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So You Don't Like Jazz

Gulda: Classic Bad Boy

Gulda: Classic Bad Boy

Courtesy Alan Bryson (collage and effects)


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Gulda was an incredible jazz improviser...And I find this man intriguing because he’s a classical giant.
—Simon Tedeschi
It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb, "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers the tastes and sensibilities of the other person. The "So You Don't Like Jazz" column explores ways to do just that.

Imagine Mozart had been born in 1930 in Austria, instead of 1756. Would he have liked jazz? Of course we'll never know, but it's certainly plausible. After all, one of the 20th Century's most celebrated interpreters of Mozart (an Austrian born in 1930) loved jazz. That fact gives us an opening to introduce classical music lovers to jazz via the virtuoso Friedrich Gulda, the eccentric, iconoclastic bad boy of classical music. In his native Austria he was a polarizing public figure, for some a genius and fearless rebel, for others a diva and troublemaker. Nonetheless, even harsh critics acknowledged he was an extraordinary talent. Gulda himself accepted scandal and friction as the unavoidable by-product of his unabashed and uncompromising defense of his personal and artistic freedom.

While reviewing his life and antics, Gulda struck me in some ways as being to classical music what Andy Kaufman was to comedy. They both enjoyed punking the press and their detractors, and blurring the line between theatrics and reality. Recall, for example, Kaufman's foray into the world of professional wrestling. For his part, Gulda, wearing a wig and fake beard, actually appeared on Austrian television under the pseudonym Albert Golowin as a vocalist. He is even credited as one of the founders of an Austrian "Liedermacher" movement. He released albums under the pseudonym Golowin and was able to fool the critics and the public. Gulda seemed to relish pushing his critics' buttons, and he certainly didn't shirk from making himself an easy target.

A party animal who drove a red Ferrari, Gulda eschewed formal stage attire and opted instead for outlandish clothing— one critic described him as looking like a pimp. He irritated some classical music promoters and audiences by deviating from his announced concert programs—at times even treating them to impromptu jazz improvisation. Later in life he and a female drummer performed experimental music in the nude on stage. Last but not least, he notoriously faked his own death and then held a resurrection party—complete with dancing girls. Coincidentally, in 2013 Andy Kaufman's brother claimed the comedian was still alive and had faked his own death to be a stay-at-home dad.

So, would Mozart have been on Team Gulda? Gulda appeared to have thought so, he often said that when he dies, he and Mozart will be sitting together on a pink cloud playing piano. In preparation for his "Mozart Live" and "Mozartiana-Project" he frequented the "Pacha" club on the party island of Ibiza, where he scouted for dancers. The ladies he hand picked were then flown to Munich and Salzburg for the performances. In 2010, Gulda's son Paul (an accomplished musician in his own right) was interviewed by the German newspaper Die Welt and asked about it:

Welt am Sonntag: Your father spoke several times of a direct line from Mozart to house and techno. What did he mean by that?

Paul Gulda: Direct line, I don't know. But there are commonalities. He always said: Every fool hears the differences, it takes a lot more to hear the similarities. In Mozart's life as in his music, dance played a major role, and the erotic. So those are things that everyone is looking for, including Friedrich Gulda, who went to "Pacha" in Ibiza. In addition, in Mozart, as in techno and house, there was an absolute congruence between what the music wants to express and the choice of means. Music that is what it wants to be. (my translation from the original)

A Masterful Pianist

On the ABC Classic YouTube channel, concert pianist Simon Tedeschi was asked what makes a great pianist. He answered by breaking down the playing of some of the biggest names in music. Here's what he had to say about Gulda:

Simon Tedeschi: Oh my God, he's my favorite. Piano playing isn't like golf or tennis where you have scores, but if I had to nominate my absolute favorite, it would be Friedrich Gulda or "Freddie" Gulda as I understand he was called. Nowadays it's de rigueur in a way to be a crossover pianist, to be able to do everything, to be able to improvise, but Gulda was way before all of that. Gulda was an incredible jazz improviser...And I find this man intriguing because he's a classical giant. He's an absolute giant. His Beethoven playing has all the vitality of anyone you'd ever listen to. Yet here he is playing with a fez on his head. I love that he's wearing a gold watch. You won't see many pianists wearing a gold watch, let alone any watch. I'll never wear a watch because it weighs down the wrist, it would get in the way... it completely alters the weight, and weight is everything for a pianist... Friedrich Gulda is everything a musician should be, constantly taking risks. There's a humor in his playing, but he never lets that eclipse the will of the composer.

In addition to the strengths outlined by Tedeschi, there was also Gulda's extraordinary memory. He stunned the world of classical music as a young performer by mastering Beethoven's 32 sonatas. Participants at one of his workshops reported that Gulda was able to play Robert Schumann's "Waldszenen" from memory after briefly looking over the sheet music for a few minutes.

How he was discovered

His eccentricities and over the top antics are legendary, but on a German website dedicated to him I found an image of a newspaper clipping which recounts young Gulda's first big break in life. It was a major triumph which literally turned him into an overnight sensation. Here is my translation of a book excerpt from the original German.

Rumble at Midnight
Under the title "Our 7000 Children" the Geneva publishing house Henn-Liechti published memories of Friedrich Liebstoeckl, the co-founder and long-time secretary general of the Geneva music competition. We present some interesting chapters about the discovery of musicians who have now become famous.

The war was over. The borders slowly opened again. Our 1946 competition could finally be held again on an international basis. But we didn't think that the floodgates of heaven would open so abundantly: Over 400 candidates from all over the world had registered, but "only" 354 had come...Including a small group of starving and terrified Austrians under the leadership of the good Dr. Werba. We picked them up from the train with a basket full of apples and chocolate, and put them all in private homes. A tender, skinny boy, 15 1/2 years old, was in this Austrian group. He had had to practice in bomb cellars, and his mother struggled to feed him and his sister throughout the war.

He had passed the first test, which was then called the selection test, and since the recitals were in alphabetical order, he was the last to play at Victoria Hall, it was late at night, almost midnight. The jury was already very tired, the hall was just half full. Apparently the little Viennese pianist was out of luck. With Sautier, the piano tuner, I stood behind the curtain, behind the podium.

Gulda played Bach first, and it sent shivers down our spines: What was that? Just great! The jury and the audience were electrified, no longer a trace of tiredness ... Then he played Beethoven's great sonata op. 111. Tears ran down our cheeks: It was so deeply felt, so rousing, so moving. And finally, midnight was long past, Debussy's "Feux d'artifice." The people in the hall exploded with enthusiasm. The jury rose with red faces. We feared that the roof of the Victoria Hall might collapse, so roaring was the applause. Gulda received the 1st prize. At the final concert of the prize winners, he played Beethoven's 4th concert, simply gorgeous. Ansermet at the (jury's?) desk hugged him.

Hired on the Spot
The impresario Frischler, who came from Brazil, engaged Gulda on the spot for a major tour through all of South America. The Bösendorfer company sent him a brand new grand piano from Vienna by airmail to Rio de Janeiro ... The little young pianist had become world famous in one fell swoop. Conclusion: If someone can do something, if he is a genius, he will also be successful after midnight.

Gulda discoveres jazz

A short four years after the competition described above, Gulda made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City. His international reputation was such that the world was his oyster, he could have ridden the Baroque gravy train for the rest of his life, performing 365 days a year had he wished. But unrelated to classical music, something else happened in Geneva which had a profound impact on his career and life. That something was jazz.

It's rather ironic that Gulda was introduced to jazz by the family with whom he stayed in Geneva in 1946 during the classical music competition. Their two sons were rabid jazz fans whose home was filled with the music of artists such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. Initially Gulda disliked their music, at times he was even repulsed by it. He could not understand why these young men were so captivated by jazz. So he set about trying to understand jazz without prejudice. He listened intently, and clumsily attempted to play what he had heard—it was not as easy as he had imagined. When he left they gave him a few albums. Whenever his touring took him back to Switzerland, he would stay with them, and leave with a few more jazz albums.

From the "Die Welt" interview cited about, Gulda's son shared some additional insights:

Paul Gulda: Yes, in 1946 when he won. Several times he has described the eerie moment of sitting there at the piano, striving to do everything right, as it should be. Suddenly, from one moment to the next, everything goes by itself, no longer "I play," but "it plays in me." And, at first unconsciously, he notices: In music, beyond the perfect notes, there is a higher authority, and that is what it is actually about.
The transcendental nature of music, especially improvised music, beguiled Gulda. Gradually jazz became a guilty pleasure, and he began to hang out at jazz clubs in Vienna (eventually he would open his own) and visit clubs in various cities on his tours. At first he was just a passive listener, but eventually he began to sit in. It was a rocky road. Despite the expectations of some, exquisite classical piano technique does not guarantee jazz chops.

The rigid stodgy world of classical music was no longer enough for Gulda. The atmosphere, freedom, spontaneity, casual clothing, and challenge of improvisation were irresistible, and stood in stark contrast to the constraints of classical music. He was determined to establish himself as a jazz musician, even going so far as to learn baritone sax.

In Vienna he honed his jazz skills at local clubs with other aspiring jazz musicians. In 1956 Gulda was booked for two weeks at Birdland in New York City. The New York Times took notice with this article: "GULDA HAS DEBUT AS JAZZ PIANIST; Concert Artist Opens 2-Week Engagement at Birdland—Viennese is 'Jumpy'"

A review in Downbeat noted: "For the first time in the history of jazz and classical music, a world recognized virtuoso from the latter domain has played a jazz club with a jazz combo as a jazz musician with a book of his own jazz works." His band included, Phil Woods on alto sax, Indrees Sulieman on trumpet, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, Seldon Powell on tenor sax, Aaron Bell on bass, and Nick Stabulas on drums.

Gulda's record company was not pleased and gave him an ultimatum, he would either back off jazz, or they would withdraw their support. Gulda of course walked away. Later something similar happened when he embraced "Free Music"—he and his jazz label parted ways.

Gulda's jazz

Here is an album recorded in Brazil as a trio with Jimmy Rowser on bass and Albert Tootie Heath on drums. It is appropriately titled Gulda Jazz RGE, 1962.

As an example of Gulda's jazz recordings with a big band, this is a track from From Vienna with Jazz! Columbia, 1964.

There are a couple of interesting videos available on YouTube in which Gulda himself explains and performs jazz. They are in German without English subtitles. Despite Gulda's later reputation for antics, surprisingly his explanations are dry, technical, and rather stiff. To be fair, he actually demonstrated how seriously and deeply he had analyzed the foundations of jazz, and naturally he used the terminology of a classically trained musician.

You can easily find these clips on YouTube:

1. "Friedrich Gulda: Was ist Jazz?" A 30 minute German language television program in which Gulda plays jazz in a trio with drums and bass. He gives an academic explanation of the mechanics of jazz, interspersed with performances. (appears to be around 1969/70)

2. "NDR-Jazzworkshop: Friedrich Gulda Quintet" December 7 & 12, 1969. This is a 40 minute video of a four part suite: 1. To John Coltrane, 2. To Joao Gilberto, 3. To Albert Heath, 4. To the New People

Personally, I would not use Gulda's jazz to reach classical music fans—at least not initially. My suggestion would be to jointly check out some of Gulda's classical performances, leaving it up to the classical fan to pick the music. Beforehand I would not even mention that Gulda played jazz.

Piano Conversations & Encounters: Zawinul, Corea, Hancock & Dennerlein

Thanks to his classical star power in German speaking countries, Gulda was able to organize some remarkable musical events. Thankfully several of these encounters were televised, and these musical dialogues might prove useful in nudging your classical music loving friend towards jazz.

In the early 1980s Gulda teamed up with the late great Chick Corea for The Meeting Phillips, 1984. According to Corea's website, he had never even heard of Gulda prior to The Meeting.

This encounter between Herbie Hancock and Gulda took place in 1989.

Here is a clip from a joint concert from 1986 with Gulda and Joe Zawinul. Their friendship stretched back to the 1950s in post WWII Vienna. Zawinul, two years Gulda's junior, called him his friend and a mentor, and Gulda called Zawinul his "Spezi" close buddy. Interestingly, Gulda's Viennese manager, Risa Zincke, eventually became Zawinul's manager too. This is from a 2004 interview with Curt Bianchi:

Joe Zawinul: ...She used to manage Friedrich Gulda, one of the great classical pianists of the twentieth century, and she used to do a lot of things with philharmonic orchestras. She comes from the classical side. And in 1987 when I started working with Gulda again, she started really liking the way I played and the way my band sounded. And we started doing little things together with Gulda, and then slowly, really taking over, and she's been working now, since '88 steady with the band...

If you enjoy this, there is quite a bit of video material available of Gulda together with Zawinul.

As fate would have it, I happened to learn about Friedrich Gulda through to his work with the jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein. She worked closely with Gulda and during a 2012 interview I had the chance to ask her about him. That four part interview was published here on AAJ, but not in written form. Here for the first time in writing is a portion of that interview.

Barbara Dennerlein: So I did a concert with Friedrich Gulda at the Munich Philharmonic, it was a duo concert. It was one of my greatest experiences, I felt really honored to play a duo concert with him, because he did the same thing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and some really famous artists. It was a wonderful concert because Gulda was a perfectionist, his music was important to him. He also created some special stage sets. He started the concert with a classical part, playing Mozart, and when Gulda plays Mozart, it's just swinging for me, so lively—you can feel it.

So he did that, and then I joined him on one piece, comping him with my Hammond organ and synthesizer sounds. Then we switched over to the jazz part. Pieces of mine, pieces of his, and standards. This concert was recorded, and now, for the first time it has been released on DVD (Friedrich Gulda: I Love Mozart and I Love Barbara, Arthaus Musik, 2012.) It was done in a beautiful way. It sounds great, and it looks good. And I think it's a document you should have, because Gulda has passed away, like many great artists, and he was a genius in my eyes.
From the DVD, Gulda & Dennerlein play some blues.

All About Jazz: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about him, because that wasn't the only thing. He had a band, the Paradise Band, and you played with him in that.

BD: I worked for him for a couple of years, and we did many concerts—different ways, with philharmonic orchestras, with jazz bands, in duo—we did almost everything. We even had one concert playing with Joe Zawinul's band, the whole Syndicate band, and the philharmonic orchestra, and Gulda's Paradise Band. It was so crazy, and we had a thing where he played techno and there were dancers on stage—there were a lot of things going on.

We did so many different pieces, and it was just so interesting.

AAJ: How did it come about that you two met, that was not at the very beginning of your career, but early in your career. How did that happen, because he was a very big deal at that point, a huge star.

BD: Sure, his whole life. It's funny, I was playing in Vienna, in a jazz club, where I played almost every year. One evening Gulda was there in the audience, and he came to listen to me.

AAJ: Let me stop you for a second, as a jazz player, did you know who Gulda was?

BD: Um, yes, more or less, but not really. I knew his name, but I didn't know too many things about him—of course he was famous. So I was playing and took a break and went down from the stage, and there was Gulda, sitting, and he talked to me, and said, "Do you know who I am?" And I said, "Yes, you're Friedrich Gulda and it's a pleasure to meet you." He said, "I have checked you out" (laughs) "And I want to ask you if you would like to play with me." And he said, "But I have to warn you, because sometimes critics don't write such nice things about me, and if you work with me, maybe you will wind up in the same boat." You know I have always been that way, it doesn't matter to me, I like challenges, so I said, "I don't care, it would be great fun to play with you."

So that's how it started, and what we did was did was go to Schloss Elmau [similar to a Château]. There's a jazz festival there now, it's a hotel in the mountains of Bavaria near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, it's totally in the mountains, very quiet and there's nothing around. We stayed there for a week with our instruments, they have a big grand piano there anyway, and I took all my organ stuff. They have a very nice concert hall there, and I put my organ there with the piano, and for one week we just played together. Everything, free jazz, improvising, we just checked things out. We stayed for free, just for giving a concert at the end. So after our work we did a concert, and that's how we started playing together. He would come to my house and we would check out musicians together when he was looking for new musicians.

I remember, one day he came to my parents' house, and he played on my Fender piano and I played my organ, and we checked out a guitarist. He was playing some Reggae stuff, it was funny, and Gulda was always open to things—he played with a famous DJ, he did so many things.

AAJ: I didn't know a lot about him, but to prepare I've been checking out a lot of things, and I noticed he played the recorder really well, and I understand he learned some sax too. Did you ever see him play sax

BD: No not the sax, but the recorder yes. Gulda is incredible, did you know he had a big band with great American musicians? There are wonderful recordings of him playing with a big band, it's fantastic. He's really great. Or his Golowin stuff where he is singing Austrian songs under the pseudonym Golowin, you know, there are so many funny things.

A Ballad Gulda originally recorded as Golowin, here Gulda sings in a duet with Maria Bill, the Austrian actress and singer

I really loved him, not a love affair, but as a person, because he was straight (with me.) I hate people who say you are nice, but when you turn your back it's different. But Gulda was so straight, he told you what he thought—without any consideration. He just did that, and I like that. I mean for some people this of course wasn't very nice (laughs) and maybe some people hated him. He was a character, but I never had problems with him. I heard about people having problems with him, but I have to say I never did.

We were a good match, he admired my playing, which I felt was a big honor, because I greatly admired him, and as I said, he was a genius, and a great great artist. For me it really meant something if he said something is good. I remember when I recorded my third CD for Verve records which was called Outhipped, and it was the time when Quincy Jones had his Back on the Block CD Qwest, 1989, remember that one? And Gulda liked that very much, and at his place he had a spot where he put his favorite CDs, and I had given him my Outhipped CD, and he was listening to that, and he called me. He said, "This is fantastic, it's in the spot where I keep my favorite CDs. You made a big step in the writing, arranging, and playing." And I felt so good, that really meant something to me.

AAJ: As a layperson watching him, it just seems like he floated above the keyboard. There was no wasted energy.

BD: His technique was just brilliant, he could just play such a big range of volume, he could play so soft and he could play so loud and powerful. He was fantastic, he could do anything with the piano.

AAJ: I got the impression he did his real communicating with you and other musicians when you were playing together. I was thinking, that's an interesting word in German and in English, "Spiel" and play—that was Gulda, he "played" his instrument, he "played" music— when you, or another musician did something, he registered it, and would answer.

BD: Yes that's what it's about, the communication. (Laughing) And in his face you could immediately see if he liked it or not.

AAJ: I noticed too, when you do your pedal bass solos on the Hammond, lots of musicians will just kind of sit back and watch, but when you did a solo with Gulda he didn't stop. He accompanied you and it was really nice, it gave it a different flavor, it was just right.

BD: Yes, he heard everything, and he reacted. He was so fast, and he had feeling.

AAJ: Where there any plans for you to record together, like studio albums?

BD: There was one double CD produced by Sony Music...

AAJ: That was live right?

BD: Right, it was different live concerts we had done, not just the one. We worked together a couple of years and then he died, so there wasn't too much time to go on with things like that.

AAJ: What would you say was the biggest impact he had on you as a musician?

BD: First of all, I think the respect he had for my playing gave me self-confidence. And it was inspiring working with him, I saw how he was preparing his things, like working with a philharmonic orchestra. For me that was the first time I worked with a philharmonic orchestra. That had been my dream all along, and I was so happy when I could later do this with my own music, and I wish Gulda could have listened to that, but unfortunately that was after he had died.

But you can always learn things from strong people and musicians. I also liked the way he treated his audience. He was true, he was honest. He said, if you don't like it, then you can go out and other people will come in. It was true, and of course it impressed me. I'm not as extreme as he was, but in a way I am the same, I never make compromises with my music. He didn't do that his whole life, as far as I know I don't think he ever compromised. It was really about music, and that's what I think was so great. He was fused with his music, it was one thing.

AAJ: Is it true that he wanted to die on Mozart's birthday, and managed to do so?

BD: Yeah, it's a coincidence right. Because if you know how he identified with Mozart, then it's like magic that he died on Mozart's birthday. It's just incredible. And one thing he did, it's hard for me to say this in English, he staged a scene of his own dying, and it was like he was Mozart, or playing with Mozart—it was all about Mozart and his dying, it was like a theater piece. And he wanted this to be his own farewell in a way, he went up in the sky to play with Mozart, or he was Mozart.

And maybe you might know, what he also did, he staged his death. He wanted to find out about what people would say or write about him after his death. So this is kind of macabre, and I don't know how many people knew about that, but there are a lot of people who really love him, so it must have been hard for them. (Laughing) But it's kind of typical Gulda.
Gulda & Dennerlein with his Paraside Band

Credits & Sources

Gulda website
Gulda Biography, Klassikakzente (German)
Gulda Biography Klassika Info (German)
For many Gulda was just a crazy pianist (Austrian newspaper article)
Zawinul Online (fan page)

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