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March 1997

Munich's Jazz Scene: What Swings and Where

Munich's jazz venues and the reputation of jazz in the city

Mention European jazz and thoughts spring to mind of small, smoky clubs with low lights and mellow music, basement bars and subterranean hideaways where a somber saxophonist plays with a brooding je ne sais quoi or a sultry vocalist accompanied by piano reveals a bittersweet Dietrichesque Weltschmerz. One thinks of the famed bars of Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and the European tours of the American greats: Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. But Munich? Looking through my guidebook, I find only the famed Allotria, which like Munich's other renowned jazz club, the Domizil, is now closed. This genial and inspiring music has to be found somewhere in town, but where? I decided to dig into the jazz scene here, to see for myself if it really was passé. I also wanted to uncover the insider tips, the backroom bars with a tenor sax wailing a sad song, where you can sit at the bar and enjoy your drink. So began my discovery of a scene that remains all too unknown. "IT'S GOTTA SWING!" My first stop led me to Al Porcino, a trumpeter who left New York in the summer of 1976, played in cities throughout Europe and settled in Munich in 1981. Al's been a jazz fan and musician since the 1940s and has played big-band swing with various bands for just as long. In 1983 he started the Al Porcino Big Band, hearkening back to the Swing Era of vigorous horns and dynamic band-leaders. I saw one of their performances and was immediately transported: the band projected a cornucopia of sound proving that swing was fresh and alive in 1990s Munich. I arranged to meet Al at his home. The living room was ringed with black-and-white framed photos hung high on the walls. The photographs chronicled Al's career as a musician: his tours from New York to Las Vegas, from Berlin to Copenhagen. Young men wearing suits stood posed for the photos, either holding their instruments or in front of a casino or ballroom, sometimes in the studio, sometimes playing live. The wall facing the sofa was lined with about 700 albums cataloged on shelves. The centerpiece was a record player. "Real jazz is the most fantastic art form there is," Al told me as we started. Talking to him was like hearing the abridged history of American jazz; his stories span the last fifty years. He's almost 72 now and the dark hair of his photos has turned white. But his voice is still sharp and raspy, rising when he speaks about what he loves, happy to share an opinion. "It's gotta swing!" is Al's most important guideline for his music. "Swing had a rhythm to it, it bounced, it swung, it had a pulse!" To illustrate his point, he selected a record - Get Ready, Set, Jump by The Junior Mance Trio and Ten Brass, featuring Al on trumpet - and let the record spin. Tapping his foot in time with the music, his fingers punctuating the beat on imaginary drums, he pointed out the elements of the song. "Here comes the brass now - everybody on the one note. Some trombones here. Make it jazzy. Now that's swing." But Al also lamented the poor state of jazz in Munich, a complaint I would hear repeated. There's no lack of talent, but there is a lack of quality venues and a lack of money. As a musician you play for "the take" from the door, and if nobody knows to come and see you, how do you make a living? You need money to pay your musicians, and you need a place that will give you the chance to do your thing. And it's a lament that sadly rings true. By the next time I spoke to Al, he'd had to give up the band. He'd had a successful run at the Nachtcafé over the past few years, but the cost and the work had just gotten to be too much. For now. But Al's still got the beat. Armed with my knowledge of swing, I set off for the Maceo Parker show at Muffathalle, full of expectation from all the good things I'd heard about his shows. The former James Brown sax player has his own band and delivers his own brand of inspired jazz. As Maceo sings in his song, Shake Every Thing You Got, what he gives you is "two percent jazz and 98 percent funky stuff." The hall was packed and anticipation hung in the air like the smoke of so many Gauloises. When the horns started we were off on a musical journey that had the crowd swaying to the music and shouting with pleasure. Maceo and his band brought the excitement to a head with a crescendo of horns punctuated by the vocal harmonies of Maceo and his fantastic female backup singer, Darliene Parker. The show maintained its intensity when the music slowed and Maceo took a backseat to Darliene, who belted out a song of her own that shook the rafters and left jaws hanging. But being a wanna-be guitarist myself, my favorite part of the show was when each of Maceo's guitarists got to showcase his stuff. The intensity and the energy they pumped out of those guitars slapped you in the face and whirled you around, threw you on the floor and picked you back up again, and you loved every second of it. The pace didn't let up for a minute of the concert's four hours. THE MUNICH SCENE Mr. B's opened two years ago as a jazz lover's paradise, a haven for quality local talent. If there's a smaller bar in Munich than Mr. B's, I haven't found it. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in atmosphere. A few round tables snugged up to the electric-blue upholstered walls give it the feel of a small and exclusive club. There's an empty space in the front window that might make a good place for a love seat, but that's the stage. On a Thursday night, I went to Mr. B's (on Herzog-Heinrich-Str. near the Theresienwiese) to hear what all the talk was about and immediately fell in love with it. Unfortunately, the tables were full, because I would have liked to slide into one, cozy up with a date, order Martinis, smoke cigars all night and imagine I was a high roller at a place like the old Cotton Club. The bar has live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and during the week when it's not crowded Mr. B himself - bar owner Alex Best - is spinning the CDs. New Yorker Ed Schuller will perform at the upcoming Feierwerk festival Mr. B runs his bar like the music he plays, smooth and easy. First priority at his pub is the music: from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and encompassing all the later jazz innovations and experiments. He has an answer for every jazz question, as well as a CD to go with it, and he'll let the music do the talking. That's something all these jazz musicians have in common: they can talk your ear off, but if you want to know about jazz all they have to do is play a record. The next Friday night, I set out to investigate where I could hear some jazz without having to look for a concert or plan a big (i.e. expensive) night out. I ventured across the Isar to the Kaffee Giesing. This lovely pub has a nice spread with plenty of tables and room to sit, and a pool table in the back. There's a stage and a grand piano and live music every night of the week. There's never any entrance fee, but the live music only lasts from eight to ten in the evening, since the bar's located on the ground floor of an apartment house in a residential area. It's telling of the Munich scene that I had to proceed to Schwabing to find more jazz. I'd planned to go to the St. Thomas jazz club in the old McGraw Kaserne, but it's now the Nashville Country Saloon - no jazz. Perhaps the Musik Bühne Grünes Eck on St.-Martins-Straße - it's still there but it's now a Greek restaurant; bluesy plate-smashing wouldn't quite cut it. So I headed for Münchener Freiheit, where there's another Grünes Eck, this one on Marktstraße. The bar's been there for a while but it's just been renovated and turned into a jazz pub. It's got that gut bürgerlich coziness of a typical Schwabing pub. The walls are a shrine to the legends of jazz - backlit pictures of the greats stare down at you as you consume your Löwenbräu and listen to the mellow jazz played at the bar. Only one thing is missing: live music. The waitress said the bar has live concerts on Saturdays for a cover of DM 15. For the rest of the week, it's just a gemütlich place to meet and enjoy some recorded music. Fortunately, live jazz is the order of business at Unterfahrt, a Munich institution for the last 18 years. Lisl Geipel has just celebrated her tenth year as the owner of the club, located at the corner of Kirchenstr. and Orleansstr. in Haidhausen but moving soon to larger quarters at Einsteinstr. 42. Unterfahrt is just what you'd want a jazz club to be - intimate, and a good place to hang out and drink a few beers while listening to some great music. Performers vary from local newcomers to regional favorites and world-renowned musicians. Sunday nights there's a jazz jam session for only DM 5. On my visit to Unterfahrt I had a chance to speak to a young pianist, Antje Uhle, whose trio had played that night. She's just finished her studies at Munich's Richard Strauss Conservatory, and her trio had been formed only the night before. None of this was apparent that night as the quality of the music was high and the band tight; you would've thought they'd been playing together for years. Antje told me that the atmosphere in Munich isn't very supportive for a young musician; the only place to really strut your stuff is at Unterfahrt. According to her, the grand Bayerischer Hof hotel "is just for big names from the States." Upon encountering the plush opulence of the Bayerischer Hof and once nestled into the plush wood and cushy lounge chairs of the Night Club, I felt like a big name from the States. Unfortunately I couldn't afford a thing on the menu (the least expensive item was a 33 cl bottle of beer for DM 9,50), and the small crowd was lacking the excitement and intensity of the audience at Muffathalle. Too bad, because the jazz was sweet and energetic, the kind of music I wanted to hear. Feierwerk, a club on Hansastraße in Westend, is more down-to-earth. Housed in an old factory, the club has an industrial feel: bare walls, exposed suspension beams and concrete floors. It's a no-frills venue for an eclectic and international range of music. For the past two years, the club has hosted a Wednesday-night concert series called "JazzbutJazz" that focuses on experimental and free jazz, exposing new influences and giving young (mainly local) talent a place to perform. Feierwerk also works with the New York-based club the Knitting Factory to bring international names to Munich and export German talent to the U.S. Together, the clubs are building a roster of musicians for Feierwerk's spring jazz festival March 19 through 22. There's also a fall festival, this year from October 22 until 25. The 28th International Jazz Week in Burghausen (near the Austrian border) is also in March. The festival, March 19 through 23, brings Al Jarreau and Germany's Klaus Doldinger Passport this year. Past guests have included Chick Corea, B.B. King and Axel Zwingenberger. JAZZ EXTRAS Certainly you'll need something to bring you back down a bit after all the festivals. Perfect for the jazz lover on a lazy Sunday morning, jazz brunches are popping up in practically every neighborhood in Munich. In Haidhausen, the Wirtshaus in der Au offers one. In addition, there are an increasing number of clubs, such as the Mainstreet Club near Harras, hosting jazz evenings and concerts of jazz-related music (like acid jazz and trip-hop). You can also check out what the local record shops have to offer. "Jazz im Beck" in the Marienplatz department store Ludwig Beck is well-known, but the broad selection at the Munich city library (Stadtbibliothek) is also quite good. The library has a huge selection of CDs to loan and although the most popular titles are usually checked out, you can order or reserve CDs and videos from the catalog. The jazz spectrum may not be as big and as visible as it once was and some of the better-known clubs may have closed, but the scene in Munich is by no means dead. While not all of the music may be great jazz, the more established clubs attract important musicians, both local and international. You'll have to pay to help support the musicians and the music, but for jazz lovers, it's money well spent. What do the musicians themselves think of the Munich scene? After a recent show at Feierwerk, I spoke to New York drummer Kim Plainfield and asked him myself. His reply was as upbeat as his jazz trio's performance. "It looked pretty good tonight, didn't it?" The price of admission to hear some great live jazz is around DM 15, and up to DM 50 for a touring musician of international repute. Look in MF's What's Up section for upcoming concerts and venues. The Munich-based magazine "Jazz Zeitung" offers a comprehensive jazz concert listing.

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