Jazz 2018 Calm before or after the storm?

Eva Klesse, jazz professor at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hanover
Eva Klesse, jazz professor at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hanover | Photo (detail): © Gerhard Richter

Although jazz is constantly renewing itself and expanding its horizons, it seems to have taken a breather in Germany last year. To consolidate for a while after all the high-octane developments in recent years? So as to really pull out all the stops soon?

Since the Gender and Identity in Jazz symposium at the Darmstadt Jazzinstitut in November 2015, if not before, the “jazz and gender complex” has come centre stage and is there to stay until further notice. The cultural-policy discussions and developments in the case of Berlin’s House of Jazz have, for the time being, given up on any wishful thinking that a lot might happen here anytime soon, though they haven’t reached a dead end.

Committees are contentiously but constructively negotiating the details surrounding the funding of the Applaus prize, an award for the best programming at an independent venue. The results of a 2016 study on the “Living and Working Conditions of Jazz Musicians in Germany” have given rise to ongoing discussions. Jazz is generally recognized in Germany as a cultural sector worth funding. No new, remarkable issues emerged at the beginning of last year. Until April 2018, when an incident that apparently only tangentially concerns jazz made quite a splash: the Echo scandal.

Echoes of the Echo

An echo isn’t just an acoustic phenomenon, it’s also the name of a prize awarded by the German music industry (Bundesverband der Musikindustrie, BVMI) since 1992 – starting with the Echo Pop, followed two years later by Echo Klassik and, since 2010, Echo Jazz. The Echo award in the popular music category is determined according to sales statistics, while the classical and jazz prize-winners are decided by juries. So the Echo Pop prize scandal didn’t concern a jury decision, which was probably precisely the problem: there was no panel to weigh in on the politically incendiary lyrics of the prize-winning rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang.

The controversy broke out after the award ceremony, and very much in the public sphere. Several former Echo-winners then gave their prizes back and plenty of artists, politicians and cultural officials protested. The BVMI, as the industry association put it in a press release after careful consideration, soon realized that “the Echo brand” was so badly damaged that a “whole new start was necessary”. All things “Echo” were discontinued, reconsidered and reconceived. This didn’t mean any direct financial losses for the award-winners, to be sure – the Echo doesn’t come with any prize money anyway – but it did create a vacuum in public perception. It will probably be some time before Echo awards recover and regain the high public profile they enjoyed in the past.

It’s a man’s world

Other things will take time too: for one thing, the jazz scene continues to be dogged by critiques of the fact that it remains a male preserve at every level of the industry. Though we can now look back on three jazz news items in 2018 that do hold some promise of changes to come: Drummer Eva Klesse was awarded a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien (University of Music, Drama and Media) in Hannover, which makes her the nation’s first female jazz professor ever. On his 60th birthday, saxophonist and composer Volker – or rather Holly – Schlott came out about his transgender identity, thereby pointing up another taboo in a jazz scene that prides itself on knowing no taboos. And lastly, Nadin Deventer became the first woman to curate a Berlin Jazzfest, which she revamped in some respects, but by and large kept on a course of continuity. On the other hand, the emergence of a female festival curator, a transgender musician and a woman professor in a university jazz department just goes to show just how badly we need to address gender issues in jazz and what a whole lot of catching up we have to do. Which, by the way, also goes for German radio stations’ big bands.

Style news

The general assessment of the jazz scene last year also applies to matters of style, where we’ve seen continuations, variations and intensifications of familiar trends. Jazz has always been a restless music genre that seeks and engages in a close rapport with other kinds of music. That includes not only pop, rock and folk music, but also contemporary classical music – a trend that’s been gathering steam for some time now. Cases in point are a concert series in Berlin called Serious Series and the Checkpoint series of concert put together by the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt, as well as an ever-growing and increasingly prominent line-up of musicians enriching contemporary jazz with novel approaches, including the likes of Kathrin Pechlof, Valentin Garvie, Francesco Tristano, Thomas Quasthoff, Elisabeth Coudoux, Stefan Schönegg, Matthias Ockert, Georg Gräwe, Roger Hanschel, Sebastian Sternal, Michael Wollny and Eric Schaefer et al.

And now that we’ve mentioned Eric Schäfer, it should also be noted that, as we approach the end of this decade, the drums seem to be the instrument with the greatest innovative potential. Never before have we seen so many remarkably distinctive drummers among Germany’s up-and-coming talents: besides Schäfer, we should at the very least mention the names Eva Klesse, Christian Lillinger, Max Andrzejewski, Dominik Mahnig, Leif Berger, Jonas Burgwinkel, Fabian Arends, Étienne Nillesen, Thomas Sauerborn and Joss Turnbull.

Anniversaries, awards, reissues and a new festival

Big birthdays and jubilees, retrospectives and re-releases are par for the course for a genre that is now over a hundred years old. Dresden drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer, an East German jazz icon back in the day, and his Chemnitz collaborator, guitarist Helmut “Joe” Sachse, turned 75 and 70 last year, respectively. Free jazz pioneer Alexander von Schlippenbach turned 80 in April. Ernst-Ludwig “Luten” Petrowsky, another major exponent of GDR jazz, has released five albums – four of them in a quintet combo, one in a septet – whose loud titles are all colourful ways of saying “last big noise” in German: Letztes Remmidemmi!, Letzter Krawall!, Letzter Tumult!, Letzter Radau! and Letzter Rabatz! Bernd Konrad won the Baden-Württemberg Jazz Award for lifetime achievement, and Sebastian Gille, a saxophonist who has moved his horn from the Hamburg to the Cologne scene, received SWR’s coveted jazz award.

After 50 years of (not entirely continuous) production, Musikproduktion Schwarzwald (MPS Records for short) reissued albums by Oscar Peterson and Volker Kriegel, among others. At the end of the year, ECM in Munich released The Art Ensemble of Chicago and associated ensembles, a lavish 21-CD limited-edition retrospective of the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) (in keeping with a thematic focus of the Berlin Jazzfest), for its upcoming golden jubilee next year.
 
The German jazz festival scene has retained a generally stable shape, even if its directors aren’t always hired and fired with due transparency. But this year a brand new festival appeared on the horizon in Monheim am Rhein and signed up a seasoned name: Reiner Michalke, former artistic director of the Whitsun festival in Moers, which isn’t all that far from Monheim, will be helming the music triennial. We can look forward to its premiere in 2020.

Is there a new politicization?

Among the leading lights of German and European jazz that were extinguished in 2018, two names deserve special mention. One is Heinz Jakob “Coco” Schumann, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where, as a member of the Ghetto Swingers concentration camp band, he had to play “La Paloma” for the SS men. After the war he became Germany’s first electric guitarist in the late 1940s. The second is Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most famous jazzman, who played the world stage for five decades. Both Schumann and Stanko were, in different ways, representatives of a cohort that opposed authoritarian politics as a matter of course, but without making political statements part of their public persona. As Beate Sampson quoted in an October 2018 obituary on BR radio (Bayerischer Rundfunk), Schumann once said, “I was afraid of pity. I’m a musician – a musician who was stuck in a concentration camp, not a concentration camp prisoner who makes music.” Stanko likewise rarely broke his political silence, although for once, in an interview with Maxi Sickert for the weekly Die Zeit (44/2007), he came out unequivocally and triumphantly with “We’re free again!” after Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński was voted out.

On the whole, however, showing political restraint in public seems to have become the norm in German jazz. While the political penchants of the founding generation of West German jazzmen were recognizable, political activity among the present generation is generally confined to speaking out in defence of their own artistic and professional interests. German jazz musicians are as reticent on expressions of authoritarian politics as their British counterparts are on Brexit or their counterparts in other European countries on increasingly anti-democratic political tendencies there.

In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung (31 October 2018), Nadin Deventer, the aforementioned first woman curator of the Berlin Jazzfest, reminds us that Martin Luther King gave the opening speech at the festival’s premiere in 1964. She goes on to say, “Jazz has always been a highly political art form. […] We live in a different age now, of course. But unfortunately, with what’s currently going down again in our society, and not only in the US, you realize nothing’s actually over and done with yet – this cultural rollback, all this nationalism, the polarization. What’s worst of all is when society threatens to fall apart and no one’s willing to listen to each other anymore.”

From the East

And yet jazz, including jazz in Germany, is still – and increasingly – a cosmopolitan genre, with a wide array of international – including transatlantic – collaboration. More and more musicians from eastern and northeastern Europe as well are settling down in Germany and enriching the scene, partly drawn by the comparatively well-resourced educational opportunities available to them.

Musicians from the Baltic countries, especially Estonia – like singer and pianist Kadri Voorand and guitarist Jaak Sooäär –, are now making the German scene. The importance of the German-Polish connection was much in evidence at Bremen’s Jazzahead! jazz fair last April. And it is largely forgotten that Angelika Niescier, for example, originally hails from Poland. In the Rhine-Main region, Ukrainian pianist Yuriy Sych has made a name for himself over the years, garnering two prestigious awards, and the tremendously creative Tamara Lukasheva, also from the Ukraine, has received a scholarship in Cologne. We’ll be hearing even more from newcomers enriching the German scene over the years to come.