Jazz 2017 Taking a stand

Angelika Niescier, winner of the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize in 2017
Angelika Niescier, Albert-Mangelsdorff-Preisträgerin 2017 | Photo (detail): Arne Reimer

The more recognition federal and state policymakers show for the creative output of the German jazz scene, the more jazz musicians engage in public discourse about issues of wider social import. Public recognition breeds confidence within the scene: German jazz musicians not only weighed in on a number of public issues in 2017, they even took a combative stand that got some of those debates going in the first place.

Before the Union of German Jazz Musicians (UDJ) could present the €15,000 Albert Mangelsdorff Prize/German Jazz Award in 2017, there were some speeches. In a handful of brief addresses and an encomium, some elderly gentlemen on the podium at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele held forth about how much the prize-winner, Angelika Niescier, has done to “feminize” jazz in Germany and make it more “gender-equitable”. But when at last the Cologne-based saxophonist was asked to give an acceptance speech herself, her only reply was a curt: “Not anymore.” 

After that long-drawn-out award ceremony as part of the Jazzfest Berlin, Niescier, who was born in Poland in 1970 and has been living in Germany since 1981, did the only logical thing on 3 November with her New York trio: Chris Tordini (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Niescier (sax) played a laureate concert that left no question about why she deserved the award. The complex but succinctly articulated themes on the saxophone opened up vast expanses in which the free expressive play of the musicians’ powers of imagination shaped the improvisational flow.

Jazz women

However, women actually are badly off in the jazz scene. Thanks to the engagement of the women on the UDJ board, this issue, which concerns society as a whole, too, was repeatedly brought up in panel discussions and open forums about German jazz in 2017. Jazz thing magazine invited five musicians of various ages to a round-table discussion about the current situation of women in jazz. The gender pay gap, a major bone of contention elsewhere, does not seem to be an issue here, and yet women are structurally discriminated against in jazz: at the 18 German conservatoires that do have a jazz department, for example, there isn’t a single woman instrumental professor in the department; only a few women work as jazz editors in public broadcasting at, say, ARD; and women organizers of jazz festivals and concerts are few and far between in Germany. “As in ‘buddies’,” points out Berliner pianist Julia Hülsmann: “This is my buddy, I can work with him by day and stand around at the bar with him by night. We women have to break through this mind-set – most likely with a quota because men are not about to give up their pole positions voluntarily.”

The Jazzfest Berlin is leading the way by setting a good example. In April, Thomas Oberender, who is in charge of this festival in his capacity as director of the Berliner Festspiele, sprang a surprise when he presented the successor to English journalist Richard Williams as artistic director: starting with next year’s edition, Nadin Deventer will be programming the Jazzfest Berlin for three years. Not only will the 40-year-old cultural manager be the first woman in this post, she’s also a solid twenty years younger than her predecessors. Oberender is expecting this choice to usher in a cautious shift in the festival’s orientation: “As a trained jazz musician she has an unerring feel for quality, and as a curator the impulse to put jazz across as a progressive art form: experimental, smart and politically involved.”

Berlin House of Jazz project in limbo, Cologne Stadtgarten makeover decided

If anyone deserves singling out for the past year in jazz, this time around it’s an initiative: the IG Jazz Berlin, which was founded by Berlin musicians in 2011 and has been the Berlin Senate’s interlocutor ever since in matters of jazz funding. The IG Jazz Berlin proved tenacious and unyielding in defending the interests of the Berlin jazz scene, though open to compromise and discussion, when in November 2016 Till Brönner went public with the idea of establishing a “House of Jazz” in the capital. IG Jazz managed to ward off the prominent trumpeter’s surprise coup – namely to build this national cultural-policy lighthouse project for the jazz scene on the grounds of the Alte Münze complex in Berlin Mitte, for the renovation of which the federal government are prepared to shell out €12.5 million – partly because IG Jazz’s demand that it be included in the political decision-making process regarding Brönner’s “House of Jazz” was heard by the political powers that be.

So Brönner’s dream seems to be over – but not solely owing to the resistance of IG Jazz. Since taking office in mid-December 2016, Berlin’s Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer has adamantly refused to accept what he feels is a Trojan horse gifted by the federal government. “Of course we’re happy about the federal government’s commitment to the Berlin arts scene,” says Lederer, a member of Die Linke (The Left party). “Besides the fact that it’s not at all certain yet whether these federal funds will actually be disbursed, we won’t let the Bundestag appropriations committee tell us what to do with the property. This is the critical point because it runs contrary to our own approach and our understanding that we make decisions according to our own criteria and on a participatory basis.”

What remains in the lap of the gods over in Berlin is a reality in North Rhine-Westphalia. The State of North Rhine-Westphalia and the City of Cologne are going halves to fund the Stadtgarten in Cologne, first to the tune of €400,000 in 2017, then €600,000 every year starting in 2018 with a view to transforming this venue, run for thirty-odd years now by the jazz musicians’ initiative Kölner Jazzhaus, into a “European centre for jazz and contemporary music”. This sizable sum is made possible by NRW arts funding legislation and Cologne’s Cultural Development Plan, both of which explicitly stress the Stadtgarten’s musical and cultural importance. Curator series, residencies for musicians, sound labs: these are now some of the key components of the Stadtgarten’s future programming.

Reboot

With the Stadtgarten, Reiner Michalke, one of the venue’s two directors, has achieved his goal of developing an innovative music programme with plentiful public funding. In Moers, however, where for ten years Michalke had lined up the programming for the improvised music festival that was started up back in 1972, he was so fed up with local politicians’ incessant attacks on the moers festival that he chucked the whole business in the summer of 2016. After he quit, it took Moers Kultur GmbH, the municipal company that organizes the festival, several months to agree on a successor to Michalke – and to the outgoing manager as well: finally, in December 2016, bassist Tim Isfort, who grew up in Moers, took over as the new artistic director, followed in January by Claus Arndt as manager of Moers Kultur GmbH.

The main lineup on the stage of the Moers Festivalhalle in early June bore the new organizing team’s distinctive stamp, featuring performances by the likes of The Bad Plus, Brian Blade, De Beeren Gieren and Cocaine Piss. And yet in the weeks leading up to the event, Isfort declared his intention of reconciling at long last this internationally renowned festival for current music with the city of Moers and putting on a variety of performances and happenings at sundry squares and sites in the city centre over Whit weekend – with free admission. That makes sense to him and to the new manager, both native sons of the “city of the counts of Moers”. Still, locals have every right to ask Isfort and Arndt the question why. After all, in its 40-odd year history, the moers festival has never been rooted in the life of the city; in fact it has always existed in opposition to the citizenry of this “big small town” on the Western edge of the Ruhr; and that defiant attitude has always been one source of the creative impulses for the festival programme.

Jazz oddity

The SWR Jazz Prize is the oldest award for improvised music in Germany. In 2017 it went to drummer Christian Lillinger, b. 1984 in Lübben, Brandenburg. “Christian Lillinger is a standout phenomenon in German jazz,” the panel of judges acclaimed in their April announcement:
“Courageous and imaginative, he is constantly looking for ways to expand his expressive range – and he champions the non-conformist elements of the art form jazz. Lillinger’s high-octane drumming is as attentive to sound as it is virtuosic and, what is more, stylistically extremely polymorphic.”
 
In addition to several collectively run ensembles, Christian Lillinger’s Grund septet, including two basses, two horns, piano and vibes, is actually the only group with his name on it. This year, in 2018, Lillinger is celebrating the band’s tenth anniversary with the release of an album called COR at the beginning of January. This creative oddball produced his album with a techno DJ, who also mixed Grund’s music: the resulting sound has a brutal vibrancy that is worlds removed from the cliché of acoustically soft jazz. Not only that, but COR is coming out on Lillinger’s very own new label, Plaist Records – in the form of a vinyl LP!