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Eric Ineke: Surveying the European Jazz Scene

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This is the fourth of the All About Jazz series on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, journalists, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives.

Jazz originated in America, but Europe has made and still makes an enormous contribution to the development of jazz. In this interview, Dutch drummer Eric Ineke reflects on the many faces of jazz in Europe past and present.]


Eric Ineke is a revered drummer from Holland who, among many other accomplishments, worked with giants like Dexter Gordon, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Griffin, Ben Webster, vocalist Deborah Brown, and other American "expatriates" who made Europe their home during key points in their careers. Ineke is a professor in the jazz department of the Royal Conservatory of Music in the Hague. He performs at clubs and festivals in many European countries. In this interview, he offers a unique birds-eye perspective on jazz in Europe, then and now. Ineke came up in the bebop-hard bop traditions, and he remains an advocate of straight ahead jazz steeped in swing and the blues, so his perspective is strongly biased in that direction. Like his drumming, his comments swing strongly and are spiced with a personal touch.

All About Jazz: For a warm-up, let's do the desert island question. Which recordings would you take to that desert island? What are your favorite jazz recordings?

Eric Ineke: First of all, I would take Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve, 1995). And I would take Stan Getz at Storyville (v1; v2; Roost, 1951/1955). I love Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1955). Also, Dexter Gordon: Our Man in Paris (Blue Note, 1963). And Coltrane Live at Birdland (Impulse. 1964). And I can always listen to Herbie Hancock: Speak like a Child (Blue Note: 1968) .

AAJ: Your response is interesting in that you don't include any European musicians.

EI: (Surprised) That's right! There's one European musician on Dexter's recording: the bassist Pierre Michelot.

AAJ: But all of the leaders are American.

EI: Well, that's because I grew up loving American jazz music. When I was very young, I heard this great music from America, and it was all swing, bebop, and hard bop. For me, it's still a great American art form.

AAJ: Jazz now includes all kinds of music and musicians worldwide. Do you think that most European musicians still think of jazz as uniquely American?

EI: Yes, I think that would be especially true of the musicians from my generation. With the younger ones, it depends. I've been teaching at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague for twenty-seven years now. The young students still listen to traditional jazz: bebop, hard bop, and so on. I encourage them to do that because for me, it's still the basic way to make jazz music. And they would come up with albums like I mentioned, with the addition of greats like Miles Davis of course. But a lot of them listen also to the new developments in Europe and America which is good and normal because you are part of the times in which you are growing up and what is musically happening around you. In the end it is up to them what they are going to do with it. But at least they are aware of the importance of the musical tradition, which will give them some added value in whatever direction they want to go.

AAJ: Would they also listen to an album by a European musician, say Toots Thielmans, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, or Stephane Grappelli?

EI: No, not so much.

AAJ: This tells me that, at least from where these guys are coming from, jazz is still perceived as an American art form in Europe. This contrasts, say, with classical or folk music, where an American performer or composer would be on the same level with one from Europe.

EI: But jazz is truly American, because the swinging rhythm and timing is strictly American. And there's also the feeling for the blues that uniquely comes from America. I don't want to sound old- fashioned, but they still are the basic components, and when I hear the best players, they come across right away as having those ingredients.

The "Blindfold Test"

AAJ: If you were given a "blindfold test" where we played a recording, and you had to identify whether the musicians are American or European, do you think you could tell the difference?

EI: I participate in a group of critics and musicians, and we do that twice a year. And my answer is, yes, mostly we can hear the difference. You can hear it in the time feel. But there are some players we can't tell whether they're European or American. For example, the saxophonist Ferdinand Povel from the Netherlands -you couldn't tell that he's European. And the same could be said of the pianist Rein De Graaff. He's a super bebop guy, and he's got the blues in there -his whole feeling is American. But with the drummers, there's definitely something in the sound that distinguishes European from American drummers. The American drummers have a full, fat sound. They are not afraid to go for it!

AAJ: That's a very interesting observation.

EI: They are really not afraid to hit it and to play it. That's getting better in Europe, but here only a few guys really have that sound on drums. I work with my students to get that sound and a great swinging groove in their cymbal beat, which -like playing with brushes -is becoming a lost art.

Ineke on Mainstream and the Avant-Garde in Europe

AAJ: Let's step back now and look at the big picture of jazz in Europe. Let's try to get an aerial view. Flying over the whole jazz scene, could you reflect for us about jazz in Europe? How's it going these days on the whole?

EI: I would have to say that on the whole, the feeling for straight ahead jazz, what I call the real deal, is getting less popular now. Most of the younger musicians feel they have to be innovators. They think they're geniuses, and they have to come up with something new. The problem is that what comes out most of the time is nothing.

AAJ: That's a very strong opinion! Are you referring to musicians in the avant-garde?

EI: To me it sounds more like improvised contemporary music. There's not what I would consider jazz in what they play.

AAJ: Do the musicians who are doing this kind of music first immerse themselves in the jazz tradition and master what came before them in this respect?

EI: My feeling is that many of them do not have a strong jazz background. And don't get me wrong; they can make some beautiful music. But for me, it's not jazz. It's improvised contemporary music. The whole jazz element is gone. The rhythm, the feel of jazz is not there. Timing and groove is the biggest problem in the schools anyway and this so called 'Contemporary Music' is for some of them a perfect escape route.

AAJ: Do you mean there's no jazz syncopation, and no blues?

EI: Right! In all fairness, there are some younger guys who are still doing it well. In every country in Europe, you can still find some guys who can play their ass off! For example, in Italy there are two great tenor saxophone players, Emanuele Cisi and Max Ionata. In Germany, there's the trumpet player Till Bronner. In Finland, there is Pekka Pylkkänen, a great alto saxophonist, Mikael Jacobsson, a great pianist, and Jussi Lehtonen, a wonderful swinging drummer. In Estonia, I played with an outstanding young bassist, Heikko-Joseph Remmel. In Ireland, there is a great tenor player, Michael Buckley. And also in Ireland, Ronald Guilfoyle, a great composer and bassist. His son, Chris Guilfoyle , is a monster guitarist and a perfect example of a young guy who has one foot in the tradition and one foot in the present. Austria has a fantastic young drummer, Peter Primus Frosch, and in Hungary there is another fine young drummer, Atilla Gyarfas. Both were students of mine with one foot in the tradition and the other in the present. These are great players, and they play with the real spirit, like what I experienced when I played with Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin , George Coleman, Eric Alexander, and all those guys from the U.S. That spirit, it's there from the first note on!

AAJ: But are they pushing the envelope, doing things that are new?

EI: Yes, and yet it makes me so happy to hear them. And then in Holland, we have a few young guys who can do it, like alto saxophone players Ben van Gelder and Tineke Postma and tenor player Gideon Tazelaar. These guys can really push the envelope into new territory. And then we have the legendary founding fathers of the avant-garde scene in Holland, like the late Mischa Mengelberg, and of course Han Bennink. But we also have some really great players who are deeply rooted in the Jazz tradition like the tenor players Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and Simon Rigter, alto player Benjamin Herman, trumpet player Rik Mol, and piano players like Rob van Bavel, Peter Beets ( his brother Marius is a great bassist), and Juraj Stanik.

Working with Dexter Gordon and Other Legends

AAJ: So there's no shortage in Europe of homegrown musicians who are steeped in jazz but breaking out into new things. But now let's take a little time to reminisce. I think our readers would love to hear a couple of stories about the American expatriate legendary musicians with whom you've worked, like Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin.

EI: The most important thing is that they were just such great people! They appreciated what I did, they stimulated it, and they always had a positive attitude towards me. They liked when I kicked their butts with my playing. Dexter played behind the beat, so he loved it when I pushed the rhythm forward with my drums to keep the momentum up. And Johnny Griffin would come into the dressing room and tell me I had to play the drums like Art Taylor. So once I started playing on top of the beat and kicked the bass drum we got along great.

AAJ: Did you socialize with them?

EI: Dexter and I hung out at my house and we talked about books, He loved Somerset Maugham's novels. Dexter was always a real gentleman. Johnny Griffin was a very uplifting person and a lot of fun. Johnny and I talked a lot about Philly Joe Jones.

AAJ: Did you see the film, Round Midnight, where Dexter played the leading role?

EI: That was the best jazz movie I ever saw.

AAJ: Dexter plays a composite of Bud Powell and Lester Young. Do you think that film was true to life?

EI: In my opinion, Dexter played himself in the film, even though he was playing the part of someone else. He was just like that in real life, when he was in my house, and when we were on the road. That was just the way he was. He totally played himself.

AAJ: The movie shows the troubles some of the expatriate musicians like Dexter, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, and others had in Europe. They had problems with drugs and alcohol, money, relationships, and so on. By the way, did you know Ben Webster?

EI: Yes, I played with Ben Webster a few times. He liked what we did, and we worked well together. I loved working with him. But we didn't socialize like I did with Dexter. That was in 1972. One concert we did was taped for the archives of that club and was later released on LP: Ben Webster: in Hothouse (Vertigo, 1979). Only one tune survived on a CD compilation, Ben Webster 100 years: The Brute and The Beautiful (Storyville Records, 2009). The pianist on that track was the late great Tete Montoliou from Spain and the bassist was from Holland, the late Rob Langereis.

AAJ: Am I right that in your latest recording, Let There Be Life, Love, and Laughter (DayBreak, 2017), on the tune, "Body and Soul," Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis could have been mistaken for Ben Webster?

EI: Yes, I hear Ben Webster in that track, and I also hear a bit of Coleman Hawkins there.

AAJ: What did you take as a musician and a person from these legendary players?

EI: They gave me confidence!

AAJ: Dave Liebman says that when you play, you have to be the "king of the hill." Is that what you mean?

EI: (Laughter). Yes! Right!

AAJ: Drummer Victor Lewis told me that trumpeter Woody Shaw did that for him. When Victor was starting out and got his first gig with Woody, Shaw shook him up and made him play like his life was at stake!

EI: Yes. That's what I mean. I learned from guys like Dexter, Johnny Griffin, and George Coleman, how to play in such a way that the music starts flying! And then it's like you can go on forever!

AAJ: Did that ever happen for you? Like Coltrane could go on forever sometimes.

EI: Yes, when I played with Frank Foster, it was like Coltrane with Elvin. They'd play a tune for 45 minutes or more. For me as a drummer, I love the musical conversations they had. Top level conversations. That's one of the things that I aim for when I play.

AAJ: More recently, you've worked with Deborah Brown, the vocalist from Kansas City who lived in Holland and worked all over Europe for many years.

EI: To me Deborah is one of the greatest and most under-rated jazz singers of all time. I'm so glad to work with her and be her friend. I love her recording, For the Love of Ivy (DayBreak, 2006). And here's a little story for you. Not everyone knows that she sometimes comps herself on the piano! One time, when we were recording that album, she was sitting at the piano, and I asked her to do "Stormy Weather." She knocked the socks out if it! It was so beautiful, I felt like crying.

Jazz Musicians in European Countries

AAJ: Getting back to the current European jazz scene, which countries have the most exciting jazz scenes today?

EI: I have to say my own country, Holland, has a great jazz scene, especially in The Hague. We work hard there to keep to a very high standard of performance.

AAJ: Can you get to The Hague easily from Amsterdam?

EI: Yes, and also from Rotterdam. The Hague is about a half an hour or so by train or car from Amsterdam. So if you're staying there, you can grab a train and come out for one of the shows.

As for the rest of Europe, there is some great, swinging jazz in Italy. Spain has some really great musicians. In Valencia, they have a terrific jazz festival and jazz school. I had a chance to play with some great Spanish players recently. I worked with three great saxophonists: Perico Sambeat, Joan Benavent, and Jesus Santandreu. Santandreu is also a fine composer and arranger. He lived in the U.S. for a while. There are great trumpet players like David Pastor and trombone players like Carlos Martin. Then in Portugal you have some great players, like guitarist Ricardo Pinheiro, Mário Laginha piano, and Massimo Cavalli on bass. Great players in Greece are Dimos Dimitriadis, George Kontrafouris, and Stefanos Andreadis.

AAJ: In the U.S. there's more diversity of players than there used to be: more women more different ethnic groups and nationalities. Is that also true in Europe?

EI: Yes. We have many more women coming up.

AAJ: In Philadelphia, we have some young players from South Korea, where there is a significant jazz scene.

EI: Yes, we have some students from there.

AAJ: Do you ever teach elsewhere than Holland?

EI: Since 2013 I have been involved in the Erasmus exchange program for students and faculty in different European countries. So far, I have been doing regular master classes about bebop and hard bop in Finland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

AAJ: Have you worked in England?

EI: In April, I did the late night show at Ronnie Scott's with Ofer Landsberg, an Israeli guitarist who lives in London. He reminds me of Barney Kessel and Rene Thomas. The pianist was Alex Bryson, a young guy who plays great bebop, a great young bassist from Italy, Dario Di Lecce who lives in London, and a great tenor player by the name of Alex Garnett. There are some great trumpet players like Nick Smart and Gerard Presencser. And of course from the older generation, there's Alan Skidmore, tenor sax, and the great alto player, Peter King. And let's not forget the incredible legendary tenor player Tubby Hayes who passed away in 1973 and was without doubt one of British greatest talents. The same can be said of the great trumpeter Kenny Wheeler who died in 2014.

AAJ: I'm surprised that you haven't mentioned Germany, Norway, or Sweden at all.

EI: I don't know a lot about Norway, except that there's the ECM scene. The ECM record label is stimulating the avant-garde all around Europe. People like Jan Garbarek, tenor sax, Bobo Stenson, piano, Jon Christensen, drums, and bassist Arild Andersen were more or less the founding fathers of the Nordic ECM sound with its producer Manfred Eicher. There are some great players in Germany: drummer Joachim Ruckert, trumpeter Till Bronner and Paul Heller, a great tenor player.

AAJ: I understand they have some terrific jazz radio stations in Germany.

EI: Yes, WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln -Eds.] in Cologne. They are one of the stations that still have their own house band.

AAJ: What about jazz festivals?

EI: The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam has been wonderful over the years, but unfortunately, like many of the festivals, the program has less jazz and more pop music now. It's all about the money! The producers want 30,000 people to attend! A few years ago, Barry Harris performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and he said they should take word "jazz" off the name and call it a music festival! For me, I would love to see some smaller real jazz festivals, with guys from the New York scene, like at Smalls Club, cats like Grant Stewart and Eric Alexander. In Los Angeles, there's a great saxophonist named Doug Webb. There's drummer Joe La Barbera. Let's bring them here. We could have a great jazz festival with all the great players from Europe, America, Japan, and so on.

AAJ: Everything is money-driven these days.

EI: That's right! I played thrity-four times at the North Sea Jazz Festival. When it started in the 1970s, the whole jazz scene was there! But when the organizer, Paul Acket died, the jazz spirit left, and it's totally different now. Ever since the 1990s, the jazz focus has been gone.

Jazz Education and the New Generation

AAJ: Let's talk about jazz education. You teach jazz at the Royal Conservatory. The more experienced jazz musicians in the U.S. feel that the conservatory students are getting too much into formal knowledge. They come out of school with a huge skills and information, but they have very little hands on experience jamming and playing gigs. And they have very little life experience that they can bring into the music in the way that Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn."

EI: I agree. We have to do something about the fact that although the overall technical level in Europe is very high, jazz education is getting too academic,. Young students get their degree, and then they become teachers very fast, which I can understand because you have to make a living, but on the other hand they have very little experience performing and working with other musicians. There are exceptions of course.

AAJ: For me, the truly great musicians in the U.S. started early on doing gigs and hanging out with peers and mentors, so they got the music in their gut. But apparently it's harder for the younger ones to get gigs now. So what you're telling me is that this problem exists in Europe as well.

EI: Yes, absolutely. There are rare opportunities for a very few of them to be successful. And in my opinion, it will always be only a few who make it in the jazz business. It's always been true that only a few of the many who pursue jazz will get to the top.

AAJ: But there's a difference between past and present. Every city has terrific local musicians who play the clubs and festivals in the region. They just love the music. But many of the younger ones just out of school seem to have other ambitions. The art of playing gigs just because you love to do it is not the same now.

EI: Yes, that's true. It's partly because there are fewer places to perform than in the past. In the 1970s-80s, there were more than sixty jazz clubs in Holland! Now, in the whole country, there are only nine or ten clubs where you can play and get paid decently. But one positive thing I have to mention is the fact that our school is connected to the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) which creates a network for students and teachers between more then 40 Jazz schools around the world. They have a big meeting every year in different countries. Dave Liebman and Wouter Turkenburg, the head of our Jazz department, founded IASJ in 1989.

AAJ: So, even though there are more schools of jazz, and more musicians coming from them, they have fewer places to perform. It sounds like the attrition of jazz clubs is happening in Europe as it is in the U.S. That's a sad commentary. Jazz no longer seems to attract as many new audiences as it used to. In some ways, it was the popular music of past generations. The current generation of listeners finds jazz unfamiliar. They don't hear it in their homes when they're growing up anymore.

EI: Yes, that's right. Here in Holland, there's almost no jazz on radio or TV now. When I grew up, I heard the standards, the big bands every day on the radio. And it's harder to get records anymore. For example, if a student at our Conservatory wants to buy a jazz CD, we do have two big jazz record stores in Holland, but when the young musicians come into the shop, there is so much available that they buy they can't figure out what to buy. We teachers at the Conservatory have to tell the students what albums to buy! And we tell them to listen to them over and over again, and transcribe them, until they get it inside them. That's the way to really learn what's happening and know the line-up of players.

Generating New Audiences

AAJ: So it seems that the problem in both Europe and the U.S. is how to get the younger generations -the Millennials and so on -to immerse themselves in jazz. What are your thoughts about how countries in Europe can generate young audiences who are enthusiastic about jazz?

EI: Radio and television have a lot to do with people's interest in music. In the past there was lots of jazz on radio and TV. Now, there's almost nothing. The producers should start programming more jazz. But we are lucky to have the Dutch Jazz Archives in Amsterdam which is a non profit organization. If you are a member, you can have access to their collection. There are also filmed portraits of hundreds of Dutch Jazz musicians from different generations, and you can always watch them through the internet.

AAJ: In America, years ago, there was the detective show Peter Gunn, where the main character was a big jazz fan. Henry Mancini wrote the theme song. Also, I can remember shows featuring Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, and The Ed Sullivan Show, that featured jazz artists. You don't see jazz performances on TV anymore, except occasionally on public television.

EI: Also, it would also be great to revive the school concerts we used to have in Holland. We got a lot of kids interested in jazz that way.

AAJ: To wrap up, let me ask you as an experienced musician and professor who has been immersed in the profession and observed the scene for several decades, what recommendations you would have for young musicians in Europe and elsewhere who would like to pursue a career in jazz?

EI: First, they have to get their shit completely together! (Laughter) Get the music of the great ones like Parker and Coltrane down completely in your pocket! Play as often as you can. It's also important to be a good socializer. Be friendly and courteous to everyone. Show up on time for gigs and rehearsals, and learn the business side of the music.

Believe in what you do! Have faith in yourself during the bad times, even if you have to take commercial work for a while. You will learn something from whatever you have to play and that will make you a complete musician. No matter what happens, believe in yourself, and just persist. I still believe in my heart that if you have faith and persist at it, one day you're going to make it! And then you'll be working regularly, people will know you, and you'll have a great career. The young players who really get into jazz and are totally dedicated to it are going to succeed.

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