Deutsches Jazzfestival Frankfurt Celebrates 50 Years of Fruitful Collaborations


Multi-instrumentalist Matthias Schriefl makes a big impression during a collaboration with the hr-Bigband at the 2018 Deutsches Jazzfestival Frankfurt in Germany.

(Photo: Sascha Rheker)

The history of jazz in Germany includes one of the darkest chapters in human history: The Nazi regime of the 1930s was a bulwark against the spreading popularity of the genre, labeling it a degenerate art. After 1937, American musicians couldn’t get into the country and the government eventually outlawed jazz. But a developing ardor for the music finally blossomed when World War II ended, particularly in regions where U.S. forces were stationed. In cities such as Frankfurt, jazz LPs were available and jazz musicians had opportunities to perform. Indeed, jazz flourished there, even producing important homegrown talent, such as legendary trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and his saxophone-playing brother Emil.

In the early ’50s, a loose consortium of musicians, club promoters and radio journalists formed the German Jazz Federation to share resources and information, and by 1953, that organization had pooled its resources to produce one of the first major jazz festivals in the world: the Deutsches Jazzfestival Frankfurt.

Though the inaugural edition of the festival featured U.S. blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, the lineup was largely comprised of German musicians, celebrating the achievements and burgeoning talent from a nation that was already a European stronghold for jazz. “It was inspiring for the people living here, and there were very good musicians like the Mangelsdorff brothers, so they decided to do this,” explained Olaf Stötzler, who’s been the festival’s artistic director since 2016.

The festival will present its 50th anniversary edition Oct. 23–27 with programming that reflects how its curatorial approach has expanded well beyond its native focus to capture a kaleidoscopic, global view of jazz. After its first seven years, the festival switched to a biennial schedule in 1960, and it remained on that path until 1990, when it resumed mounting the event annually. In 1964, Jazzfest Berlin was launched, and over the years the country has hosted a growing number of festivals. Facing fierce competition from its neighbors, Frankfurt was forced to sharpen its programming and reach beyond the local scene.

The festival has hosted a parade of U.S. titans, including Don Cherry, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Jaki Byard, the Brecker Brothers, Joe Henderson, John Zorn and Charles Lloyd, who first performed at the event in 1966 and returns this year with his quartet.

At the same time, the festival has provided an important platform for some of Europe’s most important figures, such as Stéphane Grappelli, Irène Schweizer, Peter Brötzmann, Jan Garbarek and John Surman. As jazz gained popularity and festivals flourished, Deutsches Jazzfestival Frankfurt widened its scope and began initiating unique collaborations, generating significant, resonant partnerships between German musicians and visiting U.S. players. In 1978, Charles Mingus associate George Adams performed with fellow saxophonist Heinz Sauer—a sideman with Albert Mangelsdorff from the early Frankfurt days—while in 1980, David Murray collaborated with Alfred 23 Harth, a key figure in German avant-garde jazz. Subsequent pairings included saxophonist Pharoah Sanders working with bassist Eberhard Weber, as well as brothers Joachim Kühn (piano) and Rolf Kühn (saxophone/clarinet) collaborating with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.

“The basis to make the festival unique is to do as many premieres as possible, to give a ‘wild card’ to a musician,” Stötzler said. “You’re an interesting musician—let us know who you want to play with, and we’ll give you the opportunity to form a band and premiere it at the festival. We can’t do it with every act on the bill, but this has always been [an important part of] the history of the festival.”

One German musician who’s benefited greatly from such opportunities is saxophonist Christof Lauer, who first performed at the festival in 1978, when he was only 25, in trumpeter Uli Beckerhoff’s band Riot. He said as a latecomer to jazz, hearing artists perform at the event was important to his education. “The festival helped me a lot to be better known in Germany,” he said. “And compared to other festivals I played at this time, Frankfurt was a real highlight for me.”

In 1984, Lauer returned, playing with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor, and in 1988 he joined forces with Joachim Kühn and drummer Roy Haynes. For the 2019 edition of the festival, he’ll collaborate with the Turkish ney flutist Kudsi Ergüner, reflecting another frequent thread in the festival’s programming: pairing jazz practitioners with varied masters of traditional music styles from around the globe.

In 1984, the artistic direction for the festival passed from original organizers Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau to the public broadcasting corporation Hessischer Rundfunk. Apart from broadcasting most of the festival live on the radio and programming the lineup, it also sponsors one of the strongest jazz orchestras in the country, the hr-Bigband (aka the Frankfurt Radio Big Band). The large ensemble has maintained a steady presence at the festival and frequently pushes beyond jazz’s traditional boundaries. In 2006, the orchestra performed with Cream bassist Jack Bruce, playing his original tunes, while in 2016, the group performed with British keyboardist Django Bates to create a fascinating interpretation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—a collaboration captured on Bates’ 2017 Saluting Sgt. Pepper (Edition).

One of the most anticipated acts of this year’s festival will be a fascinating project featuring Joachim Kühn, one of the few pianists to maintain a working relationship with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. During their partnership, Coleman left the pianist with numerous unpublished and unrecorded compositions, and earlier this year, Kühn recorded solo renditions of those pieces for Melodic Ornette Coleman: Piano Works XIII (ACT). But in Frankfurt, he and the hr-Bigband will debut new arrangements by himself and Jim McNeely, with special guests that include drummer Joey Baron, clarinetist Michel Portal and bassist François Moutin.

For decades, the festival has shown a commitment to up-and-coming talent, and this year it revisits a concept mounted at the festival’s inaugural edition: the German All Stars. This performance will showcase an impressive sextet, assembled by Stötzler, featuring some of the most important young players based in Germany: saxophonist Angelika Niescier, trombonist Johannes Lauer, guitarist Ronny Graupe, pianist Julia Kadel, bassist Eva Kruse and drummer Eva Klesse. Each group member will contribute a composition to the sextet’s repertoire.

Kadel, who’s released two albums of contemplative, lyric post-Bill Evans trio music for the German division of Blue Note, said, “We all play in different projects and offer a certain musical portfolio, open to be melded with the other’s musical languages. I am currently writing a new composition for that sextet, and it will be my first piece about climate change and Earth’s destruction. I am excited to see how it will sound with the others. To meet through improvised music is a precious chance to communicate ... . I desire these chances for open spaces, for different people to meet each other and share good things that can spread out to the world.”

Among this year’s other anticipated highlights is the opening evening, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of ECM Records with sets by guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus performing with the hr-Bigband, and Albanian singer Elina Duni. Also slated to perform at the fest will be Enemy (the bracing trio led by British keyboardist Kit Downes), the Crosscurrents Trio (bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter and percussionist Zakir Hussain), saxophonist Nubya Garcia, Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and the taut quartet Boulez Materialism, led by Berlin-based drummer Christian Lillinger. DB

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