Jazz 2016 Women play the lead!

Anna-Lena Schnabel Quintett

The “Jazzstudie” Report published this spring confirmed what we all suspected, namely that jazz musicians earn very little. But the jazz scene is alive and well, thanks also to increased support from cultural and political institutions. 2016 saw a just barely rescued festival, an unexpected windfall, a renewed interest in jazz-rock, and the struggle for women’s rights – a look back at the year in jazz. 

On the way to old age poverty

The results of the research “Living and working conditions for jazz musicians in Germany” were eagerly awaited. The study was initiated in 2015 by the Union of German Jazz Musicians (UDJ), the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt, and IG Jazz, and finally published in February 2016. It spelled out what everyone suspected: jazz musicians in Germany earn very little. Half of them get by on €1,000 or less per month. Honoraria in cities generally top out at around €50 per gig. The typical jazz musician is male, educated, has a university degree, lives in a big city, loves what he does, and is on the way to old age poverty.

Armed with these study results, the UDJ is now lobbying for jazz musicians in Berlin, also as part of the “Bundeskonferenz Jazz” association. There was one success story at the end of the year: the German Parliament will spend 8.2 million euros more on actively promoting rock, pop, and jazz starting in 2017. Jazz will see, among others, a doubling of funds to 2 million euros for the APPLAUS performance venue prize, a 1.5 million-euro increase in funds for artist and infrastructure promotion through “Initiative Musik,” and 200,000 euros more for the jazzahead! Convention starting in 2018.

Saved by the bell: Squabbles over the Moers-Festival

The Cologne Municipal Garden received some good news: it will soon be able to officially call itself the “European Center for Jazz and Improvisational Music”! This means that it will receive €400,000 in support for 2017, and €600,000 in 2018. The money comes half from the City of Cologne and half from the Region of North Rhine-Westphalia. This represents an unprecedented amount of grant money for a German jazz venue, and it opens up a world of unexpected possibilities.
 
Reiner Michalke, Artistic Director of the Municipal Garden, will be able to throw himself fully into his work and come up with an ambitious program. This past August, he left a job for which he was known across Germany; after 11 years, he resigned as Artistic Director of the Moers Festival, Germany’s preeminent festival for improvisational music. There had been bitter disputes between him and the director of Moers Kultur GmbH. After months of chaos, almost at the last minute, Tim Isfort, bassist, former director of the Traumzeit Festival, and Moers veteran, was named as the new Artistic Director for an initial term of three years. A new director of the cultural agency has also been named, which leaves everyone feeling hopeful.
 
Meanwhile, Berlin is dreaming of a “House of Jazz” along the Spree River. Following the American model, it will have a concert hall, music academy, research center, and residency program for a permanent orchestra, all housed under the same roof.  This is Till Brönner’s brainchild. The design is largely finished, and the financing has been jumpstarted. Construction costs are estimated at 25 million euros, and operating costs at 5.2 million euros per year. One thing is clear at this point: the organization aims to be world class. If all goes well, it will open its doors in 2020.

“Women in Jazz... What’s next? Dogs?”

2016 was generally “felt” to be a year for women in jazz. At least, it was on the agenda for festivals, research, and discussion forums. The topic emerged already last year: the Jazzinstitut in Darmstadt organized its last symposium entirely around the motto “Gender.” In the fall of 2016, a study by the German Cultural Council appeared titled “Women in Culture and the Media,” which also raised the issue anew in the music press.

Several festivals this year spotlighted women. In March, a collective of female jazz musicians called “Peng!” was founded in Essen, which went on to organize a festival of all-women performers. Across the border in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, only female groups took to the stage this year. The All Star Ensemble at the JazzBaltica Festival in 2016 was an entire Big Band of only female musicians. Finally, women led more than half the groups in Jazzfest Berlin’s 2016 program.  

So, was 2016 really the year of women in jazz? A brief glance at the statistics reveals the answer: a resounding “no way!” According to the aforementioned jazz study, only 20% of active jazz musicians are women. The percentage of women enrolling in jazz study programs remained flat at approximately 25%, and even fell somewhat in certain places. Female jazz musicians still have to contend with prejudice, dumb comments, and bad jokes. At the 23rd UDJ Forum in Cologne, women’s experiences in the traditionally male world of jazz were discussed under the rather provocative title “Women in the (Men’s) World of Jazz – what’s next? Dogs?” In 2016, women in jazz was more a concept than a reality.
This year in jazz nevertheless did have a female accent, due especially to the truly outstanding contributions of female musicians, a number of them at Jazzfest Berlin. Consider, for example, Anna-Lena Schnabel, the young saxophonist from Hamburg. In 2016, she issued her debut CD Bottles, Books & Bamboo, which reveals the extent 26 year-old’s determination and ability to express herself. Her artistic career is off to a very promising start. Saxophonist Angelika Niescier was a guest in Berlin with her group “NYC 5,” whose first recording was released this year as well. (As an aside, both Schnabel and Niescier welcomed Florian Weber on piano, whose playing was beautiful; he is surely one of the more influential musicians this year).

If there is one female musician who clearly personifies the high level at which women play jazz today, that would be Julia Hülsmann, pianist from Berlin. She also appeared at Jazzfest Berlin. In 2016, she was awarded the SWR-Jazzpreis award. She is currently directing a music project at the Jazz Institut Berlin, in which 14 female musicians grapple with “Women’s Issues.”

Back to the Future: Jazz Rock Today

It had been a while since we had heard anything new in jazz-rock, but 2016 changed that. In a return to the sounds and instruments of the 1970s, contemporary bands played a very current, exciting brand of fusion. Cologne is home to projects like Pool Party by bassist Oliver Lutz und Niels Kleins’ Tubes and Wires, and Berlin has given us The Shredz, an Art electronica-heavy Jazz-Trance-Quartet led by drummer Eric Schaefer. Projects such as Munich’s Monika Roscher Big Band instead blur the boundaries between jazz and contemporary pop to create something that resembles neither!

At the Cusp of Oblivion

2016 was rife with good, local jazz productions. Saxophonist Hayden Chisholm’s latest issue stood out both in terms of quality and quantity: for the second time in the last few years, he has released a 13-CD-Set (!), containing mostly contemporary tracks. In a few years, Chisholm is able to put together what takes most people a lifetime. Titled Cusp of Oblivion, the compositions range from unaccompanied solo to big band performances, and the styles, from free jazz improvisation to traditional swing. The mesmerizing fury of Chisholm’s latest release proves that he is one of the most creative musicians in Germany’s jazz scene today.

Birthdays! 10 years for…

2016 was also a year of birthdays in jazz. Two ensembles, still considered newcomers, celebrated their ten-year anniversary, representing the sounds of the two most important jazz cities in Germany, Cologne and Berlin. One is the much beloved trio led by pianist Pablo Held. His music, at once colorful, delicate, and explosive, has earned him international success, and his new CD Lineage is proof of his eminent status. The other is the trio known until recently as Hyperactive Kid. On the occasion of their new disc Riot, the three Berliners forsook the band’s traditional name, because they thought it had begun to create certain expectations. They are now known by their last names: Gropper-Graupe-Lillinger. The style is still radical, though. There isn’t another improvisational group in Germany that plays music that is so complexly and uncompromisingly composed.

...and 80 years for…

The year began less as a departure and more by looking back. There were more big jazz birthdays in 2016 than ever, starting with Wolfgang Dauner, who turned 80 on December 30, 2015. The musical celebrations and his receipt of the Baden-Württemberg jazz prize took place in January. On April 6, it was Manfred Schoof’s turn, and on May 12, Germany’s most famous living jazz musician, Klaus Doldinger, turned 80.

In the media, the eminences grises often appeared to steal the show from the younger talent. But artistic courage is never exclusive to any one generation, as the “elder statesman” of German jazz, 87 year-old clarinetist Rolf Kühn proved. In 2016 he released a new CD with several free improvisation tracks. His regular band includes some of the best younger musicians on the scene, including Christian Lillinger and Ronny Graupe of the erstwhile Hyperactive Kid.