A decade that rang in the changes, festivals and collectives
What went down in German jazz last year? Tina Heine looks back on major anniversaries, the German Jazz Union's achievements and standout releases this past year – as well as jazz festivals over the past decade.
By Tina Heine
Looking back on the year 2019, we might as well widen the focus for a more sweeping view of the whole decade now drawing to a close, especially considering how much has changed for German jazz in the 2010s. A whole slew of new festivals have been started up over the past ten years, including the Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg, which was created to provide a popular platform for contemporary jazz, to instil a new self-assurance in the scene and reach a new listenership. The Elbjazz Festival set out to appeal to a segment of the public who still have little access to jazz. The means to that end comprised a fresh publicity strategy targeting young listeners, a broadminded mix of music genres and the use of unusual venues along the waterfront. And the plan worked: Elbjazz attendance figures now exceed 20,000, and the average age of concertgoers is now between 30 and 50 years old.
Likewise in Hamburg, the feel.jazz Festival started up in 2017 recently moved to the Gängeviertel, where techno fans can check out various styles of jazz before spending dancing till dawn – or even noon – to never-ending beats.
Over the past decade, this new scene and these fresh new spirits have been opening new doors for jazz musicians and for the public. As a result, the jazz audience is growing in Berlin, too. The XJAZZ Festival, for example, founded in 2014, reported 20,000 admissions to its gigs at Kreuzberg clubs and bars in 2019 – which is no mean feat on the shoestring budget of meagre subsidies it receives from the public coffers. The A L'ARME Festival (est. 2012) is breaking new ground in its musical programming with Louis Rastig and Karina Mertin’s zesty blend of jazz and noise at Berlin's Radialsystem. In 2019 their enthused international audience was younger and more diverse than ever before – thanks not only to new venues like the Berghain and the Holzmarkt next door, explains Rastig, but also to their successful efforts to bring young participants on board and the inclusion of electro-acoustic compositions and experimental electronica.
New marketing methodsJazz musicians have also found new ways to market their own talent and reach new audiences. For some years now, the Hamburg collective JazzLab have been introducing a young target group to a very fresh brand of urban jazz with a concert series and an eponymous record company. They were rewarded for their efforts in 2019 with the Applaus Venue Programming Prize of the Initiative Musik. Two collectives are now firmly established in Berlin and Cologne, Germany’s two main hubs of contemporary jazz: the Jazzkollektiv Berlin (est. 2007), with its Kollektiv Nights festival format, and the Cologne-based KLAENG Kollektiv (est. 2009), with its KLAENG Festival, which fêted its 10th anniversary in 2019. Reiner Michalke, artistic director of the Stadtgarten in Cologne, reports that the KLAENG Festival has evolved into one of the annual highlights at his venue.
Another event at the Stadtgarten opened the 2019 festival year along with the Jazzfestival Münster: the Winterjazz Festival, which presents a distillation of the Cologne scene, free of charge, to such a young crowd that we hardly need to worry about the jazzophilic demographic dying out anytime soon. And its director, Angelika Niescier, is one of the few women to run a jazz festival in Germany.
Gender equality in jazzLast year, the German jazz world was still mulling the question of whether Berlin’s renowned Jazzfest should be entrusted to a young woman like Nadine Deventer, who took over in 2018. But the 2019 Jazzfest proved yet again that it not only should, but must. This large-scale Berlin event invited festivalgoers to thrash out differences of opinion and current political issues. In Play yourself, man! , Wolfram Knauer’s new book on the history of jazz, he writes, "Jazz is becoming more diverse, more feminine, queerer." This ties into issues of gender equality in jazz – and may be a reference to current developments at the Berlin festival.
But we still have a long way to go towards parity. A case in point was the Jazzinstitut’s 16th Darmstadt Jazzforum last year, entitled Positionen! Jazz und Politik (“Positions! Jazz and Politics”): women participated in only three of the 14 events and panel discussions held at the forum.
Jazz and PoliticsThe Darmstadt Jazzforum discussed what part jazz and improvised music can play in socio-political debates in Germany, what political messages, if any, can be immanent in music, and how performing artists might be able to get more involved in current debates. Who decides which social values to associate with jazz: the artists themselves, the organizers, the media or only the audience? It goes without saying that jazz doesn't necessarily represent a better world of democracy and solidarity – actually, other kinds of music probably possess greater protest potential in Germany. And yet improvisation allows for a more direct, timely, abstract or concrete reaction than just about any other performance practice. But does this fact in and of itself place an ethical obligation on everyone involved in the creative process?
This question has run through the history of jazz music for a long time now – as pointed up in a new book by Wolfram Knaur on the history of German jazz from the German Empire to the year 2019. Knaur, the director of the Jazzinstitut in Darmstadt, places the history of jazz music in its cultural and social context and shows that jazz has always been influenced by social issues, even if they were sometimes more and sometimes less prominent in the consciousness of the artists.
Goals of the German Jazz UnionAnd this shows in the active personal involvement of members of the Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker (German Jazz Musicians’ Union), which was renamed Deutsche Jazzunion (German Jazz Union) in 2019. Ever since Julia Hülsmann and Felix Falk took over in 2012, the union have been setting things in motion through social advocacy work, including efforts to establish a minimum wage or minimum fee. Not only did they exceed their target of increasing membership from 80 in 2012 to 1000 in 2019, but they also got organizers, sponsors and musicians to join in demanding decent pay for jazz gigs.
So last year’s rechristening as the “Deutsche Jazzunion” also marks a change of focus to pursue new priorities. In fact, the name change was preceded by a statement of intent, endorsed by over 450 musicians and institutions, to work together for more equality in the German jazz scene as well as an acknowledgment that jazz made in Germany doesn’t necessarily mean made by only German, or German-born, musicians. That gender equality should also be a priority is only natural in this day and age – and, fortunately, almost standard nowadays.
JubileesThe German jazz scene celebrated a number of major anniversaries in 2019, including the 10th anniversary of the Klaeng Festival in Cologne, which invited Larry Goldings as artist in residence for the first time last year, and the 40th anniversary of the Jazzfest Münster. Plus a golden jubilee: ECM Records came out with a special edition of 50 groundbreaking albums for its 50th anniversary. Asked about ECM’s "recipe for success", its growing list of LPs, and whether he believes in CDs, Manfred Eicher said in an interview with DIE ZEIT that he believed in the dramaturgy of a good album as an "antidote" to our "soundbite culture" in this age of streaming.
Last but not least, jazz clarinettist Rolf Kühn turned 90 in September 2019 and celebrated by touring tirelessly last year. Also last year, Rolf and his brother Joachim Kühn were the subject of yet another impressive documentary (Zwei Brüder spielen sich frei – “Two brothers play their way free”) by author and producer Stephan Lamby.
New releasesA year in review will hardly do without naming at least some of the year’s standout albums. And the names on the list go to show why the name "German Jazz Union" makes more sense than "Union of German Jazz Musicians", given the cosmopolitan makeup of the German jazz scene and, conversely, all the German musicians now playing the international scene.
Ladies first: Angelika Niescier, a busy organizer and an exciting musician, has recorded a remarkable record with her New York Trio alongside Chris Tordini and Gerald Cleaver, as well as featured guest trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The music traces arcs of suspense and rich contrasts ranging from off-the-wall wacky (The Surge) to cinematic melancholy (A Truck Passing A Clock Tower).
Early in the year, percussionist Samuel Wootons played a grippingly emotional concert with FatJazz at Uebel & Gefährlich in Hamburg, which did double duty as his "senior project" for a BA from the Hochschule für Musik und Theater. Shortly afterwards, his band TOYTOY released their second album, Alex Eckert Universe, on the JazzLab label. An exciting mix of funky hip hop fusion and modal moods, all the tracks are by guitarist Alex Eckert.
Koma Saxo, whose members are mostly based in Berlin, make much rougher and yet no less well-wrought music. Conceived and performed by bassist Petter Eldh with Christian Lillinger, Otis Sandsjö, Jonas Kullhammar and Mikko Innanen, this album achieves the rare feat of capturing on tape the spirited dynamism of the band’s Afro-beat punk jazz that wowed the crowd at the jazz festival in Saalfelden – music that washes the mind and limbs free, now and in future.
Liun + The Science Fiction Band, a new combo fronted by the marvellous singer Lucia Cadotsch, with Wanja Slavin, Dan Freeman and Ludwig Wandinger, released a debut album called Time Rewind in November. Is it still jazz? Well, that’s beside the point. It's pop with off-the-wall sounds and Cadotsch’s uniquely haunting vocals. Is it good music? Definitely. Which is all that really matters.