European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany 1950-1975

November 21, 2020

By Harald Kisedu
Wolke Verlage

Review by Ken Waxman

Like many other countries in the Western world, Germany developed its variant of improvised music after records by Free Jazz pioneers such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albrt Ayler became generally available. But the response by committed sound explorers to these sounds created by mostly African-American musicians was more diffuse than in other places. Not only were progressive German musicians confronted with a novel mutation of the Jazz they had followed for many years, but they also had to deal with it alongside specific extra-musical matters.

For a start there was the post-war challenge of facing the very recent Nazi atrocities, which their parents tried to ignore or hide away, leading to a genuine ennui and sympathy for left-wing causes. Then there was the fact that the already insular country was divided in two, the totalitarian, Stalinist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the ostensibly democratic, but highly conformist German Federal Republic (GFR). Plus of particular interest was the official tendency to divide music into other “serious” or “popular” which was particularly limiting for Jazz musicians of any style.

Harald Kisedu confidently deals with this situation in this terse and extensively researched volume, drawing on an extensive series of first person interviews plus a deep dig into the existing literature still extant about those crucial 15 years,. Because of the changes everywhere, the kaleidoscopic 1960s and early 1970s come in for massive evaluation.

Divided into three long chapters, the author isolates three major Free Music adaptations. The most raucous, which germinated almost in isolation, was the sound of Wuppertal-based tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s purported metal-bursting style aided and amplified by other local and international players in his orbit. Another locus was the music germinated in Köln from more acceptable combos put together by cornetist Manfred Schoof and pianist Alexander von Schliipenbach, who studied formally with composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. More complicated was the situation in the former East Germany, which Kisedu examines through the career of alto saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, where the twist and turns of Communist party dogma about culture was an extra-musical prod.

Most familiar of the three is the story of Brötzmann. Introduced to Jazz at about the same time as he became fully aware of German complacency during 1933-1945, he turned quickly to Ayler-like free music as crucially as he did anti-war and left-wing politics. Additionally, his art school background and association with Nam June Pak provided extra intellectual impetus. Early on his collaborators included players from the Netherlands, Belgium Scandinavia and the UK. Widely celebrated – or notorious – especially after his recording of the ground-breaking Machine Gun and co-founding of the FMP label, as the free music alternative to more mainstream pop jazz of others, he’s been unswerving in his commitment to free expression since then. Many of his subsequent ensembles have showcased players from the US as well as Europe, While not lessening his commitment to creating European music, he’s the most prominent German experimenter who stresses his continued links to African-American Jazz.

The experience of Von Schippenbach and Schoof was different. Already playing professionally in a modified Jazz Messengers style, while training with modernist-leaning teacher/bandleader Kurt Edelhager, they were also influenced by Zimmermann another Hochshule professor who taught composition, and propagated the idea of distinctive European Jazz. Apprenticing at a time and place where sound experimentation was encouraged in areas like the nascent Donaueschingen Festival and WDR’s famous electronic music studio, Jazz- players also tried to create “musik der zeit” or music of the day. The Schoof group was further inspired by praise from American expatriate cornetist Don Cherry, who coincidentally encouraged Brötzmann. Soon afterwards the Schoof band was promoted by Joachim Ernst Brandt, the author/producer/festival coordinator and so-called “pope” of German Jazz, because the group fit his idea of creating specific non-American Jazz, By 1969 with Schoof’s European Echoes LP and 1970 with Von Schippenbach larger and more ambitious Globe Unity disc, the two had created milestones of distinctive German-European improvised music and were able to perform these composition and others at festivals. While School’s prominence has been limited in recent years, Von Schippenbach still manages to lead variants of The Globe Unity orchestra as well being involved with constant touring with a trio featuring British saxophonist Evan Parker, who was already featured in the cornetist, the pianist’s and even the Machine Gun ensembles.

Growing up in the GDR, Petrowsky was the casualty of ideological debates within the ruling Communist party. At first Jazz was tolerated as representing the sounds of the working class struggle; then it was denigrated it as imperialist chaos, snobbish music of bourgeois individualism’ yet after Stalin’s death, a more benign re-evaluation allowed for a policy that allowed some Jazz to be played. By that point, the saxophonist like most of his contemporaries had for many years resigned himself to membership in radio or so-called dance orchestras, playing occasional Jazz gigs. In 1967 though, intervention from Karl-Heinz Deim of Rundfunk, the GDR allowed Petrowsky to form a Jazz band within the band to record and tour. The gradual normalization of relations between the GDR and GFR finally allowed Jost Gebers, who had founded FMP with Brötzmann to visit East Berlin clubs, hear local Jazz players and finally work out a deal to release East German Jazz on his label. Petrowsky quartet’s Just For Fun LP in 1973 was the first result of this arrangement and in the subsequent years he not only worked as professional Jazz musician in bands with other top GDR players, but has been able to play with fellow innovators from Europe and elsewhere.

Copiously footnoted, since much of the material is directly translated by the author from the original German, Kisedu’s engrossing volume explains this musical history without ever being overly academic or pedantic. In these pages he amplifies in exacting details the compromises and adjustments that had to be made both in the GDR and GFR for the music to gain a foothold. Although focused in the main on three or four major innovators, enough space exists to outline how other players, including bassist Peter Kowald, pianist Joachim Kühn and tenor saxophonist Gerd Dudek contributed to these changes, as well as reporting the opinions of some non-German players such as Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer for a more continental view of the situation.

European Echoes may not come up with e foolproof definition of German Jazz and improvised music, the creation of which preoccupied most of the figures in this book. But considering the present universality of free form sounds is there even a need for such a reductionist definition?