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Albert Mangelsdorff: A Legend at 75

By Published: October 28, 2003

I was never trying to become #1; it was my intention to make music. I wanted to make music. I wanted to fulfill certain things that I heard in my imagination and that has nothing to do with becoming rich or becoming famous or anything, It's just the music that counts.

In the center of Frankfurt, Germany is the stately Old Opera House, Die Alte Oper. Its dignified classical fa'ade houses a remarkably modern interior. The same can be said for trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, German jazz star who celebrated his 75th Birthday at the Opera House on Sept. 12th, 2003.

A resident of Frankfurt for most of his life, it has been said that he is the only musician in Germany that, in Miles-ian fashion, needs only to be referred to by first name. Frankfurt, one of the centers of German jazz, and an audience of over 2000 celebrated for one evening the music of its "favorite son".

The introduction for the performance, given by a journalist from one of Germany's major national newspapers referred to Mangelsdorff as "the number one jazz musician in Germany, the number one trombonist in Germany, the number one trombonist in the world" . Some might view this as hyperbole, but few musicians have had a career as international and noteworthy as Albert Mangelsdorff.

"I am very proud that finally in my home town I am such an accepted person," remarked Mangelsdorff in a conversation the following afternoon. "I have been here 50 years or more playing' I was playing in the [famed Frankfurt jazz club] Jazzkeller, not for the money but for the beer, so it's quite a step from this to that."

Mangelsdorff was born September 5, 1928. It was, he said, "'at a young age, 11, 12, when I heard jazz music on the radio and records that my brother brought home' It went right down my spine, and when my brother was not home, I was playing his records all the time, and singing with them and' when I got to know how improvisation in jazz works, I improvised with those records'So I got that urge, I wanted to be a jazz musician."

His uncle, who he lived with when he was 13, and who was the first violin in the theater in Fortsheim, wanted him to become a good violin player in the orchestra. "I should have never told him I wanted to be a jazz musician," said Mangelsdorff. "'that was in Nazi time when jazz was not the real thing'Nazis didn't want that, and my uncle didn't like jazz either. He would have stopped right away if he had known that jazz was my goal."

Not much later his older brother Emil, a celebrated jazz musician in his own right, was drafted in the army, coming back only five or six years later after detainment in a Russian POW camp. By that time, the younger Mangelsdorff had already started a career as a jazz musician, not as a violinist, but as a self-taught guitarist.

"The trombone had been on my mind quite a time already when I played guitar. It was very attractive to me, the sound of the trombone and there were a few guys playing like Bill Harris in the Woody Herman Band and Kai Winding in Stan Kenton's Band and I was dreaming of going in this direction as a trombone player. It took me quite some time until I got hold of a trombone. I suspect the instrument I got had been stolen somewhere in the store of the army band. I paid a few packs of cigarettes for it. That was the currency at that time."

German musicians mainly played for American forces stationed in Frankfurt. "We always tried to play for black units, because they would let us play what we wanted," recalled Mangelsdorff. "They would let us play jazz, and in some places we even had fans that would like our music." It was during these performances that he honed his craft, playing mainly the cool jazz that appealed to him in his youth. "When you start an instrument in jazz, you usually copy someone, and in my case I was very [much] into the cool jazz of Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano but among them there was no trombone player. So I tried to play the lines of Lee Konitz. After some time I realized that this is an alto sax and this is a trombone and you cannot play everything that an alto sax plays."

The young trombonist recorded on his first record in 1952 with saxophonist Hans Koller and played around the few places available for gigs in Frankfurt. His break came in 1958 when he was selected to be the German representative for the Newport Jazz Festival International Band. The trip gave him exposure, opportunities to jam with American musicians like Gerry Mulligan, and an appearance on a Louis Armstrong album of the period. Coming from the early European tradition of copying American jazz, ("Over here [In Europe] at that time, especially the critics, they would judge a guy on how well he played like another American musician") Mangelsdorff began to show glimmers of his own unmistakable style. "Being there in the U.S., I found out that you really have to stick to your own ideas, to your own knowledge of music. These six weeks in New York gave me a lot of courage to do so' I thought that nothing should be forced. You just have to listen into yourself, what is there and what is there of your own personality."

Returning to Germany, Mangelsdorff began prolifically recording, in groups with his brother, on an album with Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis (Animal Dance, Atlantic, 1962), and with a newly formed quintet that would record half a dozen albums over the next decade. The '60s also found Mangelsdorff becoming involved in the burgeoning free jazz movement, a shift mirrored by American peer soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Despite coming from a traditional background, the shift seemed natural: "Free jazz was actually a logical result of what jazz had been so far - the very primitive improvising on a melody - then the changes got more and more complex. It was logical to me that it [free improvising] would come, even though I thought it had to come out of my own development."

During the intervening years, Mangelsdorff would continue to perform and record regularly with such musicians as Don Cherry, John Surman, Slide Hampton, Wolfgang Dauner, John Scofield, Gunter Hampel, Chico Freeman and many others. His unique approach to the trombone has made him an integral member of many ensembles over the years but he may be well known for sewing an uncommon thread into the quilt of jazz history: solo trombone. To understand this innovation, it is necessary to discuss the evolution of multiphonics - the simultaneous blowing and singing of notes into a horn. "Before I came up with this multiphonics, I was already a very good trombone player," Mangelsdorff quips. "But multiphonics was just a new dimension to be found for the trombone. I didn't invent it'it was there. Nobody made out of it what I did and when I got it, I started practicing it every day, and I was very much surprised what possibilities there were. After discovering these new dimensions, being able to play harmonies, to play chords, opened up the possibility to play solo."

To perform such a physically demanding task on a challenging instrument, particularly at age 75 requires work. "In the beginning, for me anyway, the sung note was never loud to get a balance or to get out those overtones clearly," Mangelsdorff explains. "So I had to find practicing techniques; I practice my voice every day on a piano, singing through the mouthpiece, because I found that when I did this the balance would be there." Backstage, before his birthday concert, Mangelsdorff was audible in his dressing room, practicing his singing with a piano.

Commitment to music is what has made Mangelsdorff able to celebrate his 75th birthday still playing at a high level. The performance featured two groups he has been involved with some time. Old Friends, with Manfred Schoof (who put the band together for his 50th birthday), Klaus Doldinger, Wolfgang Dauner, Eberhard Weber and Ralf H'bner; and the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, founded and led by Dauner originally as a group for a TV show, and featuring such European luminaries as Barbara Thompson, Kenny Wheeler and Jon Hiseman. It speaks volumes about Mangelsdorff's lack of pretension that a celebration for him he would see as an opportunity to present groups he does not lead. Such affability was in abundant evidence during the day preceding the concert. Whether it be in a friendly chat with Wolfgang Dauner, exchanging greetings with Kenny Wheeler, or in the riding in an elevator with Eberhard Weber, it is was clear that the musicians who came to participate in this event did so out of profound respect and love for Albert.

"It's special because Albert is a venerated musician, one of the most important in the last century," commented Barbara Thompson. "And a nice person."

Ralf H'bner, drummer with Mangelsdorff's long-standing group of the '60s, feels indebted to Mangelsdorff. "For me, he gave me a chance'[he was] the musician who gave me the idea for my own music, my own identity."

The audience of the Alte Oper was equally as gracious, filling the hall with thunderous applause worthy of such a momentous occasion. Mangelsdorff, though thankful, feels slightly uncomfortable with the accolades. "I never cared for all these adjectives, to be called #1 or whatever, because'everyone has his own taste and I would never even think about that I am the #1 trombonist. And anyway, I was never trying to become #1; it was my intention to make music. I wanted to make music. I wanted to fulfill certain things that I heard in my imagination and that has nothing to do with becoming rich or becoming famous or anything, It's just the music that counts."


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