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Jazz 2021
German jazz emerges from Covid-induced state of shock

Aki Takase at the Jazzfest Berlin 2021 | Photo (detail): © Shutter & Melody
Aki Takase at the Jazzfest Berlin 2021 | Photo (detail): © Shutter & Melody

What is our music worth? The 2021 pandemic year called for a strategic mix of productive collaboration, political solidarity, solid networking and innovative individual approaches to jazz.

By Renate Da Rin

First the good news: Thanks to the extension of the federal programme to “preserve and shore up the music infrastructure in Germany”, several live music clubs and other venues are eligible for continued funding in 2022 – which will safeguard their livelihood, at least for the time being. For 2022, the German Ministry of Culture has earmarked €17 million for the programme, to be administered by the Initiative Musik. What this means is opportunities for musicians to perform – and a source of income for all those without whom events couldn’t be held in the first place: from organizers and management to technical staff and the indispensable stagehands – they all suffered drastic losses of income again in 2021. “We’re still discussing how precarious the whole jazz sector is,” says Kathrin Pechlof, a musician herself and managing director of IG Jazz Berlin, which represents jazz musicians, promoters, organizers and labels based in the German capital. “Neustart Kultur has now injected a lot of money – at least by jazz standards – into the system, into the infrastructure and artistic work. So it’s still exciting to see what we can learn from this period and whether things will be approached more sustainably in the future.” But the distribution of resources within the jazz scene “didn’t follow suit, which gave rise to a great deal of unfairness”, bemoaned Robert Landfermann, a bass player in several projects and professor at the Mannheim University of Music, who has an inside look at what it’s like to work in the jazz sector.

Streaming: more than just a plan B

Live events could be held again in 2021, whether with or without outside funding, but in any case under strict Covid conditions. Meanwhile, streaming formats became increasingly professional last year. One initiative of outstanding quality is Berta.Berlin, an expertly curated concert video format focussing on the Berlin scene. Its “independent, non-profit and self-financed” recordings of jazz events from all sorts of different locations were released and marketed via various digital channels in 2021. With their high-fidelity sound and high-definition video quality, these videos have set a very high standard for digital productions of German jazz …

German venues like the Loft in Cologne, the Ella & Louis in Mannheim and the Jazzhalle in Hamburg employed a wide range of different streaming strategies for their events. The Jazzfest Berlin (November 4–7) went as far as holding a free online trans-Atlantic festival with dedicated lines running all the way to Cairo, Johannesburg and São Paulo. In the concrete main hall of the Silent Green Kulturquartier, an independent "cultural quarter” and venue set in a beautiful former crematorium in Berlin Wedding, the audience was surrounded by a specially designed multi-screen environment: four independently controlled screens simultaneously showing commissioned audio-visual works from São Paulo and live events from partner venues. This hybrid and decentralized festival did have to grapple with some technical glitches, but it can certainly serve as a model for the future.

“Close together from afar” was the motto and modus operandi of the jazzahead! 2021, which was – true to its motto – held largely online in April and May. The live stream was initially available only to registered trade visitors, but the “showcase concerts” were subsequently made available to the general public.

Festivals of all sizes reactivated

Festivals large and small went ahead again last year on budgets large and small, too: from the bustling Jazzkeller69 concert series, which was held at a new venue in Berlin in 2021 under the aegis of club president and veteran organizer in the independent jazz scene Wolf P. "Assi" Gloede, the Moers experimental festival (celebrating its golden jubilee), the small-scale programme at Wuppertal’s Ort, the Winterjazz festival curated by Angelika Niescier in Cologne and the new experimental series Monheim Triennale with its impressive launch in June to the (very open) Jazzopen at Stuttgart’s (very imposing) Schlossplatz.

German Jazz Award: an emancipated successor to the Echo

Last year saw the introduction of the German Jazz Prize, an international distinction awarded by Germany’s Commissioner for Culture, Monika Grütters, for outstanding artistic achievements in jazz or in promoting jazz music. Taking the place of the retired Echo Jazz, it is endowed with €10,000 and awarded in 31 different categories, so it’s an “emancipated” version, so to speak, of its predecessor. Its declared aim is to “present and preserve the diverse jazz scene in Germany, to recognize and promote exceptional artistic and innovative creativity and achievements in German and international jazz, and to more firmly establish jazz as an art form in society”. Prize winners included the Berlin-based Japanese pianist Aki Takase, guitarist Ronny Graupe from Karl-Marx-Stadt (now called Chemnitz again), the Julia Hülsmann Quartet with Uli Kempendorff (“Album of the Year”) and Philipp Gropper's PHILM (“Band of the Year”). Two prizes (“Drummer” and “Artist of the Year”) went to Berlin-based Christian Lillinger, who in various configurations is continually experimenting with new approaches to collective improvisation and exploring the intersections between jazz and New Music.

… And some more prizes

The aforementioned Berlin-based pianist and composer Aki Takase also won the Albert Mangelsdorff Lifetime Achievement Award. The Hessian Jazz Prize went to pianist Christof Sänger, Baden-Württemberg’s Jazz Prize to Stuttgart-based guitarist and composer Christoph Neukirch, the Berlin Jazz Prize to the Berlin composer and pianist Hannes Zerbe, and the Hamburg Jazz Prize of the Dr. E. A. Langner Foundation to composer and drummer Silvan Strauss from the Allgäu region of southern Germany. Peter Brötzmann, saxophonist, clarinettist, visual artist, activist and legend in his own time, also received multiple awards… and turned 80 last year.

Inclusive scene – politicizing jazz?

In reaction to the “line-up” of the German Jazz Prize, a group of musicians issued a public statement objecting to the underrepresentation of People of Colour among the board and jury members as well as among the nominees: “The gender parity achieved in this year's German Jazz Prize is a very important step for the jazz scene, but only one small aspect of diversity – and nowhere near enough,” insisted the signatories.

The German Jazz Union were also politically active on their own behalf last year: in the run-up to the 2021 federal elections, this representative body of the German jazz scene put eight questions to almost all the parties in the running: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Die Linke, CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP. In their responses, the parties expressed robust support in principle for many of the Union’s specific cultural and professional policy positions. Whatever may come, jazz made in Germany demands to be heard in the halls of power – and to get more than lip service from the future powers that be.

On the whole, observes Reiner Michalke, director of Monheim festival, “a young generation are now trying to harmonize their music and their lives with their conception of a better world”. In other words, jazz is (finally) getting back to social issues in Germany. Hence the theme of the Darmstadt Jazzinstitut’s Jazzforum (September 30 to October 2), which was held as a biennial last year: Roots / Heimat: Wie offen ist der Jazz? (“Roots/Homeland: How open is jazz?”). The speakers at the forum discussed those “roots” and the significance of the emotional, ethnic and family origins and “affiliations” of musicians all over the world. Meanwhile, after a transitional phase, Germany’s oldest jazz magazine passed the baton to the next generation in 2021: Jazz Podium’s makeover under Adam Olschewski and Anja Freckmann was successfully completed – without sacrificing substance or, most importantly, political awareness in the process.

The German Jazz Union has also widened its focus to offer online events (starting 13 October) for professional and aspiring jazz musicians about gender & diversity, sustainability, education and professionalization. This “Insight Out” Digital Academy is funded by the Initiative Musik.

Berlin and Cologne remain German jazz capitals

The Cologne Jazzweek was very successfully launched late last summer to showcase the diversity, vitality and variety of the Cologne jazz scene enriched by international exchange. German musicians, many of them locals, joined forces with international musicians at various venues all over town. A burgeoning hub of German jazz, Cologne holds a number of key assets, including high-quality music schools in and around the city, its cultural importance as an international hub near the French and Dutch borders, the high density of professional-calibre jam sessions – all these ingredients made for a rousing festival with international appeal. A key element of its success was the active involvement of the local scene, whose forces have been pooled to form the Kölner Jazzkonferenz since 2015, which organizes the new festival.

In April, the Europe Jazz Network presented the Jazzfestival Berlin, one of Europe’s oldest jazz festivals, with its EJN Award for Adventurous Programming at the EJN Jazz Conference in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. This annual distinction is conferred on a festival or venue that stands out for its interesting and exciting programming. Among other things, the jury had this to say about the Jazzfestival Berlin: “Three years ago it appointed a young woman as artistic director – the first in its history – and in the year of the pandemic it created a fantastic programme in several locations including a live “musical bridge” between Berlin and New York, reminding us of the importance of collaboration and exchange at a time of acute isolation.”

Overall, the Berlin jazz scene is still considered the most experimental and cross-genre scene in Germany – seamlessly running the gamut from techno and hip hop to free improvisation.

It’s a formative experience for everyone, especially for budding jazz musicians, to find it suddenly even harder to reconcile our actions with our intentions than in “normal” times. The positive effect may be an elevated state of mindfulness and soul-searching, as we ask ourselves now more than ever: What is the connection between my own actions and current social developments? And how much more is there to jazz than just the music itself?