The venerable trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, during a friendly reunion in the backstage at the Berlin Philharmonie, mused fondly on the unique arrangement that comes to the German capital each November. For the last 36 years, the Jazz Festival Berlin (JFB, established in 1964) and the Total Music Meeting (TMM, founded in 1968) peaceably coexist. Mangelsdorff recalled the numerous occasions when he would stroll a few blocks from the JFB after a gig to participate in the more freeform TMM. Though logistical considerations of today's choice of venues have reduced the number of performers and audience members who participate in both, the two still combine to promote the rich history and tradition of European jazz and improvised music in a way that few others can, or do.
Most cities have jazz festivals, and particularly in the States, their rosters are usually quite similar to each other. Europe, in an attempt to garner audiences, tends to book many of these high-profile American acts as headliners, relegating their indigenous musicianry to smaller venues and lesser publicity. Though the easy analogy of JFB and TMM is New York's JVC and Vision Festivals, the reality is that the European festivals, first and foremost, are interested in supporting European musicians as not only equal to their American counterparts, but as responsible for much of the music's development in the last few decades.
During this 40th anniversary of JFB this idea was avidly on display. In 1964, musicians like Mangelsdorff and saxophonists Zbigniew Namyslowski and Gerd Dudek played in front of the inaugural audiences. These legends of European jazz were invited to play again during the 40th edition (though they have been mainstays over the festival's history) in honor of their accomplishments. Other European musicians and groups with impressive pedigrees were also included in this year's programming: Michel Portal in duo with Richard Galliano; Willem Breuker's Kollektief playing "Rhapsody in Blue" with a full string octet; the ICP Orchestra and Gerd Dudek's latest quartet. The JFB was not purely a nostalgic look at European jazz however. More recent practitioners, perhaps less conscious of the gap between continents, included Ernst Reijseger, Aki Takasi and a trio of young Danish musicians in a quartet with American saxophonist Michael Blake. There were American groups to be sure: Josh Roseman, Bennie Wallace and a tribute to Billy Higgins by Charles Lloyd, but these were not promoted over everything else purely based on nationality. Anybody coming away from these four days could feel assured that jazz was taken as seriously in Europe as in America and that generations of gifted artists were taking care of it.
The TMM also had a 40th anniversary theme, though a much sadder one. In 1964, Eric Dolphy's incandescent career ended in Berlin, cutting short one of the New Thing's most compelling voices. The TMM focused on one of his most lasting contributions - the elevation of the bass clarinet into the ranks of serious jazz horn - as their programming premise. Numerous European bass clarinetists were invited to perform in tribute to Dolphy: Harry Sparnaay, Armand Angster, Vinnie Golia (the sole American), Wolfgang Fuchs, Peter Van Bergen and Hans Koch. While it is questionable how much of the music they played, apart from covers, fit into the model set up by the late Dolphy, the lineage was traceable, even in such obvious fashion as the appearance of one of Dolphy's last rhythm sections, Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg (the sole participant in both festivals this year).
Other segments of the TMM celebrated particularly European concepts in jazz over the past 40 years with some of their best proponents. The Piano Summit theme (a refutation of typical American piano trio music) was well represented by Irene Schweizer (in duo with South African drummer Louis Moholo), Fred Van Hove (solo and in duo with Wolfgang Fuchs) and Albert Braida. Though Cecil Taylor may be the most famous pracitioner of this freewheeling form, it has had its most successful exposition in Europe.
Similarly, the conservatory-trained Europeans, who embrace freedom while having the marvelous technical facility to give it shape, have hashed out the fine line between improvisation and composition for years. One of the few American participants in the TMM, Butch Morris, displayed his own take on the idea leading the Italian group New Music Laboratory Ensemble in one of his conductions.
Unfortunately, the distance between venues and overlapping schedules made it difficult to catch every show. It is a testament to the organizational minds of both festivals that there was so much to see and so many hard choices. Living in New York, we get our fair share of Europeans each year. But in Berlin every November, the JFB and the TMM show that good jazz has a firm hold on many countries in Europe and that those musicians deserve to be given the spotlight.