The German Jazz Musicians Union (Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker, UDJ) became a talking point back in 2012 with its “Reboot” slogan and is now esteemed an active advocate for musicians. At a press conference at the Jazzahead festival in April, it presented a “Letter of intent to preserve minimum standards in jazz”, which the UDJ had drafted along with about 50 event organizers/promoters. The signers declared at least €250 fee per musician “desirable”, though conceding: “However, such fees are only realistic for venues and festivals that receive public subsidies sufficient to cover at least one-third of their aggregate costs.” Even if that narrowed the scope of their demands, the growing number of signatures makes the message loud and clear: while the German government last year was discussing an across-the-board minimum wage for employees, many jazz musicians were eking out a precarious living, with average incomes not much above the fiscally defined living wage.
Finding new venues
On the other hand, the experience of chronic underfunding has led jazz musicians to come up with brand new and surprising concepts. The XJazz Festival that premiered in Kreuzberg, Berlin, in May 2014, having to make do without public funding, proudly called itself “Berlin’s biggest jazz festival” with turnout of over 9,500 jazz fans for 48 concerts at six venues. Sebastian Studnitzky, the mastermind and artistic director of XJazz, is an active international musician himself with a good network. He invited friends and fellow musicians to perform, though without any guaranteed fee. Trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer, the most prominent guest, appeared in a duo with Berlin techno veteran Moritz von Oswald. And the renowned Icelandic pop singer Emiliana Torrini presented her songs in an unfamiliar musical setting at Kreuzberg’s Bi Nuu club. Contributions from the likes of clarinettist Claudio Puntin and harpist Kathrin Pechlof “alternately gave her simple, ethereal songs a coating of folk jazz, rocked them in subdued psychedelic or sprinkled them with borrowings from klezmer”, wrote Tim Caspar Boehme in the Tageszeitung. A readily accessible programme, in other words, with broad public appeal.
On the other hand, the festival programme banked on a definition of jazz broad enough – hence the moniker “XJazz” – to include a night of club music by the British DJ duo Nightmares on Wax accompanied by Studnitzky with a Berlin jam band. The fact that the festival’s venues are already popular Kreuzberg nightlife hotspots further bolstered the image of the event as “young and fuss-free”.
At their XJazz, the local and less well known bands, whose concerts made up roughly three quarters of the overall programme, got a chance to wow a new audience with their sometimes more complex sounds.
The tradition-steeped mœrs festival succeeded in revamping its image by picking a new venue on Whit weekend 2014. For decades the biggest marquee in Europe, pitched in Moers’ public park, had served as the festival’s main stage, surrounded by more or less unauthorized motor caravans and stalls of all sorts, which often gave the festival weekend the feel of an alternative fair.
But in 2012 the City of Moers announced considerable cuts in funding, so a less expensive and permanent location was sought – and found. After a former indoor tennis centre was given a makeover, 44 bassists filled the virgin stage of Moers’ new festival hall for the opening act. For this international “bass mob”, Cologne bassist Sebastian Gramss had arranged compositions of his own and of the late Wuppertal bassist Peter Kowald, whose instrument he also played in Moers, thereby tying the newfound venue into the festival’s history: Kowald cofounded the festival back in 1972 and would have turned 70 in April 2014.
Commemorations and food for thought
And then there were some anniversaries to celebrate later in the year. The Jazzfest Berlin turned 50, making it one of the oldest and most renowned jazz festivals in Europe. The look back at its launch in 1964, however, was anything but nostalgic, demonstrating rather how the roots of jazz have sprouted into a thriving scene in present-day Germany. In their project So Long Eric!, Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach commemorated American jazzman Eric Dolphy, who died quite young in Berlin back in 1964, and the young saxophonist and bass clarinettist Silke Eberhardt paid a tribute to Dolphy as well: whilst researching she happened upon notes to his string quartet Love Suite, which had remained uncompleted. Her arrangement for horns, expanded into a septet called Potsa Lotsa, brings out the vibrant spectrum of colours in Dolphy’s chamber composition.
In his programme, festival director Bert Noglik succeeded in melding the tradition and future of jazz in various ways: from the “Fats Waller Dance Party”, in which Jason Moran brought Waller’s nearly hundred-years-old popular tune into intelligent contemporary dialogue with hip hop, funk and R&B, to the festival debut of young Eva Klesse, who left her hometown in North Rhine-Westphalia to study music in Leipzig and stands for a new generation of “all-German” jazz musicians with a fully-fledged musical language of their own.
So all in all: there are bright prospects for jazz.