This interview took place on April 20, 2003 in New York before the first concert of an American tour by a trip of Evan Parker, Schlippenbach and Paul Lytton.
What were your early experiences growing up a jazz and improvising musician in Germany?
I think my first experience with jazz was in my early years when I went to school . There would be someone who would play the boogie woogie and I tried to imitate that so I could learn a little bit about the blues. We used to read those books about jazz. I started to buy records, of course I put all my money into records. Anything new from the United States we used to buy. We listened to bebop with Charlie Parker and Art Blakey and a little later with Monk and Duke Ellington and Mingus. When these very new things came up, like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, this was exactly the time when I started to work as half professional and half still as a student of composition. And this was the time when all these influences came together and brought us to this new way of improvising without chord changes and traditional forms. I think it started in the beginning of the '60s. We already started with that in Gunter Hampel's quintet [with Manfred Schoof, Buschi Niebergall, Pierre Courbois], which was more or less the first professional group I used to work with. And we went on later with the Manfred Schoof quintet. And there are still a couple of historical recordings from that time from the early '60s.
You went to school for classical composition?
Yes. I went to the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Köln and I studied composition in the classical way with Rudolph Petzold and Bernd Alois Zimmerman, a very famous composer. That was quite interesting especially with Zimmerman because he was already very interested at that time in our improvisations. In a couple of his works, there were parts where a kind of improvising group with a jazz touch would play. And we did this in his opera Die Soldaten and later in some ballet music and later for a radio play about a piece from Elias Canetti. We played the whole music and it was about graphic information, semantic information by Zimmerman. And later the Requiem for A Young Poet. We even did it five years ago here in New York. This was my most profound influence from my days as a student and I still admire Zimmerman as a great composer. I think he influenced my whole musical thinking. But on the other hand I was also playing jazz. I tried bebop in the beginning. Later we played these free improvised things. In 1966, I had this possibility to play with a large ensemble, which was called the Globe Unity Orchestra. This was a very important point in my musical development because it was actually the start of a band that would exist for over twenty years.
European improvised music seems to embrace classical music much more than its American counterpart.
Yes. All of our musical education is related and based on the European tradition. That's certainly one thing. And jazz is coming from the United States of America, it comes from here and so it developed more from the roots of jazz. So maybe we also tried to follow the tradition and learn the tunes. We listened to all these jazz records but there was also the idea, especially in the '60s when we listened to contemporary music, to find a connection. Playing an atonal bebop was one idea. We did that with Schoof's Quintet. We had short themes, bebop-like, short themes in the beginning and go from there to somewhere else. It was our idea to do it.
Like your bizarre version of Oleo [from Jazz Jamboree 1967, Supraphon].
Yes. This kind of thing.
I found that the so-called avant garde jazz in America was a kind of a short phase when it came up. Like Albert Ayler, like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, also Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, just to mention a few, there were more. There was a big movement for a while and also the record label ESP that brought out this music. But it seemed to be a short thing that was changing very quickly, maybe, conditions of the business are a bit different. Jazz - you have to sell it, you have to play it, people have to come and pay for it. In Europe we had all these possibilities, maybe better ones, to organize workshops by many of the cultural administrations in towns so we were more independent and did not have to work with nightclubs. We could go more in the direction of what we call serious music. You have the entertainment music and the serious music. There is a strict distinction in the German business… And so there are more connections to the so-called serious music because we could set up these workshops and invite people to do a crossover as well, I don't like this word, but you know what I mean. Some contemporary composers started to get interested in improvised music such as Zimmerman but also players like Vinko Globokar, the trombone player who played at the Workshop for Free Music so there were some encounters between those different musical worlds. And this was an influence on the development of course. And the way we do our improvisations nowadays…there is the very strong attitude of a jazz player and there is also a kind of forward moving drive in our music that is not in other experimental or classical musics. I can still say that free jazz is the best word for this music.
Have you and your music been amply supported by the government and the recording industry?
There was support from various quarters. For example, the Goethe Institute used to send us around a lot. I did some tours with the Schoof Quintet already in the '60s. I did a tour with Gunter Hampel's quintet even before to Greece. And later, especially the Globe Unity Orchestra was sent around a lot by the Goethe Institute and we also went to the United States. There was a tour I think in 1984 and we played New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston. And they also sent us on a big tour of Asia. We were in five different Asian countries; it was a five-week tour. There was a time when the Goethe Institute gave us a lot of support. A little bit later, I got some money to set up this Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra with the idea to perform and record new pieces by contemporary jazz composers. We did pieces by Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg, Kenny Wheeler, Carla Bley, Manfred Schoof, myself and Aki Takase. But now the situation in Berlin is so difficult with the money, so I've stopped this for a while and tried to concentrate on other things.
Why was there the switch from big labels like CBS or SABA to an independent label like FMP by many German musicians in the late '60s?
It was more like at this time musicians discovered the possibilities of making their own records and became independent from record companies. Before we had to wait until we found a record company that would be interested in issuing the music. Musicians tried to organize series of workshops, concerts, recording possibilities and issuing records. FMP was the beginning of musicians' cooperatives… But it seems to be, most of the musicians sooner or later…they want to get through with their own ideas; it's more natural to follow this way for a musician I found. So it was really started by the musicians' own activities. It was not so much about waiting for something, FMP was going on, it somehow still is going on. But it worked for at least 30 years very well. And the setup in Berlin was mainly very good, the groups were invited to play for three days, and they could make recordings in the afternoon, play the concert in the evening, everything was recorded, sometimes even two days so there was always a good selection of music. We could take the best and bring it out on record so it was a good system I think.
How did the Globe Unity Orchestra come about?
It happened actually in 1966 when I got a commission that enabled me to put togther a group of 14 players or so. There was the Manfred Schoof Quintet that I was playing with at that time, and I knew Peter Brötzmann who had a trio in Wuppertal. Sometimes we played on the same concerts; of course we had contact among each other. I took these two groups and some more players; like Evan [Parker] a little bit later and it was the way it started.
Were the players chosen to fit a particular concept you had or did the concept evolve from the players in the group?
I can split it up into certain decades and certain times. So let's say from 1966-1970, it was only my concepts, my compositions which were more or less loose free jazz arrangements, composed with written parts and conceptual parts, soloist and backgrounds. After that, there was another phase that we call sometimes the Wuppertal time because we used to set up these workshops in Wuppertal. Also in Wuppertal, there were many musician living such as Rüdiger Carl, Hans Reichel, Kowald and Brötzmann. It was not my idea to only play my pieces, we had some pieces by Breuker as well, and then came the time when we played those Hans Eisler things as well. And this went through the '70s let's say. So from 1980 on I think there was another change in the band because Peter Kowald and myself who used to lead the band together somehow didn't work together anymore, we split, and I went on myself more or less. And Brötzmann left the band at this time and there was a new phase coming up, we made those ECM records. And I had ssome other players like George Lewis and Bob Stewart and Steve Lacy for a while and Lacy also wrote pieces for the band. I think from the beginning of '80s more and more, we used to play free improvised sets, no compositions at all, this was a time, the formal thing came really from the players. The style of the performance was also quite important: to stand in a half circle and almost every player had a solo with tutti parts in between but they were all improvised so this brought up a kind of classical form for the GUO. I would say that this is really the form that makes the image of the band. Its stands for the image of the band most.
Did you specifically decide to expand the GUO from a primarily German group to one with many cultures?
Of course, I liked the idea that we have people from different countries and also different musical approaches. It was very exciting and I still think it's a very good idea. We were quite international but in the scene now worldwide there are many interesting players from many countries. So I tried to find the ones I liked best and tried to work with them.
Albert Mangelsdorff, a player from an older generation, embraced freer music played by younger musicians. Was this the case with others in the traditional scene?
I think Albert Mangelsdorff is actually an exception. It was more or less the same everywhere that the older musicians were very against it because they wanted to maintain their status. It's always the same if something new comes up, in the older jazz there is a lot of mistrust. “Are you guys serious?” and “What is this?” and so on. Albert was an exception I found. We didn't have too many musicians of his generation in our bands. Maybe Lacy was an exception too. But there were not so many. There were still many musicians against us in Germany from the older generations. Many big band musicians and professional radio musicians were sceptical.
What kind of bandleader are you?
Basically, I am interested in composition. And I have done many projects with my compositions and compositions of other musicians. I had some ideas about conducting and doing pieces with semantic information where I have to give signs and so on. It's quite a difficult question because it has changed throughout the years. There was a time, as I just told you, when we did not play any compositions. It was just that I was responsible for how the band was put together, who will play, I always had to decide this all through the years. Also I had to organize a lot, I had to deal with the Goethe Institute. I don't like the role of manager. But I knew I had a musical responsibility and I did my best to fill it. Of course I have some very good musical friends like Evan and Manfred Schoof. And of course I talked with them as well and we discussed problems. When we have a Globe Unity concert, of course I play the piano. When it is just improvised music, I am just one of the players, apart from the fact that I brought the band together. But it's different when I write a piece, then I have to make the musicians play it, which is more the role of the traditional band leader.
Does your approach to playing change substantially when you play in a big band versus in small formats?
My approach as a player is not so different because I have my own style and when I play with a large group, I play more or less like in a small group. My attitude is the same; the music may come out very different because it is always an influence from who plays with you.
You've worked a lot in duos with drummers like Sve-Åke Johanssen or Paul Lovens or Tony Oxley.
This also comes from my experience with jazz history. I always liked the trio of Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton for example, without bass. There are also piano trios without bass like Teddy Wilson's. I like that very much. I have nothing against the bass but somehow I like this more sharp sound and later I heard the trio of Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons, especially the record Live at Café Montmartre is one of my favorites. And this was exactly the sound I could get when I played in trio with Evan and Lovens. Something like this. There was an idea already to have this sound. And then I found these musicians and we carried on and it came out quite successfully.
Can you talk about your long-standing relationship with Evan Parker?
Basically I believe strongly in long-standing relationships with musicians. Over time, we can achieve results which are not so easy to when you just play a short time. Of course, you have to go through a lot of changes, there are sometimes also difficulties but when you get through, it can result in something more valuable. It's sort of easy if you play with someone you have never played with before, I found. The easiest thing is when players come together and can say it is an experiment. But if you play with someone for a longer time, the challenge is bigger because you have to go through the process of refinement together.
Can free improvisation continue indefinitely?
Of course! It still has a future because you cannot turn history back and say this was just something that's over because it was of the momentum created by the changes that occurred in the beginning of the '60s. So of course improvising in many many contexts will go on.
Many people would be surprised that you embrace jazz' history.
I love the music the music of Thelonious Monk. It's a life long inspiration for me. I work on these tunes continuously and I hope I can play them better and better.I love the whole jazz tradition. It was something I have always been interested in. I've listened to this music all my life now. I think it's a natural progression. I was never felt I was doing something revolutionary. It was natural to want to go further somehow and find something new. But I never wanted to destroy anything or do something completely different.
Please send comments or questions to Andrey Henkin at email@example.com .