Increasingly vibrant, diverse, young, female & precarious
The German jazz scene is alive and well. Even after two years of Covid, it’s extremely diverse and innovative. On the other hand, despite various state “support packages”, hardly anyone in the scene made it through this dry spell unscathed. Clubs were shuttered, festivals, tours and concerts cancelled. Many highly qualified professionals in the event sector, especially technical and catering staff, have ended up working in other industries and only a few came back after the lockdown.
By Ulf Drechsel
Neustart Kultur: Relaunching the performing artsIn 2022, musicians finally got to play to real live audiences again, which felt like a real liberation, a renaissance of live music-making.
Since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) has provided billions in aid to the cultural sector, which has hugely benefited the German jazz scene, too. The funds have kept a great many festivals, concert tours and venues afloat, and enabled recording artists to go ahead with studio productions, among other things.
During lockdown, a number of clubs tried to brave the odds against them by streaming concerts. Shortly after the first lockdown in 2020, for instance, the A-TRANE jazz club in Berlin invested in professional video equipment to stream concerts without a live audience. For one thing, this gave musicians a chance to play familiar venues and reach their listeners at least virtually, in their homes. For another, the clubs holding virtual concerts didn’t completely fall off the public’s radar. They’ve still got their streaming equipment and are naturally still using it these days under normal operating conditions, thereby tapping into new distribution channels for live music.
Back to small venuesIn 2022, the nation’s clubs were allowed to open their doors to paying concertgoers again. Although music lovers had had to forgo live gigs for a long time, they didn’t immediately flock to concerts – probably because of the lingering fear of contagion. But another factor may be the rising inflation, which makes everyday life so much more expensive and forces many consumers to cut spending on culture first. Organizers reported high turnouts for concerts that had been postponed during the pandemic (some of them several times) and tickets to which had been purchased up to two years earlier. Concerts for which new tickets had to be purchased, on the other hand, were less well attended.
Nationwide, about 700 jazz venues were still up and running in 2022. Where jazz concerts were given in several clubs in a single city (as in Berlin or Cologne, for example), it was easier for each club to strictly adhere to its own programming concept. But in towns with only a club or two, they were often faced with the challenge of having to cover a whole panoply of styles – alternating between jazz, blues, pop and rock.
APPLAUS for JazzIn November 2022 in Erfurt, Germany, a total of 101 mostly-jazz clubs and concert series in 16 different German states were awarded the APPLAUS, a federal arts prize for “independent venue programming” conferred by the Minister of State for Culture in close partnership with the Initiative Musik since 2013. The prize money totalled €2.5 million, which breaks down into 22 prizes of €50,000 each in the category “Best Live Music Programmes”, 28 prizes of €30,000 for “Best Live Music Venues”, and 49 prizes of €10,000 for “Best Small Venues and Concert Series”.
First prizes went to the Rote Sonne in Munich for “Best Live Music Programme”, UT Connewitz in Leipzig for “Best Live Music Venue”, and Jazz Montez in Frankfurt for “Best Venue”.
In addition, special prizes were awarded in the categories “Awareness” (Club Institut für Zukunft, Leipzig), “Innovation” (objekt klein a, Dresden) and “Sustainability” (Bahnhof Püttlingen and Kulturverein Platenlaase).
Prizes galoreFor several decades now, various festivals, public broadcasters, federal states, cities, organizations and associations in Germany have been awarding prizes to jazz musicians for their outstanding achievements. The most recent – as the successor to the Echo Jazz – is the German Jazz Prize, which was re-endowed in 2022 by the Minister of State for Culture. A total of 31 prizes of €10,000 each were awarded in five categories. Most of them went to German and international musicians. But there were prizes for journalists, festivals and venues too, as well as for specific music and radio productions. This past year’s German Jazz Prize was preceded by a feisty debate in the German jazz scene about the selection and award criteria and about the makeup of the jury, which led to a successful call for greater diversity among the prizewinners.
Ernst-Ludwig “Luten” Petrowsky, an 89-year-old saxophonist and one of the key figures in German contemporary jazz, was honoured for his life’s work. And fellow saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, who’s continually coming up with remarkable new music projects and band concepts, received the 2022 German Jazz Award for “Woodwinds”. Shannon Barnett, an Australian trombonist of enormous stylistic versatility who’s been living in Cologne since 2014, garnered the award for “Brass Instruments”. Aly Keïta from Côte d’Ivoire was distinguished in the “Special Instruments” category for emancipating the use of African balafon in jazz. And the Trickster Orchestra, started up by Cymin Samawatie and Ketan Bhatti in 2013, was named “Large Ensemble of the Year” for its cross-cultural and cross-genre musical profile. Drummer, composer and producer Magro epitomizes a new generation of musicians who switch quite naturally between jazz, pop, hip hop and soul, thereby turning a younger public on to jazz music. Which was one reason his Trippin album won “Debut Album of the Year”.
Political and social issues in German jazzThe war in Ukraine, which has shaken up the whole world, has also had repercussions in the German jazz scene. Ukrainian musicians now living in Germany have been all the more noticeably present on concert stages and in the media lately. Several benefit concerts have been held to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people and raise funds for aid programmes.
One of the first and biggest of them took place on 7 April 2022 in Berlin. Deutsche Jazzunion, Jazz thing, Tangible Music and jazzed hosted a benefit concert under the motto “Peace on Earth!” under the auspices of Berlin’s Senator for Culture and Europe Klaus Lederer and in association with the public broadcaster rbb, the German Jazz Orchestra (BuJazzO) and the Deutscher Musikrat (German Music Council). Initiated by the journalist Wolf Kampmann, organized by the Jazz Institut Berlin, and featuring over 70 musicians, the event went on for nearly seven hours in the main auditorium of Berlin’s Universität der Künste (University of the Arts), raising roughly €15,000 in donations for Doctors Without Borders. The lineup for Peace On Earth! was a who’s who of German jazz artists, some of whom had never been on stage together before, including Aki Takase, Thomas Quasthoff, Katharine Mehrling, Efrat Alony, Ganna Gryniva, Johannes Barthelmes (sax) & Bardo Henning (p), Lisa Bassenge, Ulrike Haage, Viktoria Leléka, Jürgen Kupke, Hannes Zerbe et al.
Diversity and gender equality were the dominant social issues in the jazz community last year, as reflected in the Deutsche Jazzunion’s in-depth “Jazz Study 2022”, which asked a thousand professional jazz musicians about their working and living conditions. The survey showed a 9% increase in the proportion of female jazz musicians, from 18.3% in 2016 to 27.3% in 2022, and a corresponding 9% decline in the proportion of male musicians: from 80.4% in 2016 to 71.4% now. 1.3% of the respondents in 2021 identified as non-binary (2016: 1.4%). The rise in the number of female jazz musicians goes to show that targeted local, regional and nationwide efforts to promote women are beginning to bear fruit. The largest contingents of professional jazz musicians in Germany are concentrated in Berlin (29%) and North Rhine-Westphalia (24%).
The various funding and “aid packages” for jazz musicians in Germany have not markedly improved their economic plight. In 2021, their average taxable annual income was only €20,000 (2020: €19,000, 2019: €21,000), which is less than 60% of the average income of the German working population. And female jazz musicians in Germany earn about 25% less than their male counterparts. Which means a great many active jazz musicians today are at risk of poverty in their old age.
Back on the big stageThe roughly 300 existing big and small German jazz festivals run the gamut from tradition to avant-garde. The end of the Covid lockdowns jump-started a return to normal for some of them, too. The many streaming formats of the previous two years – some of which involved considerable expense – have once again given way to live encounters between artists and audiences, a shared communal experience for which no virtual festival in the world can provide an adequate substitute.
This past year showed that old-established festivals – like the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt, Jazzfest Berlin, Moers Festival, Jazz Open Stuttgart, Leipziger Jazztage, Jazz Baltica, Enjoy Jazz, XJAZZ! and Elbjazz – still hold plenty of international appeal.
Many other festivals have now become fixtures of the German jazz scene that also attract attention beyond the country’s borders: cases in point include the Jazzmeile Thüringen, Jazz Rally Düsseldorf, Jazzfestival Viersen, Jazztage Dresden, Women in Jazz (Halle/Saale) and Jazzwerkstatt Peitz.
Newer festivals are often organized and curated by musicians or collectives, e.g. Cologne’s Klaeng Festival and Jazzweek and Berlin’s Kollektiv Nights and be kind festival, which premiered in 2022.
Solitude spurs creativityDespite declining sales of jazz recordings, a whole slew of new jazz productions came out in 2022. Lots of musicians took advantage of the compulsory Covid break in 2020 and 2021 to spend more time honing their chops and composing and recording music – often in home studios. Guitarist Andreas Willers, for example, put together an album called Search & Rescue at his loft in Kleinmachnow, on the outskirts of Berlin, in 2021 and released it in 2022. He recorded various instruments, electronic tracks and vocals using a multi-playback process that effectively fused and condensed his experiences and influences. During the 2020 lockdown, Christian Lillinger, an internationally acclaimed drummer, also produced a highly complex solo album entirely on his own, with the aid of a wide array of electronic equipment. The album’s called Konus.
Günter Baby Sommer, Lillinger’s former teacher, will be turning 80 in 2023 and yet never tires of embarking on new musical adventures. Sommer has now teamed up with Antonio, Robert and Simon Lucaciu, three brothers born two generations after the veteran percussionist, to make an album called Karawane, on which his playful, joyful drumming proves him forever young.
Baritone saxophonist Almut Schlichting and double bassist Sven Hinse joined forces ten years ago to form the duo Subsystem. On Drei, their third album to date, they still tell exciting, surprising and entertaining tales from the realm of low frequencies.
Trombonist Nils Wogram and guitarist Joe Sachse could have got together for an unprepared spontaneous dialogue that would have doubtless proved highly entertaining for them and their listenership alike. But they made exactly the right choice in bringing some compositions along into the studio, which they then fleshed out into sonic panoramas in an open-ended give-and-take, which they dubbed Freies Geröll [“Free Debris”].
Saxophonist Charlotte Greve spends most of her time in New York, but has never burnt her bridges to Germany. One reason may be the Lisbeth Quartett. Over the years, under Greve’s leadership, the band have developed a very homogeneous sound that reaches its apogee to date on their latest release – which is called Release.
Despite the difficult economic conditions, Germany’s jazz scene got its “mojo” back last year and displayed unabated energy, variety and creativity. The swelling ranks of young aspiring musicians, trained in undiminished numbers at a number of conservatories and music schools, are working up fresh, creative ideas at German venues big and small these days. This development, more than anything else, makes us curious and hopeful about the future of German jazz.