Snapshot - Jazz Now/Jazz from the GDR

Rolf Reichelt (1980)

A Few Aspects of the Development of Free Jazz
in the German Democratic Republic

When did Jazz in the GDR become GDR-Jazz? The attempt to find an answer to this question cannot overlook the character of process of such a dialectic development. Naturally, a precise date or year cannot be specified, especially since there is no single GDR Jazz and there cannot be one. What there is, however, is a certain stereotype GDR-Jazz-image called, generally speaking, in the GDR "Free Jazz"; in the GFR, often, more subtly, described as "Eisler-Monk-Folklore-Weill" Jazz. This image came about, very probably, because the only partial results of GDR Jazz production were regarded as definitive and because recordings of a particular time, through their conservation, took on the character of a document. But not only was the process character (otherwise generally recognized) overlooked in this case but also the fact that the reception of GDR Jazz in Western countries on records and in concerts was at first limited to one circle of musicians, which represented significant aspects, to be sure, but not all aspects of Jazz in the GDR. New Jazz from the GDR was first made known in Western countries through Free Music Production; after tireless efforts over many years Jost Gebers succeeded then in presenting the musicians "live", who had otherwise been known only on the record label. Since the FMP could not nevertheless, present the whole spectrum, certain important partial results of those years remained unnoticed - as, for example, in the work of the Friedhelm Schönfeld Trio and of the various combos of Manfred Schulze.

An historical, total picture of the scene and of the previous development was not and will probably never be publicized, but it is never the less quite completely preserved in radio productions and copies of broadcasts. The radio is the GDR cultural institution which has been occupied longest and most continually with the documentation and popularization - and thereby, promotion, - of the national Jazz scene. Because of this, this writer was in a position, above all, to make an objective study of the legendary, much discussed beginning years through the available archive tapes and from this to arrive at a few conclusions and generalizations.

In the following comments a few aspects of the history of Free Jazz in the GDR will be treated - from the beginnings up to 1973. From then on, record publications on FMP and AMIGA are available which are generally accessible and therefore do not need any verbal descriptions.

In the GDR so called Free Jazz began not as a fresh start but as an episode. The new manner of playing was concretely attached to one group - the Joachim Kühn Trio, and in reality only to the pianist himself. The episode or period of Kühn is extremely well-documented. From the key year of 1965 alone there are available nine radio productions or recordings of concerts - an untypical quantity for the stand taken at that time towards the use of jazz in the media. But not just the radio realized that important elements were attached to and through Kühn: almost every Jazz wind player tried to play at least once with Kühn ("in the hope, thereby, to sound differently", as an observer of the scene at that time reported to me). Important and until now still valid were only the results or influences of the Kühn-Trio on the bass player, Klaus Koch, and the drummer, Reini Schwarz. The recordings of 1965 show an extensive application and command of means which were completely unusual at that time and which are astonishing. In the recording of a concert one cannot hear that the "free" trio playing was to a high degree, at first even exclusively, determined by Kühn. The pianist initiated a music for which there were not yet any musicians on the scene of that time to play it- he had to develop them for it.

"He guided the bass-fiddler's bow and swung the drumstick" (1) this sentence by Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky should be taken almost literally, as Klaus Koch confirms today. About Reini Schwarz, at present drummer of the Cabaret of the National People's Army, it is reported that he no longer remembers really what was played or intended back then. He played what Joachim Kühn sang to him, what he indicated, explained or also illustrated on the drums. The bass-player, Klaus Koch, was in some respects in advance of the one-time Dixieland drummer; for one thing, he had a classical training and, for another, he was "lacking" Jazz experience in the usual manner of playing and was, thereby, only slightly set in the current Jazz idioms at that time.

Joachim Kühn was active on the GDR-scene for only about two years, and for this reason his influence was not strong enough to have a continuous or lasting effect. After he had left the GDR in 1966, the development of Free Jazz was not directly carried on - but indirectly nevertheless, most of the contemporary Jazz musicians came under the influence of the pianist. Their attempts remained for a time perceptibly under the influence of the recordings made of Joachim Kühn and his trio.

Also, the consistent character of the Kühn-Trio, which, in spite of understandably unfavourable economic limitations, was occupied exclusively with this music for some two years, was sought for again only many years later.

An analysis of the 1965 recordings of the Kühn-Trio reveals a broad catalogue of means of expression, which noticeably change with in a year's time. At first, one finds thoroughly traditional "funky" motives in the playing of the pianist. The themes or quasi-themes are played in swinging triplet style, and the rhythm players work metrically or play around a recognisable meter. In relation to the harmony, the development is already clearer to observe - one finds scarcely any changes in forms that are not altered. Gradually a freer treatment of rhythm is to be observed, whose metric formation is increasingly given up. The bass and drums move harmoniously free in the rhythmic continuity, sometimes also related to the musical scale, whereby occasionally, too, one or the other of the players moves away from the rhythmic beat, while the two others keep it going. Complicated un-metrical unison patterns or -clusters are presented as quasi-themes or are played enbloc between the improvised sections. Completely "free" playing is first realized in solo cadenzas, free collective playing enters in the manner of an interlude between the set sections, and one also finds clearly rehearsed, common group-accellerandi or ritardandi. The playing of the drums becomes increasingly communicative and sound-conscious; Kühn himself uses the inside of his grand piano.

It is all the time quite clear that the pianist is far more advanced than his colleagues; nevertheless, the contributions of the bass player, Koch, become increasingly independent and communicative. In his solo improvisations Koch is often on an equal plane, even, with the pianist.

The Friedhelm Schönfeld Trio - the first stable group of New Jazz in the GDR, appeared as a link between the music of the Joachim Kühn Trio and the "Cracking-up phase" which began around 1972-73. Friedhelm Schönfeld (reeds, flute), Klaus Koch (bass) and Günter Sommer (drums) played together from 1967 to 1974 and achieved identity as a group, which for the GDR-scene at that time was exemplary. The Schönfeld Trio began gradually to overcome the norms of accepted jazz practice. The prerequisites were at first very varied. Schönfeld and Koch had already had some experience through playing with Joachim Kühn, while Sommer came to the Trio, on the other hand, as a straight-ahead drummer. In the first recording he is revealed as a most reserved time-keeper. Quote: "In the early days I was told I should play more freely and finally forget 4/4 time and all those things - bit I hadn't yet any experience in listening to others. So, finally, I tried to understand and to full fill the demands made on me and I got away from the regular beat. On the other hand we did, however, play regular pieces - between them we were asked to play "free". All that confused me a lot. So totally free, without a piece, without melody, without rhythm - that just didn't work. It was a case of seeking and trying out". (2).

The radio recordings of 1967 show a strictly planned, yes, even "program musical" approach. Titles like "Wandering Beat", "Cesuras", "Ballads", or "Mixtures" refer directly to the means used and the forms. All of the titles can be heard to be thoroughly planned and rehearsed, also the "free" sections are previously planned and appear either as rubato over a pulsating rhythm or as a solo cadenza. Quote from Schönfeld: "When I began to play Free Jazz I made life extremely difficult for myself. Although one wanted to get released from the conventions, one was still tightly caught in the way of playing which one had practiced for years. Then I tried to let my knowledge of composition techniques influence me. Logically enough, the first pieces were not tonal but were written with the aid of 12-tone technique and similar procedures; I then also tried to transfer them into improvisations. The musical phases were structured throughout and, too the thematic relationships came out more strongly than in the beginning of the 1970's when already a higher level of free playing had been achieved. At first there were difficulties to free oneself from certain phrases. Today, I would say that one made enormous efforts to get away from conventions. Such efforts were hard and important. The exact conception was born from the intention to verify or check everything. One still had inhibitions about doing anything in a simply intuitive way". (3).

The Schönfeld-Trio moved step by step into Free Jazz and around 1972 was at the peak of its effectiveness. The arrangements remain recognizable, to be sure, but do not act as incitation to playing and are, rather, as dramaturgical linking together, and which nevertheless no longer has any "corset" or cramped character. Günter Sommer plays in freely pulsating fashion, the starts become emotionally and intuitively activated, and close interaction is real and intensive "power play".

Another group which has been dealing with new expressive potentialities since 1967 was the Radio-Jazz-Ensemble, Studio IV, under the direction of Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, with Joachim Graswurm (trumpet), Hubert Katzenbeier (trombone), Klaus Koch (bass), Eberhard Weise (piano) and Wolfgang Winkler (drums). This ensemble exists today as a group which meets sporadically, on the GDR scene, it was and is of only slight effectiveness. A concert in December 1967 in the Leipzig Congress Hall provided the most valuable sound-documentation of the group, which in later years came together mostly only as a purely studio-setup.

Ernst-Ludwig Petrowskys affinity with New Jazz at that time was less related to the music of an Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor as it was to the recordings of the George Russell Sextet and Tony Williams' "Lifetime" with Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson as well as Don Cherry's Symphony for Improvisers. The music of Studio IV reveals an emphatic preoccupation with form and is most carefully worked out, in advance. Through the use of three wind instruments, there arise in the course of time certain arranger-clichés and sound patterns which are varied, to be sure, but never given up. The themes are often arranged in a dissonant minor atmosphere; the piece ends with a reprise of the theme; there are free improvisation passages in duets or trios (winds with bass and drums), but these passages rarely were given much development in the sense of today's Free Jazz. They remain in the prescribed level of tension and are accompanied accordingly: by winds either in unison or contrapuntally by background riffs, arranged rhythmic patterns and rubato-lines. The unisons and block chords are often played in swing style and jazz syncopation. The dynamic development is prescribed - crescendi and decrescendi are performed jointly. A notated fugato as well as unison riffs of the wind instruments over free tonal piano playing are heard. Power-collectives do not occur in the course of the playing but are inserted as dramatic effects- a sort of "Free Jazz on Hand Signals"

Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky has said about this period that the music was characterized "by a compulsory desire for Free Jazz". It is nevertheless interesting that, given these premises, some playing was achieved, within the framework of the Free Jazz concept with convincing results and for which the application of "Work" Concept can be permitted. In a later phase the group tried temporarily a more intuitive approach, which, however, because of the different musical personalities and stylistic preferences- or the possibilities of the musicians, had less success.

The Petrowsky Quartet, with Koch and Winkler and the trumpeter, Heinz Becker, which existed in parallel fashion, achieved a freer, less programmed presentation. The quartet players came closer to spontaneous, improvised expression, and the musicians were personally and stylistically more unified. The Petrowsky Quartet based their playing on themes and consciously worked with motives, but, nevertheless, the improvised flow of the music was already left more to chance and a reprise of themes was still indispensable for this group at this time.

As in the case of Studio IV, the Petrowsky Quartet, live, before the public, was also almost ineffectual. The inclination towards a freer manner of playing did not occur in a continuous way at sessions, concerts on or tours in the early '70's, but rather in the recording studio and in the rehearsing and discussing that are a part of recording.

The baritone-saxophonist and clarinettist, Manfred Schulze, belongs prominently to the central group of personalities in the GDR responsible for the development of Free Jazz. While the groups around Schönfeld and Petrowsky gradually approached the free playing style, trying to bring about a complete liberation from the Jazz tradition while Manfred Schulze in conscious and consistent fashion broke with a Jazz tradition that was not his own. The generalized and thereby very inadequate term "Free Jazz" applies even less to Schulze's music than it does to the previously discussed ways of playing, but should also be placed in this category, nevertheless, since Schulze's attitude as well as the "message" and effect of his music are closer to Free Jazz than to any other musical category.

Already in the mid-'60's Schulze developed his thoroughly European concept of improvised music: "I am interested in sound structures and planes of sound and not in choruses with resolved harmonies. Normally in (Jazz) improvisation the theme itself is not used, but the improvisation will be based on the harmonies of the theme. I make an effort to see that models and tone-rows will be varied. A musical material that is in itself structured serves as basis for the improvisation. The changing is left freely open to the musicians, but they must relate to the notated tones. As a rule, a good number of possibilities are offered in a piece. The improvising musician is free to make variations not only on one model but can himself choose from various models…..I have always been surprised that our music has been classified as Free Jazz. We never play "free" in the sense of playing without prerequisites or uncoordinated, for the manipulation and varying of such models demands from the performers a high degree of discipline. It is not easy to find capable players for this music". (3).

Schulze's conception made great demands on the musicians. It is understandable today why he was seldom successful in winning over to his concept the most qualified musicians; at this time, in the early '70's, they were searching for their own identity in the jazz idiom and tried in their own field to break through the frontiers. They were therefore unwilling or, as Schulze thought, "'incapable" of submitting to the discipline of Schulze's concept, of which the way of performing demanded learning a new and unfamiliar way of improvising which had little in common with the conventional understanding of Jazz.

The attempt to form a Schulze wind quintet in 1969 with such musicians as Petrowsky, Katzenbeier and Becker turned out unsatisfactorily for both parts of the Combo. Schulze quote: "Before the rehearsals I played a recording of Schönberg's wind quintet - then things went a bit better". In the same year Schulze also played with some of his colleagues of that time from the Klaus Lenz Band in a small Berlin club and these sessions, which never came to public performances, were for Ulrich Gumpert, who took part in them, a very enlightening experience. Quote: "The theme wasn't important to us, but intensity and compact sounds were. The sound character of the Jazz Composers' Orchestra was a sort of model for us". That Gumpert, however, had also misunderstood Schulze's basic concept should be mentioned only in passing. In any case, Gumpert regarded this work with Schulze "not as an episode, but as a first experience with free improvisation". (1)

Schulze worked continuously with changing combinations, with stubborn determination, on his concept. For a long time it was Schulze's tragedy that he was forced to play his music often with distinctly unqualified musicians- and it was impressive thereby, nevertheless, in spite of this, how successful he was in achieving group results of such high quality. Many young musicians - completely unknown before and after the time with Schulze - succeeded, under Schulze's energetic and demanding leadership, in achieving some astonishing creative performances.

From 1973 on Schulze found in the pianist and composer, Hermann Keller, an adequate partner with whom he still continues to work today and with whom he has created a synthesis of elements of Free Jazz and contemporary Avant-garde - which cannot be categorized.

The "Choral Concerto for five Saxophones" can be regarded as Schulze's most important recording in the Jazz idiom; it was performed in January, 1972, with Schulze, Petrowsky, Schönfeld, Manfred Hering and Konrad Körner in a session of "Jazz in der Kammer". The tape made from the broadcast shows a conceptual maturity and an abundance of means and which marks Schulze's composition as precursor of present-day trends of à-capella-saxophone groups. From the point of view of interpretation the performance unfortunately suffered from the ad-hoc character of the Combo, which had rehearsed only very briefly and then only played together on two occasions - all of which indicates the general handicaps of the scene at that time.

So much space has been devoted here to Manfred Schulze because his too little represented music, while it does not fit exactly in the jazz category, is to be regarded as the first really individual improvisational music of the GDR Jazz Avant-garde.

Ulrich Gumpert, first as pianist and organist in "Soul style", acquired through the brief free-playing occasions with Schulze his initial spark. Within the Jazz-Rock Group SOK and at its canter, the Gumpert Quartet, between 1971 and '73 played with a free vocabulary which was at first characterised by its electronic set-up and "rocking" form of expression. With its make-up of electro-piano, electro-guitar, bass guitar and drums (Günter Sommer was the drummer), the Quartet never played modish, commercial motivated Rock Jazz - the sound results made one think, rather, of a comparison with the music of "Soft Machine". SOK and especially the Quartet played compositions which, after the displacement of themes, developed into free playing. The rhythms were closer to those of the jazz-rocky than to those of the rock-jazzy side. In any case, says Gumpert, "You couldn't yet be sure which of the musicians really was in favour of it". From the SOK or the Quartet only Günter Sommer and the saxophonist, Helmut Forsthoff, can be found on the contemporary scene today.

In the middle of 1972 Ulrich Gumpert organized for "Jazz in der Kammer", his first workshop-orchestra and conceived the folklore suite "Aus teutschen Landen", whereby "an example was given which acted as a milestone in the history of contemporary Jazz in our Republic" for whose further development it was important up to the present time and helped to give in a decisive way the individual character of our jazz music". (4).

(The arranging of German folklore by Jazz musicians of the GDR is documented on records and was sufficiently described and reviewed so that it is not necessary to go into further detail about it here).

From 1973 on the Gumpert Quartet called itself "Synopsis" and was dissolved the same year because of the increasingly strong divergences of the opinions of the musicians - nevertheless, before it broke up, a private recording was made of a session with Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, which was passed on to the organizers of the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree. This convincing (Jazz-rock) recording resulted in invitation to "Synopsis" to go to Warsaw - but by this time it was a band that no longer existed. But for this Festival appearance a group was organized which had its personal and musical premiere at the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree in October, 1973, under the name of "Synopsis": Ulrich Gumpert, Günter Sommer, Conrad Bauer, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky. The spectacular, highly effective appearance at this festival, with completely free improvised, acoustic music marked a first serious high point for Free Jazz in the GDR - a point which was nevertheless achieved only by chance. It was also the first visible sign of a new stage of development which was based on significant qualitative and quantitative changes.

The period from the end of 1972 into 1973 can be regarded as the decisive changing phase in the development of Free Jazz in the GDR. In this period, the night bar, "Melodie" in the Berlin Friedrichstadt-Palast, had become the most significant "live laboratory" for the development of improvised music. Every Monday evening, actually closing day of the bar, there were public sessions there which represented the definitive beginning of consistent, freer spontaneous improvisation.

The developing phase leading to free playing reversed itself - in a process of catharsis, which led to a relatively short but necessarily re-working of the "Kaputt playing phase" (Both FMP publications, "Just for Fun" (FMP 0140) and "The Old Song" (FMP 0170) came out at the same time as the recording and broadcast series initiated by this writer "From the Jazz Workshop of the Berlin Radio" and can be regarded as documentation of this important phase.) How short this phase was can be deduced from the LP recording "Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Krokodil" (FMP 0240) which appeared barely a year later and which tended more towards too open structures and occasionally even to a certain re-instalment of melodic balance and motivic development. (5).

Though they did not act as the originators or initiators of this "Kaputt playing phase", nevertheless, the meetings which began to take place at this time and the joint experiences in playing together with outstanding representatives of West European Avant-garde can be regarded as an essential catalyzing agent in this process: With Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Kowald, Paul Rutherford, Peter Brötzmann, Günter Christmann, Detlev Schönenberg, Irène Schweizer, Paul Lovens or Rüdiger Carl. At the instigation of Jost Gebers these and other musicians came over from West Berlin as "tourists for a day", with or without instrument, and joined in the sessions in the "Melodie".

Günter Sommer: "The question of what I really want, hit me when I had my first experience in playing with these musicians. In this time I came to know an attitude towards music which I had not known at all, previously. And then it happened quite suddenly that I asked myself a few questions". (2).

Sommer's self-questioning did not lead directly from self-doubt to self-emancipation. There was a new "initiative" phase for awhile. No longer the American, but: "Han Bennink. That was every strange chapter for me. On the one hand, I had Blakey on my neck from the past, and then suddenly this guy Bennink came whom I'd never seen before in person. He pulled the rug from under me - took away my whole foundation on which I was working. He offered me suddenly the finished solutions that I was really searching for….that was hard for me. That was a lousy time. First I rushed into Bennink's arms and then had to try - to the right or to the left to get by him".(2).

Günter Sommer, who has long since over come this phase, speaks openly today about that "rabbit-hypnotized-by-the-snake-effect". It must be said that he was not the only musician who was, temporarily, completely fascinated by the new international partners. But it is interesting to note in how short a period the GDR-musicians absorbed the Free Jazz experiences gained from their international colleagues in a much more extended process and developed further, independently.

From 1973 this musical development also stimulated another process which became significant for the qualitative development to GDR Jazz; in fact, it offered really, even, the first prerequisite for an unbroken further development of the new musical experiences: professionalism. Formerly, there were no musicians who devoted themselves chiefly and exclusively to Jazz (If we do not consider the "Geschichtsdelle" Kühn-Trio). If, before the Free Jazz period, it was still completely possible for a jazz musician to follow his own ambitions - also within the "Dance Music" concept in its broadest sense - with his group of the moment, Free Jazz put an end to this practice above all through the consistent turning away from the continuous (and thereby "danceable") use of the beat. A long-standing obstacle to the improvement of the quality of Jazz in the GDR, was the prevalent "Amateur" jazz activity by professional musicians active in other genres - and mostly dance music. The founding of ensembles with continuing rehearsals and performances was not possible since the schedules of musicians professionally engaged in differing sorts of groups made it extremely difficult to agree on appointments. Because the Jazz scene was stilI only weakly developed, there were no regular and extensive tours - jazz concerts of musicians appearing sporadically were limited earlier mostly to single guest performances and showed a lowered degree of quality.

The first musician who decided in 1973 in the GDR to devote himself to full-time professional Jazz playing was, in fact, the "newest" newcomer to the contemporary scene: Conrad Bauer. As trombonist of a Berlin Soul Band he first stumbled on Free Jazz only in 1971. When he became, in parallel fashion, a member of the Berlin Amateur Band Exis, which for him "from today's musical point of view is no longer very important - they played wildly and made - I don't know to what extent it was Jazz - an improvised music which pleased me and in which I participated". Also in this group "not only was free-oriented music made, but much reflection about music as well. We discussed frequently about how we felt during the playing and hearing of music". (3).

Conrad Bauer belonged to the most active joint-creators of the transitional phase of GDR Jazz and he became the first consistent "Only-Jazzer": "It was an important moment for me when I…..tried to play only Jazz. Back then, by chance, I met the British trombonist, Paul Rutherford. We played together and naturally conversed as well. I told him that I would play Pop music because one probably couldn't make a living only with Jazz. In reaction to that he told me about the difficulties in Great Britain….Nevertheless, they would stick to Jazz and only play Jazz. That impressed me so strongly that I decided very impulsively to try to do the same thing. And, strangely enough it has turned out to be very good for me". (3).

Not only for Conrad Bauer but also for a steadily increasing number of musicians, this decision has been fruitful, this is clear to see not only in the individual independent results, but also in the international esteem and evaluation of the contemporary GDR Jazz musicians. The intellectual relationship based on common musical traditions of European Jazz Avant-garde led to results which the GDR Jazz musicians transformed into an original, self assured and indispensable part of the international contemporary scene.

Might the improvised music in the GDR also have been able to develop in a different direction if, back then, not the above mentioned but quite different musicians might have come? I don't believe so, for a different development would not have been convincing, and Ulrich Gumpert is quite to the point when he says: "It was inevitable that precisely those musicians came - others wouldn't have come". (1).


  1. Conversation with the author in preparation for this article- May/June 1980
  2. Interview with the Author, April, 1980, appeared in JAZZ FORUM Nr.67
  3. Interview with Bert Noglik/H.-J. Lindner appeared in "Jazz im Gespräch" in 1978,
    Verlag Neue Musik Berlin
  4. Martin Linzer in cover text of the Amiga-LP "Retrospective"
  5. Ekkehard Jost in the documentation on the FMP-record cassette "For Example", page 63.

Translation: John Evarts