Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic
Friday, March 22, 2013
I was instantly stunned by the original ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ series, established in 1945 by the American jazz impresario Norman Granz. I was five years old then and 12 years later was privileged to visit my first JATP concert in Hannover, Germany. It was amazing to see jazz musicians in a concert hall in front of 2,500 people rather than in a small club, these new groups of musicians spontaneously improvising, regardless of the musical style. The cream of the crop of the US jazz scene participated: Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich – you name them. Granz used the Philharmonic Auditorium in LA as the birthplace of the series and later, over a period of 20 years, brought these concerts to many different places all over the US, later all over the world, and released many of them as records until the final curtain of JATP fell in Tokyo, Japan, in 1983.
I took a long detour as a record producer and manager in the major pop business before I founded my own jazz label, ACT Music, in 1992. It took another 20 years until I could realise ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic’ and bring the Norman Granz concept to life again. Living in Berlin for the last five years and being a big enthusiast not only of jazz but also of classical music, I’ve probably been to the Berlin Philharmonic more often than to the local jazz club. It was in 2012 when the Berlin Philharmonic decided to sell their Alfred Brendel Steinway grand piano – the one Brendel once personally selected and always had used when he was playing in Berlin. It was a charity auction for UNICEF and as my wife and I are constantly supporting this organisation and also hosting private concerts at our house, we took the chance and bought the instrument. Thus we got to know Martin Hoffmann, the Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic, and also Sir Simon Rattle. It turned out that both were real jazz lovers. At one point during that conversation I asked them: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have that piano played once more, but this time by some of the greatest jazz pianists of our time?’ They instantly loved the idea and so the first concert of ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic’ became a reality.
Having many outstanding jazz pianists on my label ACT - first and foremost the great Esbjörn Svensson who sadly died on June 14, 2008 - it was difficult to pick only three for the concert. In the end I decided for three very different, individualistic, unique players who, besides having a strong jazz background, were also clearly influenced by classical music: The German Michael Wollny, regarded by many as the most important German jazz musician since Albert Mangelsdorff, whose influences range from Gustav Mahler to contemporary classical and pop; then the Finn Iiro Rantala, who used Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a starting point for his improvisations and who sees Bach as the very first jazz musician; and the Pole Leszek Możdżer who, strongly influenced by Frédéric Chopin, has created his very own virtuosic, rhythmically and melodically complex style that has brought him to the top of the pop charts in his home country.
On December 11, 2012 the first concert of ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic’ took place, with Wollny, Możdżer and Rantala playing solos, duos and, as a finale, together on three instruments. The concert exceeded everyone’s expectations, both musically and in terms of popularity – it was the first jazz concert in the history of the chamber music hall to totally sell out with over 1200 people. The audience mainly consisted of people who would normally come to classical concerts; they were easily able to enjoy this music as they were accustomed to really listening to what is going on and able to concentrate on complex music for longer than three minutes! At the same time, many of them told me afterwards how the concert surprised them with its energy, the virtuosity of the musicians and their fabulous interaction, and that they had never heard anything like this before.
It is great proof that anyone with open ears and a true interest in music can enjoy a jazz concert – no matter what their musical background. It shows that jazz can reach more than the current one per cent of the music market when presented properly. Fortunately we had the concert recorded and very soon afterwards decided to have it released on CD as ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic I’. Moreover, the huge success of the premiere convinced everyone to continue the project, resulting in four more concerts in the 2013-14 concert season, the next one on March 25 – with the great pianists Joachim Kühn and Yaron Herman, French bass clarinet icon Michel Portal and the amazing young Polish jazz violin virtuoso Adam Baldych.
I think it’s great that nowadays different musical styles, genres and cultural influences no longer separate but rather mix and inspire each other. This was Norman Granz’s original idea in 1945. I’m happy and proud to follow in these footsteps with ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic’ and see this concept flourish so beautifully.