German Jazz?

Jazz in Germany. An e-mail query & our response

e-mail query

Jazz in Germany

In looking at your site my question is…can a German understand what Jazz is? So many doctors and professors, all in secure positions, discussing and attempting to play what goes on in a Black man´s soul. Is this some sort of joke or an attempt to create a fictive world that exist in the minds of Germans.
Can some one give me an answer?
Regards, [name withheld]

our response:

Re: Jazz in Germany

Dear [name withheld],

thank you very much for your mail. Good question, indeed. And it’s not so much about Germans than about all non-Americans. Or even all non-African-Americans. I do not know about your background, so I am not sure what made you ask the question. (Are you African American yourself? Do you think jazz should remain in the African American cultural circles? Or was it mainly curiosity?)

And I do not know about all of those doctors and professors in secure positions playing jazz… Sure, we do have conservatories over here where some of our musicians found a position enabling them to share their knowledge, but few of those really have professor’s chairs or even “secure positions”. And those who do, may deserve them or not. It sure does not make them better or worse musicians.

Anyhow, here are a couple of thoughts about your main question.

Jazz is an African American music. It started within the Black community and it is being kept alive within the Black community. I just came back from the USA: I was in Chicago and, as every time when I visit over there, I realize that jazz and its background within the African American community are closely related, that it, indeed, may be impossible for someone outside of that community to understand the function the music fulfils within it.

Yet: Jazz conquered the world. Not just as a music fun to listen to, a music that all the world gratefully acknowledges African Americans for, but also as a music which encourages people all across the planet to follow the example of jazz, take up those musical “language skills” they find in jazz and add their own identity, in order to play themselves. “Play yourself, man!” is what Black musicians often said when asked what it means to be a good jazz musician. Yet, “playing oneself” in Germany or in France or in Japan or wherever else will mean something different from playing yourself in an African American community in the United States. So, at one point European musicians realized that in order to fully acknowledge the lesson of jazz they had to “emancipate” themselves from the African American source, not by leaving its tradition completely, but by adding their own individual experiences. Musical experiences, cultural experiences.

You assume musicians playing jazz are attempting to play “what goes on in a Black man’s soul”. Well, that would be impossible. For me (and that is my personal opinion) that’s not all that jazz is about. More appropriate is: to attempt to play what goes on in one’s own soul. “Play yourself, man!”

Is Europeans playing jazz than an aggressive act against African Americans, an act of appropriation of another man’s culture? I think: No. It is an act of utmost respect and of gratefulness about the fact that African Americans shared one of the most resourceful ideas of the 20th century with the world, an idea based on their own tradition, soaked in their own heritage of spirituality and sorrow. In Coltrane I believe I hear the song of the Black man. And know as well, that I will never fully understand it, as Coltrane plays with all the cultural experiences of his own life, his religious life, his experiences of a Black man in a racist society. I might be able to grasp aspects of it intellectually, but I will never be able to fully feel it. Yet: Coltrane touches me. He touches me deeply as do so many other jazz musicians. They can make me joyful and they can make me cry. They touch some basic feeling in me as a human being. That’s what music is about, for me.

In Chicago I’ve been to a place called the Velvet Lounge, a club on the near South Side owned by tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. I do not know whether you have heard from it or where you, actually, are from. I heard saxophone player Douglas Ewart and his Community Inventions ensemble. It is a neighborhood bar and a great place. And it humbled me because it made me realize again that jazz still does have that function within the African American community, still is both a spiritual and a political voice – perhaps not listened to by many but extremely strong and creative.

Then, last weekend, I visited the “German Jazz Meeting” in Bremen, Germany, a showcase festival introducing many young German bands to an international audience. And I realized that within the younger generation (most of the players there were in their 20s and early 30s) jazz has become part of their own youth experience, as a music and as a way to express themselves. I listened to bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall from Berlin who loves Eric Dolphy yet found a way to incorporate his own musical experiences, his German roots (and we righteously have problems talking about those) into the music. Or to trombonist Nils Wogram who reflects the technique of Black virtuoso J.J. Johnson as well as that of his German colleague, the late Albert Mangelsdorff. Or to young musicians whose conception of jazz is that jazz is just one part of their many influences, that actually they would like to call it something else, not because they want to dissociate themselves from the African American roots of the music but rather from intellectual connotations often associated with jazz during the last few decades, connotations brought about perhaps by the very process of musicians “emancipating themselves” from those African American roots. These young musicians incorporate other forms of Black music, soul, gospel, hiphop, yet do not want to emulate being Black themselves. Hey, this is their youth as well – with the music industry making Black music a veritable world influence.

None of the musicians at the German Jazz Meeting (and it were 14 bands presenting themselves there) tried to “create a fictive world”, attempted “to play what goes on in a Black man’s soul”. They all tried to play what goes on in their own soul. And sometimes they didn’t succeed. Because they didn’t listen deeply enough – to the example of Black musicians just as well as to themselves. But jazz helps them on their way. It helps them on their way to become musicians who know how to touch people, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. Thus, I am glad there is jazz in Germany. I am grateful for this music that may have taken quite a different way over here, yet still acknowledges where it comes from. I know that many of the music’s originators are not happy with some of the directions jazz takes in Germany (or Europe), but then, that’s what happens if children grow up and learn how to be themselves, how to “play themselves”.

I hope this does answer your question at least a small bit. I am glad you asked, because, yes, it is important to ask, it is important for you as it is for me and should be for all: Where do I stand; what is my position; where do I come from; do I still acknowledge my source(s) sufficiently; where will I be going; what would my ancestors do, influential people in my life, if they were in my place?

Warm regards from Germany,

(Wolfram Knauer)

Two months later, Stuart Nicholson, author of the book “Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved To a New Address)” (New York 2005, Routledge) sent us his comments to the query and allowed us to quote it here

Jazz in Germany.
A response by Stuart Nicholson

Stuart Nicholson, author of the book “Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved To a New Address)” (New York 2005, Routledge) has sent us his reply to the query and allowed us to quote it on our website:

Original query:

Can a German understand what Jazz is? So many doctors and professors, all in secure positions, discussing and attempting to play what goes on in a Black man’s soul. Is this some sort of joke or an attempt to create a fictive world that exist in the minds of Germans.

Stuart Nicholson’s response:

“Can a German understand what jazz is?” – what a strange question. It seems even stranger to pose it to a nation whose musical tradition, from Bach to Mozart, Beethoven to Brahms, Mahler to Mendelssohn, Schumann to Wagner, is the envy of the world.

So let’s turn the question on its head. Why wouldn’t a German be able to understand jazz? After all, musicologist Deryck Cooke points out in his book The Language of Music that music is the “supreme expression of universal emotions.” Every culture talks and every culture sings and just as language is a system of relationships between words, music is a system of relationships between notes.

Its universality can best be demonstrated by the current popularity of world music, which enjoys a considerable following in terms of albums sales and concert attendances. It is worth pointing out that the prospect of an audience enjoying songs in languages they do not understand would hold little promise for them if the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies did not move or stimulate them in some way. In 2004, Youssou n’Dour released his best selling album Egypt, a celebration of Sufism that includes several religious texts of profound socialistic and ritualistic function. But as the popular culture critic Charlie Gillett, author of the classic rock text The Sound of the City, pointed out, “Our appreciation of Youssou’s music has never depended on understanding what his songs are about, even though their meaning is paramount to him and to his Wolof audience. We are convinced by his commitment, and gladly surrender to the melodies and rhythms in which he envelops himself.”

So, if non Wolof audiences are able to listen to a celebration of Sufism and extract value and meaning from the music, surely it must be possible for, let’s say, a German – or even a Frenchman or an Englishman – to do the same with jazz? Don’t forget that in listening to music, audiences are not usually aware of any interpretation on their part, of any cognitive process that contributes to their understanding of what is going on. Music seems to create its effects without any mediation or explanation. The music plays, the body moves, and audiences involve themselves in it by means of empathy, identifying with its expressive aspects and, if the music moves them, allowing themselves to be aroused emotionally.

Yet despite its universality, the great paradox of music – indeed jazz – is that while may appear rich and full of meaning, no community of listeners can agree with any precision on the exact nature of that meaning because all community members are not alike. A community may agree a particular style of music moves and interests them, but detailed, specific descriptions of their subjective reactions may differ considerably.

Indeed, “the meaning of music” has been disputed down the ages. Stravinsky, for example, has written that, “The one true comment on a piece of music is another piece of music.” Extracting meaning from music is a very personal process mediated by an infinite number of variables and what may hold good for one person may not hold good for another. Jazz, for example, offers such a wide variety of styles that even sophisticated musicians may need repeated hearings of an unfamiliar piece of music before they can fully appreciate it since unfamiliar music may induce a different intellectual and emotional response on first hearing to those experienced subsequently. And what of a person’s mood when they listen to music? The response from a person who is depressed compared to a person who is elated is likely to be quite different, for example.

Attributing subjective meaning to music is therefore fraught with difficulty. Eduard Hanslick, the famous Austrian critic whom Wagner pilloried as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, pointed out that the melody of Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice” might be thought rather jolly if we did not know that the aria is reflecting on poignant loss. So given the ambiguity in extracting “meaning” from music how can we tell, for example, that jazz is “what goes on in a Black man’s soul,” as the questioner claims?

What he needs to come up with is the specific musical criteria by which this can be judged. I suspect he may find it a difficult undertaking. In the late 1950s, the distinguished jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge famously made a bet with critic Leonard Feather that he could, in a blindfold test, distinguish white musicians from black. After failing the test when listening to tracks by George Shearing, Miles Davis, and Billy Taylor, he was played a duet by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to which he responded, “White or coloured? It’s impossible to tell,” adding, “I guess I’ll have to go along with you Leonard – you can’t tell just from listening from records.”

Yet there was a time when it seemed as if jazz was “what goes on in a Black man’s soul,” simply because it’s leading practitioners were predominantly black. It was a time when jazz had a direct connection with Afro-American social and cultural expression, when it was a shared culture, an expression of black engagement with modern life and articulated the experience of collective identity based on implicit notions of musical roots, authenticity and community. However, this vision of jazz locates the music somewhere between its birth and the early 1960s. But it is hardly true today. The soundtrack for majority urban Afro-American society has long moved on from jazz to other arenas, initially at the hands of the likes of Louis Jordan through rhythm and blues, doo-wop, Motown, funk, disco, contemporary R&B and hiphop. As pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor points out in his book Jazz Piano, while jazz emerged from African American culture, it is now no longer solely a black music, having transcended its ethnic boundaries. In fact, jazz has long grown beyond its roots, just as the other arts have done.

Opera, for example, was synonymous with Italy from one end of Europe to the other until the middle of the eighteenth century. But, with the rise of Romanticism, Gluck, Haydn, and especially Mozart adapted the Italian operatic conventions to their own expressive needs — Mozart’s masterpieces Cosí Fan Tutte and Die Zauberflöte both broaden the expressive resources of Italian opera with Singspiel, which had no antecedent in the Italian form, for example.

By the following century, only one of the three greatest operatic composers was Italian — Verdi. Berlioz was French and Wagner was German, and each was approaching the idiom from their own cultural perspective, yet today nobody seriously argues that works such as Les Troyens or Tristan und Isolde are not somehow opera because they do not sound characteristically “Italian.”

Jazz, a product of African American exceptionalism, spread quickly around the globe courtesy of the phonograph record and is universally recognized as one of the great art forms to emerge in the twentieth century. Once the music became captured on recordings, its sounds became available to anyone around the globe to appreciate, imitate, and interpret. This reality seems sharply at odds with the questioner, who believes a “fictive world…exists in the mind of Germans” when they attempt to play and study jazz. This statement surely goes to the heart of authenticity, questioning whether an indigenous American music shaped by the Afro-American experience becomes less meaningful when played by a non-Americans.

Perhaps the best way of addressing this issue is to compare it to debate at the end of the nineteenth century and the arguments that were voiced against Dvorák’s Ninth and last symphony From the New World, written in 1893 during his three year tenure as head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

Although written in the “European” tradition of classical music at a time when the dominant culture in America was predominantly derived from Europe, Dvorák introduced quite specific “American” elements into his From the New World symphony including Negro Spirituals while the middle two movements were inspired by the American Indian “Song of Hiawatha”. Many argued that this devalued the European tradition. Edward MacDowell, in racist outrage, complained, “Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us.”

What we are concerned with in jazz (can there be a German – or European – version of jazz?) is precisely the reverse of the controversy that originally surrounded Dvorák’s E Minor symphony (can there be an “American” version of European classical music?). Today the voices of dissention raised against Dvorák’s symphony now seem quaint when seen in the context of such acclaimed composers as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Grant Stills and Elliot Carter who consciously evoke elements of Americana in their writing, bringing a welcome new dimension to European classical music. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, not artist can work outside the tradition because the tradition will eventually stretch to accommodate anything artists do – and this includes jazz.

This desire to reflect local and national identity in music occurred in the nineteenth century when many European composers returned to the folk and popular music of their own countries to set their work apart from the then prevailing hegemonic “Germanic” style of symphonic writing. The rise of what became known as Nationalism was marked by an emphasis on literary and linguistic traditions, an interest in folklore, patriotism, and a craving for independence and especially identity. This trend is now being repeated in jazz, with the overarching hegemonic styles of American jazz being reinscribed with local significance by “local” jazz musicians.

Today, there are jazz styles that have evolved outside the United States that do not necessarily follow the way that jazz is played inside the United States. This is because jazz was a harbinger of what we know call globalization, owing its world-wide popularity in the early years of the twentieth century to a fast expanding record industry and a leisure revolution that were global in scope.

However the effects of the “globalization” of jazz are seldom commented upon since jazz history has been constructed almost entirely within the borders of the United States with very little attention paid to developments outside them, as the Ken Burns TV documentary series Jazz in 2001 exemplified. Many American fans and critics are unaware of the impact the music has had beyond their shores and construe jazz narrowly as a national art, expressive of uniquely American experiences and characteristics, splendidly autonomous from the effects of globalization and national identity.

Yet, globalization, as Professor David Held and his colleagues say in their book Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture, is “the central driving force behind the rapid . . . changes that are reshaping societies and world order.”

So if globalization has the power to “reshape societies and world order,” it certainly has the power to reshape jazz which, like any form of cultural capital in the global marketplace, is now feeling its effects.

It seems ironic that as the flow of communication in the global cultural economy becomes ever faster, the people who are not discussing its effects are Americans. While time spent in the United States offers many delights, news from other countries is not one, indeed, as Jim Dator, Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, has observed: “Even with its gigantic media system operating with state-of-the-art technologies, the US functions as a society closed to information, facts, and opinions of the rest of the world.”

Yet the globalization of jazz – the dissemination of the music around the world through the international trade routes of the global cultural economy – has meant that as each “style” of jazz emerged in America, it could be heard months later being imitated by local musicians in London, Paris, and Rome. Today, “local” musicians can be found in most countries able to play in the classic American jazz styles – New Orleans, big band, bebop, hard bop, cool, modal, free, jazz-rock and so on – and can be measured by the most exacting standards in jazz. One only has to look at the example of the late Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen for evidence of this, a bassist from Denmark who was in demand by many of America’s leading jazz musicians, such as Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.

But while many local musicians have chosen to play in the globalized hegemonic styles of jazz – where, for example, a German band playing hard bop at the Cologne Stadtgarten might sound very similar to an American band playing hard bop in the Blue Note in New York City – others choose to play in a “glocal” style that has assimilated the basic syntax of classic and contemporary hegemonic styles (the globalization process), but have reinscribed these global styles with “local” significance (the glocalization process).

Glocalization can involve incorporating elements such as national imagery, folkloric or classical elements that give the music relevance to its “local” music community – a classic example of a “glocal” musician is the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson who recorded four albums with American saxophonist Charles Lloyd playing in a hard-driving, straight-ahead style. However, with his own trio he plays a glocalized form of jazz shaped by Stenson’s own musical and cultural experiences on recordings such as Reflections, Serenity, and War Orphans.

“We don’t need to play straight rhythm all the time,” Stenson explains. “It’s a very free way of playing, I think. Not free jazz, we play melodies and harmonies and structures, but we have a free flowing approach to it. We play in the language of American jazz but I guess we put other things into the music. We have other traditions here [in Sweden], more from classical music and folk music and stuff, and I guess we put that into the thing more than ‘traditional American jazz.’ More important, we don’t need to play the American way, we can leave that and come back to it. It allows you to take the music in new directions.”

Other examples of the glocalization effect can be heard in the playing of the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, whose style incorporates centuries old folkloric elements of his home country, the UK saxophonist John Surman, who incorporates influences of his beloved West Country on Road to St. Ives or the Mediterranean flourishes of the Italian saxophonist Gianluigi Trovesi, whose music takes inspiration from his home town of Bergamo.

As the twenty-first century develops, we will see an increasing “multi-dialectism” of jazz, just as we will see the growing use of English. The analogy between the English language and jazz is striking at this point. As Mary Louise Pratt, former director of the Modern Language Association of America, has pointed out, “The future of English, like that of any lingua franca, does not belong to its native speakers.”

Equally, the future of jazz, a musical lingua franca, is increasingly being decided beyond the borders of the United States. Jazz and the English language show very similar properties in the sense that when they both are taken into a given community, the community that absorbs them and uses them doesn’t actually have any reverence for, or need to pay heed to, the way jazz is played or English is spoken in their parent cultures; there is no notion of “authenticity.” In choosing to use English or play jazz, the adopting culture makes English or jazz all its own, just as we no longer think of pasta as being Chinese or Rubik’s Cube being Czech.

English and jazz are both viewed in the world at large as tools for expression and communication, not as something that is “owned” by anyone. In an era of political turmoil and complex negotiations of personal and cultural identity, jazz, more than ever in its history, is being used as a means of asserting cultural identity. Today jazz, a musical lingua franca, is like English as a lingua franca, in being used by everybody, it is owned by nobody.

However, we know that globalization destroys boundaries and in the process raises fears – fears about the loss of our cultural anchors and identity. The increasing glocalization of jazz by the global jazz community is a response to this, providing a means for local musicians around the world to assert their cultural identity within the music. For example, the Young Friends, six young German jazz musicians under 30 who certainly “understand what jazz is” have taken German songs from the Middle Ages through the 1920s and up to the present on their album Great German Songbook. Why shouldn’t these young jazz musicians reflect their place and their identity in the world of jazz?

This process of reinscribing jazz with “local” significance is simply a continuation of the use of appropriation, a recurring theme in the evolution of jazz that reveals a continuing dialogue not only with popular culture but other musical forms to broaden the scope of jazz expressionism. After all, mass culture and modernist high culture had been in dialogue since the mid-nineteenth century, modernism appropriating whatever elements it needed for experiment and articulation. Jazz, an exemplary expression of the modernist impulse in American culture, merely continued this practice, the only difference being that today, the main impetus for change now stems from outside the borders of the United States, rather from within.

The emergence of glocal jazz dialects is a direct response to the globalization of jazz and represents a way that allows the global village to participate in the music, a global village that loves and enjoys American jazz but at the same time seeks to find meaning in its essential spirit of creativity and individuality that is relevant to its own local musical communities.

The result is another way of hearing jazz and can be seen as symbolic of the way hybridity and difference is being managed in the global cultural economy, an assertion of individuality in an ever-more standardized world of cultural identity: a glocalized response to a global phenomena. When jazz went global, it confronted certain cultural assumptions, and with these assumptions have come alternative ways of looking at the world. How impoverished we are if we believe, in contrast to other art forms, that there is only one way of looking at life, only one language, or only one way of hearing and playing jazz.

(Stuart Nicholson)