Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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Learning to Play

All About Jazz. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about you as a musician is that you have such extraordinary coordination with ten fingers and two feet. You must be really grateful that your father picked the one instrument that allows you to take full advantage of your unique gifts, imagine if you had gotten a guitar or a saxophone for Christmas...

Barbara Dennerlein. [Laughs] Or a flute...

AAJ: Instead of an organ, your life might have been quite different?

BD: This is a very difficult question because I immediately was taken with the sound of the Hammond organ when I first heard it. The sound of the old Hammond B3 was immediately my dream, I felt so drawn to that sound, I didn't think of anything else—I have no idea what would have happened if a saxophone had been under the Christmas tree. I think maybe drums would have been interesting because I could work with my hand and feet.

For me the organ is such a great thing because I can do so many things: I can comp myself, do solos, improvise, play bass lines with my feet, play solo concerts, and play church [pipe organ] concerts. The organ has such a power and a diversity of sound, it can be like a philharmonic orchestra, and in my opinion the organ sound fits very well with any other sound. It's always interesting to combine the Hammond organ sound with other instruments. I've had really unusual setups like playing with a harp, tuba or whatever, everything works well. And even as you saw in this clip [Barbara on B3 playing a duet with a pipe organist,] it works well with a church organ, it's a sound that's always interesting and makes music lively.

AAJ: I was wondering, do you remember the very first record you bought with your own money?

BD: Oh [laughs] my very first one, oh gosh, well in the beginning I had Charlie Parker records, I really had a lot of them because I loved that, I bought some Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes records and as far as I remember something like Santana—it was quite widespread, but the very first one, I'm sorry I don't remember [laughs] it's too long ago.

AAJ: Once you achieved a level of proficiency on the organ, did you also practice in the beginning by putting on a Charlie Parker LP and playing along with it?

BD: Well you know I started from zero, this was my first instrument and I had no idea about music. I had a teacher for one and a half years and I really started from the very beginning so I had to start with songs like nursery rhymes, very simple songs just to learn it. I developed very quickly, I learned extremely fast. My father recorded everything from the beginning, and it's very interesting if you go back and listen to how quickly I developed, it astonishes me when I listen to early recordings and listen to how well I played already—so sometimes I wonder, what do I do now, I made these huge steps in the beginning. It's often like that, to go from zero to 80% is quite easy, but then from 80% to 100% is much more work in a way.

I learned very quickly and my teacher at that time liked jazz music—American songbooks and standards—he had a big archive of written music and I developed the ability very quickly to play jazz standards without knowing them, just by having the melody and chord symbols and they sounded right. Even when I didn't know them, I just had this feeling for them, so he gave me a nickname, he said [in German], "You are the 'Notenkiller.' I took everything I got from him and made photo copies, of course that's not allowed but I did it, and I played from written music.

Dennerlein shown here with about sixty percent of her music collection

So when I reached that point, I was around thirteen or fourteen, I remember that you could get these play-along records. I basically had two play-along records, one was the music of Duke Ellington and the other was with the music of Charlie Parker. I remember this allowed me to make a huge step in my development because I tried to play along with that, you know these are recordings where one instrument is missing, so that's basically how I learned.

AAJ: Concerning the art of soloing, when you started out you turned to horn players for inspiration and style, did you try to systematically understand what was going on, like transcribing solos, or was it simply a matter of listening and absorbing?

BD: Exactly, I never modeled my playing after other organ players, of course I knew Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith and that excited me, but as I said, I had a big passion for bebop and Charlie Parker, and he was the horn player I most admired, and I listened to him very much. I'm not someone who is analyzing much, like students who write down solos note by note, I did that too, but not much, I just listened and got inspired. I'm absorbing many things, I internalize them, and sometimes you find it somehow in my music as an inspiration, but I didn't write down the solos too much. And I think it was very important not to, because I ended up developing my own very personal style, and it's different from all the other organ players.

This is something that came naturally from my soul. I had an idea of how I would like to play and I just worked at improving and getting my abilities to a level so that I could play what I have in my mind. I always had an idea of how it should sound and what I wanted to be able to play. And I didn't want to concentrate on just one style. My dream was not just to play bebop and swing, my dream was to be able to play everything— even bossa nova and Latin stuff—and this was a big challenge, because it is much easier to specialize in, let's say bebop, but to be good in a lot of styles is much more difficult. You have to open your mind and be able to let it sink in to be authentic.

And then I started playing some funky music. I remember the first funky song I composed was "Wow," I composed it because I was invited to play Ohne Filter [German TV], one of the few live shows where you could play live music and jazz. It doesn't exist anymore, but at that time it was a big deal for me to be invited there, a big audience and a lot of publicity. So I thought okay, I need to play something funky, so I composed "Wow," which was a big success there, but my regular audience at that time was more used to hearing me play swing or bebop—more traditional things. And I remember when I first played "Wow" in my concerts people didn't like it [laughs] because it was an older audience at first, but you know that I don't give up easily.

So I thought, I want people to like this, and I want to play more stuff like this, and increase the range of my repertoire, so I tried to educate my audience. I would play a swing tune, then "Wow," and then maybe "Satin Doll," because then I could open the people up, if they liked my swing stuff they would listen to some funky stuff, and they started to like it, and my audience started to expand too.

AAJ: Did you notice a jump in your career after Ohne Filter, because this was a young audience, they had bands like Santana and the Allman Brothers, so many great bands, that audience didn't want to hear "Satin Doll," they liked "Wow." Did you notice that they started coming to your concerts?

BD: Yes, not especially because I played on Ohne Filter, but because I added more variety and started to play more funky stuff, so the audience got bigger and bigger and more young people came. So what I've achieved nowadays is that I have a big variety of people who come to my concerts and, in a way, I can play anything I want and they like it, and this is great. It's a challenge for me and this has always been a challenge, not to try to play what the audience wants to hear, but to play what you really feel and what is inside of you and try to bring it near to the people and make them feel what you want to express. This is always what I thought I had to do. So I'm happy that I reached this status now where I am able to really play my music, and there are not many musicians who are successful playing their own compositions.

AAJ: One more thing about soloing, it is interesting that you turned to horn players. Dizzy Gillespie credited his knowledge of the piano with making him a better soloist because he understood chord structure, and he encouraged other horn players to learn piano.

BD: Right, it's the other way around for me. Because I understand chord structure, I can concentrate on horn players and how they play their lines.


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