Jutta Hipp: The Inside Story


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Last week I posted on German pianist Jutta Hipp, who recorded in the 1950s before disappearing from the jazz scene. I also mentioned that Katja von Schuttenbach—a jazz historian and journalist —had researched and written about Hipp. I sent Katja a handful of questions and she kindly responded. Here's our e-conversation:

JazzWax: Jutta Hipp seems like a tragic figure—in part a victim of her own issues. Do we know what she went through as a teen living under Nazi rule?

Katja von Schuttenbach: Jutta was 8 years old when Hitler became chancellor (1933); 14 when Germany invaded Poland (1939); and 21 when she became a refugee (1946). As a Lutheran/Protestant in Germany, she did not suffer from religious persecution. However, along with millions of other German civilians, she went through massive bombing raids on her hometown of Leipzig. After the war she became a displaced person and suffered from malnutrition and lacked most basic necessities. [Photo above of Jutta Hipp provided by Han Schulte in the Netherlands]

JW: How do we know this?

KVS: I established a timeline of Hipp's life based on articles about her in Germany and the U.S. between 1952 and 2010. I also conducted more than 35 interviews with people who knew her and I read about 300 of Hipp's personal letters, in which she sometimes reminisced.

JW: Right after the war, what was life like for Hipp?

KVS: She was deprived of what we would consider a normal teenager's life and, no doubt, her pregnancy in 1948 was also overshadowed by insufficient prenatal care. She was so poor that she did not even have an apartment of her own but lived in a room made available for individuals working for the United States Special Services.

JW: Pregnancy?

KVS: Hipp gave birth to a son, Lionel, whose father was a black G.I. stationed in Germany. Black G.I.s were not allowed to accept paternity back then if they fathered a child with a white woman—even if they had wanted to. The U.S. military was still segregated. This means that Jutta and Lionel's father were not engaged or married. Lionel does not know who is father is but he would like to know. Unfortunately, without a reliable name, information on where he was stationed in and around Munich and details about his tour of duty, it's impossible to search. [Photo above of Hipp and Lionel, 1 1/2, taken in June 1950]

JW: How did Hipp learn to play jazz?

KVS: Hipp had been raised sheltered in a small, culturally inclined middle-class family. She began taking formal piano lessons at age 9, but a harsh teacher killed her enthusiasm, diverting her to jazz. Since jazz was frowned upon as “degenerate music" under Nazi rule, jazz musicians were always in danger of persecution and severe punishment. Hipp's listening sessions were confined to clandestine gatherings in friends' homes and much of her continuing musical appreciation and education took place during bombing raids. Instead of joining her parents and brother in the basement shelter—she hunkered down in front of the radio transcribing jazz tunes played on forbidden radio stations. [Pictured above: Hipp, second from right]

JW: Where and how did she meet Leonard Feather?

KVS: Feather had received a tape from a G.I. that included Hipp playing. Feather loved what he heard and was eager to meet Hipp in person. In January 1954, when he toured Germany with the “Jazz Club USA"—featuring Billie Holiday, Buddy DeFranco and other top American jazz musicians—he made a late-night side trip to Duisburg, where he found Hipp jamming in a cellar club. [Photo above: Leonard Feather gives pianist Mary Lou Williams his famed blindfold test]

JW: Was Feather responsible for her being recorded in Germany that year?

KVS: Yes. By April 1954 Feather arranged for a recording session in Frankfurt/Main, featuring the Jutta Hipp Quintet. Eventually the tape became New Faces - New Sounds from Germany, which was released by Blue Note as its first Hipp release in the States in 1956. JW: Why did Feather bother?

KVS: Feather was not likely doing this because of a personal interest in Hipp but because he hoped to make money by bringing European jazz talent to the States. For example, he also had sponsored George Shearing's immigration. JW: After Hipp arrived in New York, what role did Horace Silver play?

KVS: Not much. I was able to contact Horace Silver only through his biographer Phil Pastras back in 2005. Silver only conveyed that he had known Jutta but added that he did not know her well. Jutta was greatly influenced by Silver's blues-inspired rhythmic abilities, which led to her to move away from cool and bebop.

JW: Hipp performed at Newport in 1956?

KVS: Yes, she performed a magnificent version of the St. Louis Blues. Aside from being an artistic influence, Silver had no other apparent influence on Hipp's career and was not romantically involved with her.

JW: Is there a recording available of Hipp's appearance at Newport in '56?

SVK: Not yet, but hopefully soon. JW: Did Feather pursue Hipp romantically?

KVS: Hipp did not speak much of Feather once she started giving interviews again around 1986 and there is hardly any mention of him in the close to 300 personal letters of hers I studied to date. She did not want to speak about what she considered “miserable times." It was not through anything that Hipp had said or written that I became curious about what had happened between them but rather by comparing Feather's Hipp entries in the 1955 and 1960 editions of his Encyclopedia of Jazz and by reading the kind passage about Hipp in his memoir, The Jazz Years.

JW: Any other sources?

SVK: I asked former musician colleagues of Hipp's about their recollections and that's when I first heard of Feather romantically pursuing Hipp who, at that time was still engaged to Attila Zoller. Hipp herself spoke of such advances to trumpeter Iris Kramer in August 1986, whom I interviewed.

JW: Why did Hipp's career falter?

KVS: I do not think her career declined quickly because of her rejected romantic advances by Feather. However, bassist Peter Ind—who was in Hipp's Hickory House trio—recalled in a 2005 interview that Hipp may have written her fiancé Attila Zoller in Germany about it and that somehow the word spread and may have gotten back to Feather. Feather, of course, would not have been amused. After all, he was married and a father.

JW: So what crushed Hipp?

KVS: Hipp had a very stubborn side to her and said in a 1958 interview with Eric T. Vogel that she never wanted to have her own combo and that she did not want to be a bandleader. She indicated that different people had tried to make money off her playing when she came to New York but that she herself put an end to that. Well, one of the people who would have tried to make money off her would have been Feather. After all he introduced her to Alfred Lion; he got her the Hickory House gig; and he introduced her to Joe Glaser whose ABC Booking Corp became her booking agency for a brief time. By the way, Hipp was very fond of Glaser and, until her death, considered him the best booking agent ever.

JW: What became of her?

KVS: Despite her stubbornness, Hipp was a rather shy individual who suffered from severe stage fright throughout her career and drowned her fears with excessive alcohol and life-long chain smoking. Thus, being the featured artist at a large performance venue was more of a daunting chore for Hipp than a joyful public celebration of her talent. In 1946 she became a professional musician out of necessity. She had wanted to become a painter but in post-War Germany, a country in ruins, she could not have made a living that way. JW: So playing jazz was a way to earn money rather than a burning passion?

KVS: Hipp's talent at the piano saved her from the fate of many other German women immediately after the war: becoming a prostitute. She was a true survivor, but by 1958 Hipp had hit rock bottom. She had been evicted from her apartment and had no money left to buy food. That was exactly 10 years after she had given birth to her son Lionel, whom she had to give up for adoption right after birth. She had been engaged five times; had survived a World War; had a child out of wedlock; made it unexpectedly big professionally; came to America on her own with $50 in her pocket; and then lost it all again.

JW: What caused her to drop from the jazz scene?

SVK: Her decision to leave jazz behind was not about a bad review. In fact, her playing was becoming much more exciting. But Hipp wasn't a businesswoman and she came under increased pressure as jazz's popularity declined and gigs dried up for all musicians. Horrified at seeing Hipp homeless, her tax preparer urged her to find a stable job outside the music business. And that's what she did. She found herself a job in a clothing factory. She continued to perform part-time on weekends until 1960 when she began working for Wallach's Clothiers, a unionized operation, where she would remain for the next 35 years.

JW: What did Hipp do there?

KVS: Hipp was not a seamstress. All she did was prepare frayed or torn men's pants for alterations. Artistically, Hipp shifted her focus completely and refocused on her first love—drawing and painting.

JW: What happened to her son?

KVS: I have a copy of Lionel's changed birth certificate in which his new parents and name change are included.

Lionel will turn 65 years old this November. He is married with no children and lives in Germany. He has been unemployed due to health issues for quite some time and lives basically on government subsistence. Despite it all he has a great sense of humor and loves music, especially country. He also plays piano, guitar and drums. My personal belief is that Lionel would have had a better life in the States.

JW: When did Hipp die?

SVK: Hipp died on April 7, 2003 in her Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y. apartment—succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

A special thanks to Katja von Schuttenbach for her generous time and use of photos. More on Katja here. Jutta Hipp's Facebook page, managed by Katja, is here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims on Violets for Your Furs in 1958...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.


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