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Bill Shoemaker

Calvin Coolidge famously said that business of America is business. And, that sly adage is proven true with each International Association for Jazz Education convention. The same cannot be said as starkly of jazzahead! held in Bremen, Germany in late March. True, the event had the look of a small scale IAJE convention. The first German Jazz Meeting showcased a wide array of German musicians (and a few non-German ringers, too), the Europe Jazz Network of festival and concert presenters held closed meetings, and vendors sold everything from LPs to double basses at the jazz fair. Additionally, there were formal evening concerts featuring John Scofield, Bobo Stenson and other international headliners. Certainly, the goals of the organizers – an increased profile for German musicians and improvements within the jazz infrastructure in Germany – are not dissimilar to the goals of the IAJE convention or the discontinued JazzTimes convention.

But, there was a pronounced difference in tone at Bremen, one that says a lot about the way jazz gets done in Europe. In a way, it is encapsulated in the slogan stenciled on the floor where attendees entered the event, which was held at the Congress Centrum, a large complex of conference rooms and auditoriums: starttalkingjazz! Certainly, people talk jazz at IAJE and similar meetings in Europe; however, at jazzahead!, talking jazz was as far as things needed to go. In four days, I didn’t get pitched once, about anything. At the last JazzTimes convention, I was being told about the next big whatever every five minutes.

The difference goes beyond the American imperative for instant results and European ideas of sophistication. It reflects two markedly different environments jazz must negotiate. The States is an intrinsically competitive market fixated on the short-term bottom line. Even though there are changes afoot in the traditional subsidy schemes of various European countries, decades of infrastructure-building funding have engendered a sense of security among concert and festival presenters that their American counterparts simply don’t enjoy.

This stability give presenters an extended horizon in developing programming, instead of settling for whatever is being offered for a particular season. That, in turn, gives musicians the motivation to mount farther-reaching projects. This benefits American musicians as well as Europeans. While the days of 50,000USD fees for American legends may be vanishing fast in Europe, the continent is still open for business for American musicians with a track record of innovation and ongoing artistic evolution. That’s why Americans are still touring more adventurous projects in Europe than in the US on a consistent basis.

The proof of any system’s efficacy is what it produces. Certainly, the built-in adversities of the US model produce music with a unique vitality. The European model, on the basis of the ensembles showcased at the German Jazz Meeting, is producing strong music, as well. Only a few of musicians in these showcases have popped up on the radar of the American press. Trombonist Nils Wogram is perhaps the best known, while improvised music cognoscenti will recognize bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall as the newest member of Globe Unity Orchestra. In addition to joining forces in pianist Aki Takase’s rollicking Fats Waller Project, Wogram led Root 70 in a smart, spirited set, while Mahall was at his edgy best with Der Rote Bereich, a trio with guitarist Frank Möbus and drummer John Schröder. (Root 70 has recorded for Enja, Der Rote Bereich for ACT, German labels with North American partner labels; yet, try finding these recommended discs on this side of the pond.)

Encouragingly, some of the most persuasive music heard at the GJM was composed and performed by women. Pianist Julia Hülsmann’s compositions based on Emily Dickinson poems (and featured on a very good ACT CD) are recommended to anyone moved by Fred Hersch’s Walt Whitman project. And, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier led the aptly named quartet Sublim through a bracing set that occasionally recalled Anthony Braxton’s ‘70s quartets.

Four days of borderline information overload, jazzahead! was all but impossible to thoroughly process. However, one idea can be immediately prescribed to Americans: Start talking jazz and hold off on the pitch.


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