Just three chapters, chunky ones at that, the first focuses largely on Peter Brötzmann; the second, Manfred Schoof and Alexander von Schlippenbach in the late-1960s; and the third on Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and the beginnings of ''Jazz Experimentalism'' in East Germany.
Dr Harald Kisiedu is an academic and the writing style is as you might expect given the discipline, dense and formal, the book is based on a PhD thesis. The argument he puts forward that in this 25-year period ''engagement with black musical methods, concepts, and practices remained significant for the emergence of the German jazz experimentalism movement.''
Kisiedu focuses on saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, trumpeter Manfred Schoof, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, and saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky in the narrative. Interestingly the author says in his research he ‘’brings to light… untranslated German critical work to an Anglophone readership, thereby making the discourse surrounding jazz experimentalism available beyond the German context.’’ That certainly is useful and the research comes over as fresh.
The book features unseen Peter Brötzmann photos from the saxophonist’s archives and after a very jargon-heavy introduction changes voice entirely when it narrates Brötzmann’s early life and begins to breathe much more easily as discussion turns to the anti-art ideas of Fluxus to which he aligns Brötzmann and in particular the saxophonist’s work as assistant with the South Korean artist Nam June Paik who introduced the saxophonist to the music of Cage and Stockhausen.
Kisiedu interestingly charts Brötzmann’s burgeoning career and puts emphasis for instance on his collaborations with Don Cherry whose international quintet he joined for an extended stay at Paris club Le Chat Qui Pêche in 1966. Cherry nicknamed Brötzmann ''Machine Gun'' and ''Living Ball of Fire.'' The minutiae of the German jazz scene is discussed in some detail in this chapter, a lot of that small print is not that interesting however you get a sense of how change was in the air. Far more interesting is when discussion turns to how Brötzmann has spoken about the significance of an ''intergenerational conflict for his formative years, which surfaced in debates he had with his uncle, formerly a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer'' and how Brötzmann ''links his historical positionality as a ‘kid of war’ shaped by the perceived continuities between the Nazi racial state and the post-war West German ‘miracle years,’ to a notion of experimental jazz that embodied an oppositional political stance. As someone who felt that he ‘didn’t belong’ in post-war West German society, the cross-cultural encounter with the notion of a transformational potential of music associated with some of the foremost black experimentalists became important for Brötzmann.''
Now that is fascinating. The first chapter delves into detail on the coalescence of the West German student movement during the mid-1960s and becomes especially gripping when discussion turns to how German students identified with the struggles of African-Americans in the US. Manfred Miller’s 1966 article for the magazine Jazz Podium “Free Jazz – A New Thing Analysis,” is seen by Kisiedu as significant because Miller made a pronounced attempt to position 'free jazz' within an area of conflict between music and politics by contending that the “great political commitment of almost all ‘new thing’ musicians” served as an indication “that it is anything but far-fetched to look for the meaning of the music in its relationship to society.”
Brötzmann’s views are generally extremely interesting partly because they are so often outspoken and to some extent provocative and he comes across as quite a thinker.
While the latter part of the Brötzmann chapter gets complicated around his classic album Machine Gun, I'd like even more on this period, the beginning of the Schoof chapter is much more sedate trotting through his early life by prosaic contrast. It’s not as dramatic a chapter and actually the book goes downhill from there on. The last chapter… the rise of jazz experimentalism in the German Democratic Republic, however, is intriguing and redresses the balance.
For Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, little known beyond his fanbase at home, jazz was “like a scream that you wanted to answer.” The author unearths some fascinating detail here about the reedist including his time at a youth camp when he met Polish pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda. There’s good detail too on Joachim Kühn and importantly FMP (Free Music Production).
An interesting book, a narrative even more than a thesis, that might need a little patience to navigate but which contains plenty of well researched descriptive detail even if it gets very bogged down in tedious tangents every so often or ‘’so what?’’ passages for long stretches. For non-German jazz fans there is plenty of illumination and insight into the intense factional battles and debate that raged during these years. Brötzmann’s persona towers over the book and he remains its charismatic talisman. He is on a mission as this quote shows: ''Even when I do my wildest shit and my so-called avant-garde nonsense I want to show, especially the young folks, that it has a relation to the tradition and to the history. I mean, in Europe it’s quite easy to forget where the music comes from. It’s American music, and the sources and the roots are in the American entertainment industry, and that’s one of the points I wanted to make clear.''
Kisiedu’s final words – ''In post-war Germany, which functioned as connective between the two Cold War power blocs, jazz experimentalism was akin to a transformative medium, essential for its practitioners’ personal and artistic individuation and for positioning themselves in ways that not only transformed the musical landscape but also effectively challenged the socio-cultural status quo'' – strike me as exceptionally wise.
Published by Wolke Verlag