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."