Born: February 12, 1921 in Vienna, Austria
Died: December 21, 2003 in Vienna, Austria
Austrian saxophonist, composer, bandleader
by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003†Todd S. Jenkins
Hans Koller, one of Europe's most beloved jazz performers and an acclaimed abstract painter, died of pneumonia on Monday, December 21, 2003 in his hometown of Vienna. He was 82 years old.
A saxophone prodigy, Koller immediately impressed the faculty of the Vienna Music Academy upon his arrival at the age of 14. Within a few years he was playing professionally in jazz and dance bands. In 1941 Koller was drafted into the Nazi army; he spent most of the war as an American POW, at which time he organized a detention camp band. Following his release in 1946 he founded a band called the Hot Club Vienna.
Later Koller performed with the band of Horst Winter before moving to Germany, where he came into his own individual style. After some time working with drummer Freddie Brocksieper in Munich, Koller formed his revered, Tristanoesque quartet with pianist Jutta Hipp, bassist Shorty Roeder and drummer Karl Sanner. The group was one of Europe's most popular units in the 1950s (Hans Is Hip, 1952, Discovery). Later members of the quartet included guitarist Attila Zoller and two American expatriates, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Oscar Pettiford.
Koller had frequent contact with American jazzmen beginning with arranger Eddie Sauter, with whom he worked in the SWF Baden-Baden Radio Orchestra. Gigs followed with Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Konitz, Stan Kenton, and even Benny Goodman, with whom Koller played at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. That same year he became the musical director of Hamburg's NDR Jazz Workshop.
Zo-Ko-So (1965, Saba), his trio project with Zoller and French pianist Martial Solal, brought Koller further critical acclaim. He was based in Hamburg through the 1960s, working as musical director of the city's Schauspielhaus at the decade's end. In 1970 he returned to his hometown of Vienna and began exploring free jazz with Wolfgang Dauner in his Free Sound Ensemble (Free Sound and Super Brass, 1975, MPS). Koller's subsequent projects included duos, the brass ensemble International Brass Company, mainstream combos, and an all-sax unit. He occasionally worked on interdisciplinary projects as well, like his 1968 ballet, New York City.
Koller retired from performing music in 1995, opting to concentrate on painting. In gratitude for his years of service, Austria named its national jazz prize after him in 1996.