after 1989 Despite Differences in History, A Fusion at Heart – Jazz in Germany after the Fall of the Wall

In Germany, the past two decades have been a fight for identity. In the case of jazz, this came to mean a new definition of both the relationship between the two Germanys as well as its international connections. Two decades after the fall of the wall, the scene has at last managed to consolidate itself – with Berlin as its epicentre and several other, lively, alternatives.

'Klaus Doldingers Pass', Offside Festival 2008, Geldern; 'Klaus Doldingers Pass', Offside Festival 2008, Geldern; | Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License (CC-BY-SA), Foto: Nomo / Michael Hoefner The initial situation couldn’t have been more off balance. After the wall came down, two radically different social systems stood face to face with each other – after both had embedded their musicians in structures fixed over decades. As a cultural legacy of the allied forces, jazz in western Germany had established a network of clubs, concert events, record labels and trust organisations. The outlook was international. With the exception of a handful of artistic enclaves, such as Peter Brötzmann’s form of free jazz, the experimental avant-garde in the style of Albert Mangelsdorff or the type of fusion sound developed by Klaus Doldinger, Germany saw itself as a global hub for concerts – with the result that while western Germany may have played host to many an American artist, hardly any of the country’s home-grown jazz was ever really acknowledged outside its borders.

Under State Surveillance

'Manfred Krug und die Jazzoptimisten', Eroeffnung Sommerfilmtage, Berlin 1964; 'Manfred Krug und die Jazzoptimisten', Eroeffnung Sommerfilmtage, Berlin 1964; | Copyright: Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Bild 183-C0726-0006-001 / Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License (CC-BY-SA), Foto: J. Spremberg as Part of the Cultural ApparatusIn the east, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on the other hand, jazz explored different alleys. Initially celebrated as an anti-fascist movement after 1949, then marginalised as imperialistic, the music carved out its own niche in late 1960’s society. Despite the fact that free jazz was also viewed as an act of resistance, it wasn’t necessarily considered antagonistic towards socialism on the whole, but against conventions in general. Politics and art came to an arrangement: the political leadership saw hardly any potential for upheaval in jazz, and instead discovered the intrinsic value of musical creativity in the 1970’s as an exportable good and a means of promotion. In the 1980’s, jazz musicians were hardly considered rebels, but were more part of a clearly structured, cultural apparatus under state scrutiny. In terms of content and composition more or less free to do as they liked. As individuals tied to the mechanisms of a totalitarian system.

With the opening of the borders in 1989, both of these German extremes – a matured sense of internationalism, ultimately weak in personality, on the one hand, and a tolerated, yet self-referential form of marginalisation, on the other – had to approach each other constructively. The party came to a quick halt, and both sides had to get back down to brass tacks. Jazz musicians in the east, who often made their living in state orchestras, lost their full-time jobs after institutions such as the Rundfunk der DDR (Radio GDR), merged with the ARD broadcasting units ORB and MDR in 1991 or were either dissolved or consolidated. For many the new freedoms brought huge constraints. But from a musical and aesthetic perspective, everything went. Artists from eastern Germany saw themselves confronted with an individualism, which demanded the utmost in self-discipline, self-organisation, willingness to communicate and capacity for teamwork. Musicians from the west initially saw little potential in the new federal states searching for a new identity.

Regional Initiatives

The 1990’s therefore posed both opportunities and challenges. Cities like Leipzig, Dresden, but also Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne and Hamburg needed a new definition of jazz. Following an initial phase of budding growth in Berlin, where the scene mainly revolved around itself, the city evolved into the centre of contemporary jazz in Germany. Other cities were able to assert their individual segments and characteristics: Munich as the headquarters of important independent labels like Enja Records, ECM Records and ACT Music & Vision, or Cologne as Germany’s leading venue for soul jazz. In particular, musicians from smaller towns felt drawn to Berlin, where rent was cheap, training at higher education institutions acceptable, and the creative environment inspiring. However, this move towards concentration of the scene was put into perspective by countless regional initiatives. Festivals from Görlitz to Salzau and Moers to Burghausen continue to impress and stoke audiences’ interest in jazz – far from the main centres of activity. Schools like Weimar’s Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, for example, or the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden are decentralised hubs of learning and training for the next generation. The federal radio stations also cultivate regional variations of jazz in shows and live recordings.

This has led to a coming together of various new strands and developments. The dominance of American jazz culture, on the one hand, and the aesthetic of resistance on the other hand are now consigned to the history books. While Berlin may set the tone and pace, regional variations complement the cultural fabric. More than ever before, artistic identity is grounded in the individual musicians or in smaller groupings. And it’s in initiatives like Bremen’s “jazzahead!” fair and the “German Jazz Meeting” since 2006 that have raised the perception of jazz to a commercially and politically relevant level. Following a phase of reorientation and consolidation, jazz in Germany is today built on a solid, regenerated and – despite all historical contrasts – unified foundation.