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Jazzahead: A Look at Jazz In Germany

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Looking forward but also remembering…

Peter Brötzmann stands at the edge of the stage with his tenor sax hanging on its sling. He is holding the mouthpiece in his hand, trimming a reed, listening intently: drummer Oliver Steidle is letting rip, but his playing is also very structured. Close your eyes and this could be an evening in the 1970's. There are still moments like this, when memories from the past resurface vividly into the present day. One also can't help but feel a gentle pang of nostalgia; after all, it did happen an awfully long time ago. That said, some of the artists and the groups from that time are still around: there was Albert Mangelsdorff (1928-2005) our founding father of the trombone, but there are still the Kühn brothers, saxophonist Rolf and his much younger brother pianist Joachim, with their excursions into everything from rock to the avant-garde; there's the impetuous pianist Klaus Doldinger, under whose leadership “Passport” became one of the top fusion bands; Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer the humorist and drummer with his left-field band Zentralquartett whose shakings and stirrings played their part in the gradual crumbling of the East German socialist state; there is saxophonist and ancient spirit Heinz Sauer, whose sound even in his early days was more fiery than that of most of his contemporaries. And then there's Dusko Goykovich, the trumpeter with the suavest sound since Roy Eldridge, or Eberhard Weber who made the bass sing, or the jaggedly intellectual pianist Wolfgang Dauner, or Volker Kriegel, the all-round guitar genius.

These musicians have been the permanent rocks on which wave after new wave of the creative, the curious and the downright odd have broken. They take us back to a time when jazz in Germany was seeking and then finding an identity for itself, establishing its own individual and independent style, once it had freed itself from the post-war period, during which it seemed to be taking its cue from motley influences: from the Allies, from McCarthy refugees, and even from people claiming to have revolutionized sound. Some of these jazz heroes are still full of life and rearing to go- except that in the interim they have become veterans, and are celebrated as head-liners at festivals. They form a connection to the past, but that past has long since morphed into a present which is vital, young, and infinitely more diverse.

Young Musicians

These days there is a lot more jazz going on than in the time when improvised music was still a means of showing resistance against the cultural establishment. Several factors lie behind this expansion: notably that jazz in Germany has been comprehensively subsidized, with an emphasis on the younger generation. There are currently 18 universities and conservatoires where jazz is offered as principal study. Students can make their choices, teachers can make a living, so jazz education frees things up for both sides. And quite apart from the universities, young musicians can gain experience of music, of concerts, of repertoire, and also hang around with people of the same age by joining bands in receipt of public subsidy such as the regional jazz orchestras or the national youth jazz orchestra BuJazzO. There is also a host of privately and publicly organized competitions to enter, “Jugend jazzt” (youth jazzes) for example, and these give a valuable helping hand in the direction of a professional career through the opportunities they offer for exposure, networking—and cash in hand. Look at the artist biography of one of any number of German jazz musicians- from Till Brönner and Johannes Enders up to Julia Hülsmann and Michael Wollny- and references to these kinds of awards and membership of these ensembles keep cropping up.

Getting the word out–the media

An important piece in this jigsaw is the radio Big Bands. The fact that publicly funded radio is organized on a regional rather than a national basis gives each of the radio stations a substantial amount of air-time for jazz, and also gives some of them the wherewithal to maintain their own jazz orchestras. The three fixed, salaried groups, WDR, based in Cologne, NDR in Hamburg and HR in Frankfurt, plus the project- based SWR Big Band in the South-West of the country function as centres of competence and excellence in the musical landscape of Germany.

They provide jobs for musicians, arrangers and composers. International guests are invited in to rehearse and perform specifically devised programmes with the bands, and this can have consequences, such as fun, the exchange of ideas, and prestige, right up to and including Grammy nominations.

Another important element is the marketing capacity of the German record labels. Firms such as ECM, ACT, Enja, MPS, Traumton, Pirouet, Winter & Winter and Double Moon bring the music of their artists to the listening public. In Germany more than half of the market is still physical product- -it accounted for 62.1% of it in 2016. Streaming is growing rapidly (2016 growth rate +72.7%, Source: Bundesverband Musikindustrie.)

That said, the number of venues for live performance is shrinking. Many clubs have existed- or still keep going—as labours of love by individual fans or by small teams of people. Putting on concerts, however, is becoming increasingly international and ever more bureaucratised, consumer behaviour has shifted and become far more event-driven, so it is the professionally run and subsidized clubs such as the Stadtgarten in Cologne or the Unterfahrt in Munich who have the best chances of long-term survival.

And at the micro level...

All said and done, jazz does have profile in Germany. It receives public subsidy in various places such as universities, public radio and among the younger generation, and that subsidy not only substantial but also directed sensibly. The result is a scene which is large, functions on several levels, but has – certainly until now – tended to be male-dominated. Musicians who have been exceptionally well educated try to develop their visibility in the wider and more diverse cultural world. That represents a huge challenge, both from the point of view of developing their material and also of being well-organized. But musicians are helped by the fact that the German jazz world does have its winning card: for more than ten years jazzahead! in Bremen has been an annual central point of contact, bringing together in the same place for a few days all the mass of potential contacts, people to present to, the whole business side of music.

jazzahead! tended to be looked down on at first, but soon came to be seen as valuable, as it started in an organized way to bring about what had previously occurred in an unplanned and impromptu manner at the gatherings in, for example, the backstage areas of festivals such as Moers or Berlin. It is a place where people meet, where promoters, journalists, marketers, label representatives, academics, agents and a few oddballs cross each other’s' paths, and take the opportunity to tell whoever happens to be in front of them about how their work is going...

Translated into figures for 2016, the year after the tenth anniversary year, jazzahead! looks like this: 969 firms met 2,742 industry participants from 56 countries, and 16,000 members of the public attended the concerts at the trade fair and other venues, the Gala Concert and the club night. These statistics mean that jazzahead! is the largest event of its kind in the world, with substantial international visibility and impact.

A representative selection of German jazz

There is tangible benefit to be derived, both for the professionals of the jazz business and for the large number of musicians who make their way to Bremen. And that is because jazzahead! is a hybrid of a trade fair, a festival, and a local as well as an international event. From panels of experts to concert series it takes an all-embracingly inclusive view of the range of topics that form part of its agenda.

As far as jazz from Germany is concerned, for example, jazzahead! puts on the German Jazz Expo, a series of short concerts selected and curated by a jury. This year, eight bands playing one after the other will have a brief opportunity to show off their art:

Lorenz Kellhuber is a 26-year old pianist from Munich and one of the youngest bandleaders taking part in German Jazz Expo 2017 and presenting his trio. He is a fervently modern player but with a romantic undercurrent. His icons, as is typical for his generation, are the likes of Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, and he has absorbed their influence to create his own forms of expression.

Saxophonist Timo Vollbrecht comes from the area around Hanover and has already had the tap on the shoulder from some of the greats, having been spotted and praised by, among others, Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis. He plays with full-on energy, stylistically he steers close to rock-jazz but also incorporates classical elements. He is a guest with the quartet Fly Magic.

Trio Elf, led by the Munich-based pianist Walter Lang, has already travelled to other continents and developed a large fan-base in Japan. Drummer Gerwin Eisenhauer aids and abets him to concoct the band's unusual combination of terse drum and bass and minimalistic motifs with songs that emotionally engage the listener.

Claasue4, the band of Hamburg trumpeter Claus Ueberschär have already been together for a decade. In that time they have gone deeper into a world in which they juggle and interpose their distinctive modern jazz with abstraction and tradition.

German Jazz Expo

Berlin alto saxophonist Nico Lohmann composes intersecting melodic lines and arrangements of rhythmic complexity. One melody instrument was never going to be enough, so he has brought Birgitta Flick into the line-up, and her tenor gives access to a wider tonal palette.

Drummer Eva Klesse first made her mark on the Leipzig scene as a composer, bandleader and instigator. An appearance at the Jazz Festival in Berlin in 2014 and an ECHO Jazz award in the following year have brought her to wider international attention. Her music and her band sound have rhythmic drive and also contemporary complexity.

Tubes & Wires is led by the Cologne-based clarinettist and composer Niels Klein. In its five years of existence they have developed a stylistic portfolio in which the core sound is both inspired by the past and looks forward. Neo-fusion meets the avant-garde.

The Bonn-born, Berlin-based pianist Julia Hülsmann completes the German Jazz Expo 2017 line-up. She is an extremely fine exponent of chamber jazz at its subtlest. She is also a public figure in the jazz world in Germany. Her abilities as a superb networker and public speaker made a key contribution to the re-founding of the Union of German Jazz Musicians (UDJ) as the main representative body for jazz musicians in Germany.

Make it real

A programme such as that of the German Jazz Expo 2017 is only capable of showing a small selection of what is going on creatively. The scene in Germany is in constant flux, with many young musicians increasingly drawing their influences from all over the world. The old sounds of Germany's jazz heroes might be one part of what it has taken to make them who they are, but certainly no longer defines it. As recently as two decades ago, post-bop, free improv and chamber jazz were on the ascendant. These days they co-exist alongside metal jazz, Balkan beat and neo fusion. It has taken a whole stack of courage and inventiveness to get to the point where their music can be understood on its own terms. And the good news is that plenty more exciting things are going to happen as jazz musicians, equipped with their skill, knowledge and passion, keep their creativity on the boil. The opportunity to build networks is a vital part of this, and an institution such as jazzahead! provides an ideal context for international careers to be launched, for dreams, ambitions, connections and planning to combine and to become reality.

Article by Ralf Dombrowksi, German journalist (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel Online, Jazzthing). Translation by Sebastian Scotney.

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