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Free Tunes – The Public Importance of Jazz in Germany | Presse |

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Free Tunes – The Public Importance of Jazz in Germany

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In the novel „Der Zauberberg“ written by Thomas Mann, the proponent of the Enlightenment, Settembrini, disapproves the art of music as „politically suspect“. In contrast to the literature's positive effect on society, he does not see any enlightening effect of music in general. Compared to linguistic codes he regards the decryption of musical codes as being too ambivalent, too unpredictable.

But music has been a fascination ever since. In Germany we know several good examples to prove that. Especially the discussions about Richard Wagner's 'Gesamtkunstwerk' dazzle between the enlightening, aesthetic requirements of education on the one hand, and a romanticized and mystified narrative on the other hand.

Since the early 20th century, Jazz music has been ranging between a kind of scepticism – in the sense of an assumed decline of culture – and a fascination driven by subculture – just like it was expressed 1922 in the painting „An die Schönheit“ by Otto Dix.

Jazz-music and its swing has always been received as a part of American culture, although – from today's point of view – it has without doubt also European origins. Cornettist Bix Beiderbecke for example, who died much too young, stemmed from a family with origins in Mecklenburg and was one of the first really famous Jazz musicians. His life exemplifies how European and American elements of music were mixed together in the course of the mass migrations from Europe to America in the 19th century.

In Germany, Jazz-music became relevant in the 1920s – primarily in cities like Berlin and Dresden. Dance bands adapted swing music and made it popular. But also the contemporary music reacted to the musical impulses. Composers like Hindemith, Krenek, Weill and later on Eisler integrated Jazz-sounds into their works and thereby established Jazz-music between easy listening and the so-called serious music. Jazz even became a subject of higher education for the first time: Bernhardt Sekles' Jazz class in Frankfurt am Main started in 1928 – against broad protests. In the USA this came to happen only in the late 1940s.

The break came with the Nazis who prohibited Jazz music (for example 1930 in Thüringen). In 1933 they banned Jazz music to be played in youth hostels, 1935 on the radio. By doing so, they tied in with reactionary nationalist traditions that based on a homogeneous and exclusively national understanding of culture. Other cultural influences – of whatever origin – were highly suspect.

Therefore it is not surprising, that the Nazis made the uprising of Jazz music a top priority: "All hostile ringleaders […], who support the 'Swing-Youth', are to be committed into a Concentration-camp. There, the youth has to be given a beating first of all... Their stay must be of longer durance, two or three years. " - this was SS-leader Heinrich Himmler's order in 1942.

Following the unconditional surrender, the national cultural monopoly collapsed too. Into this vacuum pulled new cultural impulses of nearly all genres. The rejection of Jazz by the Nazis and the reproduced, latent anti-Americanism united the Jazz-scene off the post-wartime across its different sub-genres. Different musical concepts established itself in particular in the newly found Federal Republic of Germany - legitimized under the umbrella of a denazified cultural space. However, this did not yet mean a real break-through. The term denazification not only meant de-ideologising the German cultural mind, which was previously exploited by the Nazis. Moreover, it posed a chance for broadening the horizon of cultural perspectives and practises, and finally paved the road for a general change of paradigms in favour of a heterogeneous and multi-perspective understanding of culture.

While in East Germany Jazz-music was under suspicion of opening up the gate for unwanted American influence, it could step by step establish itself in the West: Jazz won a small but enthusiastic fan-community, established venues and regular broadcasting time. Right now, the Berlin Jazz Festival presents the project “Remembering Jutta Hipp” as an homage to the outstanding German jazz pianist of the Fifties.

The West-German Jazz-scene gathered an open-minded and society-critical audience. As Ekkehardt Jost points out, Jazz-fans have been over-proportionally voting for Socialdemocrats back then - and the Greens today. However, Jazz has never enthused a majority of (even political) people. As Jost said, “the marriage between Jazz and politics is … a time-related phenomenon, tied to a certain moment in the historical process, when politics, society and Jazz alike faced significant transformations.”

Thinking of the United States at that time, we think of musicians like Charles Mingus ("Fables of Faubus"), John Coltrane ("Alabama"), Sonny Rollins ("Freedom-Suite"), Archie Shepp ("Malcolm, Malcom semper Malcolm") and Charlie Haden ("Liberation Music"). In the West-Germany, musicians like Kowald, Brötzmann, von Schlippenbach, Schoof, Mangelsdorff come together under the umbrella of the label FMP. They discover their expressive means of improvisation in unforgotten formations like the Globe Unity Orchestra.

In East-Germany, the influence of Weill and Eisler did not unfold its musical impact until the late 60s. Slowly first, but effectively in the late 70s, their legacy provided the space for a free scene featuring improvised Jazz music, that eventually also received – more or less – official acknowledgement. It was also in the 70s that the East-German Jazz-scene started to connect on the international stage and managed to organise regular performances.

Famously, in the early 80s, an Open Air festival in the little fishing village Peitz near Cottbus gathered thousands of fans of improvised Jazz. Organised by the local Jazzfactory of Uli Blobel und Peter Jimmy Metag, veterans of GDR-Jazz like Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, Uli Gumpert, Baby Sommer and Conrad Bauer met their West-German counterparts, but also international stars like Willem Breucker, Gianluigi Trovesi, Luis T. Moholo, Irene Schweitzer und Evan Parker. But finally, Thomas Mann's Settembrinis among the communist culture-apparatchiks became nervous and left it to the Stasi, the infamous Ministry of State Security, to prohibit the so called jamming “Woodstock at the fish pond”.

However, this did not meant free tunes had faded out. After Peitz, several – also official – music-clubs managed to establish itself and they provided a desiring and grateful audience for the international Free-Jazz-scene. This music's subsidised and quite free international environment mislead Fred van Hove, one of the protagonists of the European improvising artists, to call the GDR, quite awkwardly, the “promised land of improvised music”. However, with the end of the GDR, the Jazz-scene was suddenly facing 'the difficulty of the plains', and was living a dire existence for years. Quite frankly, we can speak of historically and politically conditioned, actually tragic, deconstruction of aesthetic identity constructions.

Identity constructions of that kind are common in the history of ambitious Jazz-music, and can be drawn back to political and historical incidents and developments. Just one example: In the late 80s, and particular in the 90s, an new generation of Jewish artist – like John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, David Krakauer, Shelly Hirsch, and Fred Frith - entered the stage. This new “Radical Jewish Culure”, established at the Tsadik-Label, made New York their Israel and constructed their identity against the trend in a political, post-national way.

After the German reunification the Jazz-scene saw not only a diversification of musicstyles, but also of the the audience. Today we have a great, hardly seizable scene of young musicians – who can usually not make a living of their profession and passion. The political marriage in and with the Cold War has split up in a plurality of styles that comes with a greater, inspiring freedom of improvisation. The latest development of Jazz is marked by ever new hybrids in the context of global encounters of Jazz-musicians across the genres, and – at the same time – the permanent recourse to history and the traditions of Jazz.

Germany has to be given credit for the many educational opportunities at the conservatories that bring forth many new talents. But what if the good education leads strait into poverty? In fact, there are more Jazz musicians than the audience asks for, and consequently, rare opportunities for young talents to perform. But where is the public outcry? Still in 1976, Wolfgang Dauner has dedicated an opuslength ”Urschrei”, a primal cry, to the Jazz-musician's situation. At that time, however, his homonymous oratorio had put the outrage in the - today somewhat naïve and optimistic - claim “We are sitting at the longer end of the lever, we make the music”.

Still disappointing are the conditions for public performances. A new tax, introduced in the 90s, has increased the costs for hosting international acts and consequently made them rare. What is missing are a supportive environment, and capable venues, managed by people who are willing to take a risk. Beyond the rules of the market, Jazz needs passionate and brave club-manager, agents, and marketer, as well as reliable public support to unfold its creative potential. For quite a while there has been hardly any support for artists to perform abroad. New bands often have to take the long way to reach the audience.

At least, we have an annual Jazz fair, “Jazz Ahead” in Bremen, that allows the scene to present itself to the audience. And there are, last but not least, a few new supportmeasures by the “Initiative Musik” for new bands and infrastructure projects – may they be regional festivals or international support and marketing campaigns. With the “Kulturstiftung des Bundes”, the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and the Hauptstadtkulturfonds, the Capital Cultural Fund, two capable public donors for Jazzmusic have emerged. But not only because those funds obviously depend on the selecting committees and their members' preferences, it is yet to early to speak of a systematic, structural funding of Jazz in Germany. Thus, for the time being, young jazz talents are left with the frustrating perspective of having to seek other incomes to make a living. In a state like this, they will hardly make the Settembrinis dancing to their (Jazz) tunes.

- Es gilt das gesprochene Wort -