When I was a child my father had a Glenn Miller vinyl box set with a painting of him and his trombone gracing the cover. I had never seen anything as enticing as this gold instrument with its long, smooth slide and shiny flared bell which rested so comfortably on his shoulder, making him more god than man. This dapper image of Glenn in his white blazer had burnt a hole in my psyche so in fifth grade when all the other boys chose trumpets or drums I proudly took up the trombone ignoring the fact that it was much too big for me to play properly yet. It was only in my first year of high school however that music truly became a part of my life when our jazz band won the tri-state (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) McDonald’s Jazz Competition. First prize was a gig at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village with a guest musician. “Red Rodney’s” screaming trumpet in combination with the harmonies and rhythms produced by mere mortals such as myself and my classmates created a tribal ecstasy like none I had ever experienced. The joy of being part of an ensemble (of which I deemed myself entirely unworthy) capable of creating such powerful emotions through dizzying melodies and complex chords had hooked me on jazz music for life.
Even though America is the birthplace of jazz there is no denying that much of its origins can be traced back to Europe. The first taste they received of this new style of music was from African-American soldiers fighting in WWI. The first European jazz master came a few decades later in the form of a Belgium gypsy guitarist by the name of Django Reinhardt. Whether it was due to the greater emphasis the Europeans put on culture, or for purely economic reasons, many American jazz musicians began to head overseas to further their careers. Even to this day there are artists who say they feel more appreciated here than they do in the land where jazz was born.
In the Berlin of today however jazz is still the black sheep of musical styles taking a back seat to electronic music. During the time of the divided city from 1961 to 1989 the jazz scene was mainly confined to West Berlin, specifically in a small basement club called Quasimodo with seating for only up to 350 people. Known as the oldest jazz spot in Berlin, Quasimodo is located on Kantstr beneath the Delphi movie theater close to the Zoo train station. Wednesdays are open mike night with amateur musicians, young talents from Berlin’s famous music schools; the Universitat der Kunst and the Han Eisler Academy of Music as well as others coming together for an inspired free jam. Here is a brief list of the upcoming shows in November at Quasimodo which I personally would love to see (hint hint birthday present anyone?); Big Sam’s Funky Nation on November 6th, Popa Chubby vs Walter Trout on November 10th, MFA Kera and Mike Russell’s Black Heritage on November 18th.
Another big name in West Berlin’s jazz scene is A-Trane located just a couple of blocks west of Quasimodo. The popular event here is the free Saturday late night jam session starting just after midnight. One great upcoming event happening on the 23rd of October in A Trane is Mark Murphy meets Till Bronner, two jazz legends coming together for one concert. In the southern bit of West Berlin lies the district of Kreuzberg where many new live music venues have recently been sprouting up. One of the more established is the Yorckschlosschen, self-proclaimed “Home of Jazz and Blues”. Though the bar itself has been around for over a hundred years it wasn’t until the 1970’s that it became a favorite hang-out for local artists and blues musicians who were passing through Berlin. One new location for jazz in this neighborhood is Edelweiss offering live jazz during the week. Edelweiss is located directly in Goerlitzer Park, one of the most fun parks in Berlin and one of the hippest party locations in the city.
A relatively recent and exciting development is the increase of jazz clubs and live music locales that have opened up over the past decade in the former East Berlin. One newcomer to the East Berlin jazz scene is the Aufsturz bar located on Berlin’s red light mile, Oranienburger Str. Aufsturz is more of a beer bar with over 100 brands of beer and 40 types of whiskey but they do offer some great live jazz as well. Acud is another great name in live music located on Veteranen Str next to Weinbergs Park. You can find jam sessions here almost every night of the week. B-Flat on Rosenthaler Str in the district of Mitte is one of the oldest of the East Berlin jazz clubs with slightly lesser known acts but all the energy and good vibes as its more well-known western counterparts. It was at B-Flat one night that I met Eric Vaughn, a native of Savannah Georgia and a jazz drummer who has relocated to Berlin. Eric has come up with an event called Naked Jazz taking place every Friday and Monday at the Waldo Bar. The Waldo Bar is a fairly new jazz venue located in the courtyard between Torstr and Linien Str in Berlin Mitte. Its cozy ambience is accentuated by its superb cocktail mixologist but the real draw of the venue is the line-up of artists who are hand-picked by Eric and his pianist Kelvin Sholar. Each week features a different group of performers who play the first set solo from 10 to midnight. After a 30 minute break more musicians pile in for a jam session that continues into the wee early hours. This is a really special evening of music for performers and music lovers alike. On Sundays at the Waldo Bar Natalie Dieah organizes a jazz sessions of which she is the star attraction.
As a New Yorker turned Berliner it is heartwarming to see all these great live music venues opening up in the German capital. Now much more than when I first arrived in 1998 Berlin has a wide range of musical offerings no matter what your preference. At the end of the day the subtle nuances of musical styles are as diverse as is the ability to discern them. Music is an emotion, a scent and a taste as much as a simple auditory process. Music is as hard to define as it is to explain what you like about it. For that reason I will leave you with a quote from one of the greats, Aaron Copeland. “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes’, And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be ‘No.’