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April 2006

All That Jazz

The lowdown on Munich's live music scene

Jazz is like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with. The words of legendary bandleader Duke Ellington will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever set foot in one of Munich’s jazz clubs. Not only does the music tend to do strange things to your body—from a nod of the head to full-blown tapping toes—but the clubs themselves are a bit seedy, dark, run-down and thick with the smell of smoke and sweat. The Duke was right. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to show your parents. But some of us have always gone for unsuitable men…

Which is good news for the people behind Munich’s top jazz clubs. Sure, they’ll lament that times are tough, even when the venues are packed to the brim every night of the week. They’ll moan that jazz has a negative image and that the scene hasn’t really taken off in Munich. But it’s in their nature—jazz and blues aren’t paired for nothing. From a punter’s point of view, on the other hand, the city is a jazz enthusiast’s dream. It has three major venues that feature live acts from around the world almost every night of the week. And whereas the regular nightlife scene is quite volatile, with few bars and clubs surviving beyond a few years, Munich’s jazz and blues establishments are true veterans. Take Unterfahrt, for example, which this month celebrates its 28th anniversary. The club, which was recently voted as one of Europe’s top 10 jazz bars, and one of the top 100 in the world by American Down Beat magazine, has come a long way since its humble beginnings. “We started out as a simple Kneipe, where jazz enthusiasts would come and jam,” says Christiane Böhnke-Geisse, from Unterfahrt. “Now we’re renowned across the world and literally have bands approaching us, desperate to play. I get piles of CDs every week from groups keen to perform here—some newcomers, some established world-class acts.” The situation is no different for Jürgen Schmidt, the man behind Hide Out Club, which has been keeping Munich’s blues scene alive for the past 17 years. “Word spreads quickly in musicians’ circles,” he says. “And once one band has discovered a great place to play, it won’t be long before others are keen to follow.” Even Thomas Vogler, whose nine years as host of Jazzbar Vogler make him the baby of the bunch, is inundated with bands desperate for a slot on his stage. “Although there are hundreds of bars in Munich, there are very few where decent bands would want to play,” he says. Despite a willingness to give new acts a chance, each of the big three has their regulars who never fail to pull the punters. At Unterfahrt, for example, you can expect to find New York-born Geoff Goodman launching his latest CD of melodic compositions. Hide Out is a regular haunt of Rhythm ’n’ Blues star Al Jones and his band or Texas Blues trio Mani Wieder. And, as for swing kings the Roaring Zucchinis, they feel so at home in Jazzbar Vogler, they’ve taken to describing the place as their “living room.”

It isn’t just the performers who make frequent appearances. “A good 50 to 60 percent of Hide Out guests are regulars,” says Schmidt. “And you always know exactly who’s going to show up at which concert, depending on the style of the music.”

Indeed, jazz and blues encompass such a variety of styles that it’s difficult to define as a whole. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary describes the genre as “American music developed from ragtime and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms”—which leaves much open to interpretation. The one thing about jazz, though, is that it can be enjoyed by anybody. You don’t need to be able to appreciate the finer points of style or technique to make the most of it. On the contrary, rather than analyzing the music, it’s often best just to sit back and let those toes do their thing. As French-born erotica authoress Anaïs Nin once said, “jazz is the music of the body.” Watch the Roaring Zucchinis’ Kevin Barnes, clad in his 1950s shiny green jacket and slim black tie, when he indulges in a spot of “body shaking” at Vogler, and you’ll see exactly what she means.

The music’s demand for people to “let go,” however, does not sit at all well with some corners of society. Yes, ever since Unterfahrt became embroiled in a battle for a piano with the city council, Munich’s jazz scene has had its share of run-ins with officialdom. “After the club had been going for two years, it was decided we needed a piano, so we applied to the city council for a grant,” says Unterfahrt’s Böhnke-Geisse “However, because we were not officially registered as a Verein, the city refused. We had to form an association—the Förderkreis Jazz und Malerei München e.V.—in order to be able to get the financial support we needed.” No, German bureaucrats are not easily persuaded to “laissez-faire.” Just ask Vogler. Get the man onto the subject of GEMA, for example, and you’ll be propping up the bar long after the band has packed up and gone home. Abbreviated from the delightfully German “Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte,” the organization is responsible for protecting artists’ copyright and paying loyalties. Which, in turn, means that small venues such as Vogler end up paying what he considers to be disproportionate sums. He doesn’t conceal his disapproval of the whole system and indicates on customers’ receipts exactly how much of their cash is going to GEMA. His Website and newsletter also feature warnings to members of GEMA that they are not welcome at the club. Nor is Schmidt a stranger to long drawn-out tussles. “I fought for two years to be given permission to hold a blues festival on Rotkreuzplatz,” he sighs. “What a nightmare. But it was worth it—we got about 3,000 people in the end—just fantastic.”

Neighbors, too, have provided their share of problems. For no matter how soothing a Geoff Goodman riff may seem when you’re supping a few glasses of red wine and chilling with friends, it’s apparently not particularly conducive to a good night’s sleep. And, try as you may to fit soundproofing, ask the Zucchinis to tone it down or even reason with the folks across the road, it seems such problems are here to stay.

Much like the clubs themselves, in fact. Sure, none of them will admit that the future could possibly be rosy—takings are not what they used to be, GEMA fees are too high, nobody listens to jazz anymore, we don’t have the same support as clubs in Amsterdam or Zurich. But, just like those driving jazz rhythms, Munich’s live clubs look set to run and run. In the words of jazz legend Count Basie: “I’m saying: to be continued, until we meet again. Meanwhile, keep on listening and tapping your feet.”

Swing along to:

Einsteinstrasse 42
Tel. 44 82 794

Hide Out
Volkartstrasse 22, Tel. 16 96 68

Jazzbar Vogler
Rumfordstrasse 17
Tel. 29 46 62

Or try these alternative venues:

Mister B’s
Herzog-Heinrich-Strasse 38
Tel. 53 49 01,
Proclaiming itself to be “Munich’s smallest jazz club,” Mister B’s is the place to go if you like things intimate. The program features local and international artists, with performances ranging from classic vocal jazz to swing. Check our “Calendar” for this month’s listings.

Alfonso’s Live Music Club
Franzstrasse 5, Tel. 33 88 35
Another tiny venue, Alfonso’s has just 30 seats and prides itself on its cozy living-room atmosphere. The focus here is mainly on blues from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, although you’ll occasionally catch a taste of 1920s and 1930s Mississippi blues.

Bayerischer Hof Nightclub
Promenadeplatz 2–6
Tel. 212 09 94
Daily performances by leading jazz and soul acts, such as London pianist Dino Baptiste or New York jazz star Roy Ayers. Admission charges vary, but some concerts are free. Check the Website for the latest program.

Henry’s NoSmokingSwing
in Wirtshaus in der Au
Lilienstrasse 51, Tel. 448 14 00
A newcomer on the local music scene, this venture was inspired by the success of Wirtshaus in der Au’s Sunday jazz Frühschoppen sessions. According to those behind the scheme, it’s the world’s first non-smoking swing bar, although there is a separate room available for those desperate to light up. Acts are expected to be a mix of local and international artists, and concerts will initially take place every Thursday evening. This may increase, depending on demand.

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