Something Else! Interview: Free jazz titan Peter Brotzmann

Peter Brotzmann is without doubt one of the most influential players in the free jazz scene, and has been for more than 40 years. Superlatives do no justice to the playing, musical experimentation or interpretation which Peter brings to free jazz, so I won’t waste space here. He, of course, was one of the pioneers of free-form jazz in the late 1960s, and made no deferment to jazz snobbery or established opinions about what jazz was.

Peter began his professional life as a visual artist, although since his early teens he had played clarinet and tried all kinds of jazz from Dixieland to swing. In his early 20s, he was involved in the international network of artists known as the Fluxus movement but became disillusioned with the art world and exhibitions. While still at school, he had seen Sidney Bechet play and this had a lasting effect. Music began to take over. He played clarinet and then saxophone. While he was working as an artist in the early 1960s, Peter was playing jazz occasionally and seeking to play more but unsure of his real direction. Through working in the fine art scene, he met fellow artists and musicians like John Cage. “These kinds of people,” he recalls, “gave different information from the ordinary jazz scene so I found it easier to get rid of forms, and start from a new point with art and music. I began to work without harmonies or any formal format.”

In 1967, Peter released his first album For Adolphe Sax on his own Bro label and, in 1968, his second album Machine Gun was released. This was an octet recording made with players including Evan Parker, Willem Breuker and Han Bennick, among others. It is still acknowledged today as one of the seminal recordings of free jazz. In 1969, the album Nipples was recorded with many of the musicians on Machine Gun plus UK guitarist Derek Bailey. In 1970 came Fuck De Boere, a recording of a free session over an hour in length and simply a mind blowing, boundary-pushing reverie.

Since then, Peter has played with many trios, quartets and sextets. He regularly collaborates with musicians including Evan Parker, Mats Gustaffson, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark and his son, the guitarist Caspar Brotzmann — whose guitar playing, incidentally, is almost as free as his father’s sax playing. Caspar has been releasing material since the late 1980s, when he issued The Tribe in 1987 followed by Black Axis in 1989. The elder Brotzmann has been in many long-term projects — such as the Chicago Tentet (originally an octet but expanded to include more musicians) with players including Gustaffson, Ken Vandermark, William Parker and others — where Brotzmann leads but allows these other strong musicians their own fields to play on, as well.

His Die Like A Dog group, which included Toshinori Kondo, William Parker and Hamid Drake, recorded and played loosely based on Albert Ayler’s music. Peter has made side trips into several genres, including noise music and heavy rock, but has always returned to free jazz. He has released over fifty albums as bandleader, and appeared on countless others.

When Peter began playing free-form jazz in the late 1960s, he found it difficult at first to make a living because audiences remained resolutely small. But as his musical prowess became clear and word got around that there was something very different on offer, not only from Peter but from the small band of free players who were emerging both in Europe, the UK and America, more people came to free-form gigs. That said, it remained difficult financially, especially as he had a family by the time he was 21.

I asked him if he ever came close to giving up. “In society,” he says, “to do something against the mainstream, you have to be aware that you have hard times to face and decide for yourself which way to go.” Peter never had a problem with accepting that when he decided to play free jazz. He knew would perhaps make little money, but it also allowed him to take his own time and do things his own way. He played tiny venues in the early days but never ever gave up. “No-one made a living in the 1960s from free-form playing and nearly all players had other jobs,” Brotzmann adds.

However, gradually, free jazz was becoming better received, the audiences grew and players began to press albums and record more of their music. A shift in attitude in America and Europe meant improvisation and free playing took its share of audiences. More players came on to the free jazz scene.

Peter enjoys traditional jazz but says, for him it was always somehow “just not enough.” He was influenced by Bechet, Bix Biederdecke and learned from playing with older musicians and watching them. “Bechet and Biederbecke just played,” he says. “They had their own style and other players found themselves drawn in. Biederbeke, a German-American who did not see himself as playing against convention but definitely developed his own way, dared to play largely in black groups — even co-opting Dixieland jazz into his repertoire and giving it his own twist. Bechet took the soprano sax, until then thought of as more a novelty, and got it taken seriously. As these movements of players who went just a little against the grain grew, more players dared to improvise and later free form had the stage set for its emergence.”

Brotzmann is grateful that he got to play with some of the greats and learned from them. He has worked with Don Cherry, Steve Lacy and Alex Von Schlippenbach, who appreciated his unorthodox approach. The rest of his playing and recording history is well documented.

As to how he feels on stage, Brotzmann says: “For musicians and the audience, a performance is personal and each gets out of it what they want. Playing is nothing to do with meditation or similar experiences, but if you give 100 percent on stage and feel completely empty, this is a process similar to meditation, perhaps. It is important to use your own language. There is no other way to speak. If you switch styles, you can corrupt your own language.”

Peter was lucky enough to be around at the time when free jazz was in the ascendance. When asked about it, he is pragmatic: “It was a long process, which started in Europe at the beginning of the ‘60s. At the same time in the UK, Holland and Germany, there was a bunch of people who wanted something different. Art Blakey and others made beautiful music, but some felt the format of theme-solo-theme-end was too formal and wanted rid of regulation. The influence came from the U.S., then Sun-Ra, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor began to push the boundaries. The UK and Germany had their own way of doing things. Derek Bailey was a very important figure in continental Europe.”

These were different times, he reminds. “In the mid-’60s, it felt like a violent time. There were race riots in Detroit and Washington, Martin Luther King was stirring the conscience of Americans and there were burnings of churches and people. In Europe there was unease and the generation after the war wanted an alternative society. Music was just a little bit on the side, but it was the main way young people could express themselves. Though the U.S. lacked unity, there was in Europe a solidarity between musicians. Maybe this was missing before but Vietnam had a knock-on reaction in Europe. There was little trust in authority.”

Brotzmann continues: “When you consider the attitude and times people were living in, it is understandable that any new movement would take time to gain momentum. Information flowed slowly in the ’50s and ’60s and new music styles took a long time to spread or reach a new place. The evolution of free-form jazz took a long time, but began in Europe at the beginning of the 1960s. It also began at the same time in the UK, Holland and Germany but free jazz did not suddenly appear in the 1960s. It had been developing even from the 1920s. Improvised music is not Dixieland, bebop or New Orleans, but a thing which depended on people like Duke Ellington in the ‘20s — who started the process. The development depends on the person like bebop and the process of connection from [Sonny] Rollins and others. Players like Ellington and [Thelonious] Monk underwent a life-long process until they got to somewhere they wanted to be musically — and it is still the same. Whether you are a free player or traditional player, you start playing and develop over time. After all, Sonny Rollins started as a teenager but is still playing his own stuff in a style he has developed over six or seven decades. Evan Parker is another. It does not make any sense to jump on any fashionable movement one week and another the next. But it was not a case of having a sudden freedom, although the young felt more able to rebel against tradition both in music and their general thinking.”

Of his own playing style Peter adds: “Free form as a name may be a misnomer, because no one can do exactly what they want. It is a dialectic process and you have to be responsible. As soon as you work with somebody or something, even if you destroy the existing rules, you make your own. It is always a dialogue between what you have in mind, and what is possible. The language you use is based on the character of the person speaking — or playing.”

Of the current scene and younger players, Brotzmann adds that he is “missing a bit some new and young faces on the scene. It could be I have not the time to look and listen around, but I hope they are somewhere!” He acknowledges the changing times, however. Peter made his decision back in the late ‘60s and, for him, it was difficult commercially but correct nevertheless. He acknowledges it is more difficult for young players now.

“Young people have another side which is different due, to the changing music scene,” Brotzmann says. “Once you could be on the road for most on the year. In the ’70s and early ’80s, there were lots of small venues all over Europe where free form players could gig to small crowds, making enough to keep afloat. Times have changed, and it is not so easy now. There are fewer small venues and improvisation does not fill large arenas. It costs to be on the road and expectations are greater.”

In Germany, Brotzmann adds, “a lot of players come out of music school and can play everything. They know contra point, composition but they don’t know what to do. They look for a gap in the market and try to fit in. They play stuff they maybe don’t want to play. As a result, many seem to know everything but are unable to do anything with it. The disappearance of clubs where new players can gig has a lot to do with it. Once there were lots of small clubs and radio stations where improvised music was supported. Now there are hardly any, so gigs tend to be abroad, outside Germany, which is bad for encouraging young players. They miss out on the social experience of music. For young players, being on the road, playing to different audiences and with different people is important for development.”

On the commercial side, Brotzmann has no problem with making record for companies to sell. He does it regularly himself. But he does not agree with changing the music you record to become “popular.” Peter’s playing style is energetic, lively and comes at you like a steam train on occasions, yet can also be incredibly controlled and tempered. It never fails to make me smile with its sheer exuberance, yet he also can turn in controlled and varied takes on themes.

In spite of his place in the free-jazz scene, Peter is very supportive of other musicians and those I have spoken to who have played with him speak of him with great affection and admiration. He is no angel, and has had his share of battles along the way. One musician who played with him recently told me that, despite recent challenges, Peter is undoubtedly playing the best music of his life. Brotzmann thinks outside the box in so many ways. He doesn’t really have any conception of boxes in the first place. “Just play” is his philosophy: “Be strong and take your time, just try to do it. If you are successful or not it should not matter but speak your way.”

He still has an interest in art and designs his album covers. Peter also held a retrospective exhibition in 2005 with the percussionist Han Bennink in Brotzmann’s home town of Remsheid. Comparing art to music, he says: “You can be an artist and a musician; it is the same thing, the same person doing both. With art, the person creates the work and shares their vision with an audience. The difference is that music is not only a musical experience but a social one. You are playing with somebody else and the exchange is the main thing. It is very different to working in a studio alone, with your canvas and materials. Then you might sometimes feel, ‘Yes! That’s it!’ However, pictures can be thrown away or changed, but in music there is nothing to correct — you cannot take it back. It is more of a risk, but it is great being on stage with people trying to create something good and maybe more. It is also about connecting with an audience. With music, the audience is in front of you. Musicians love that.”

On a personal note, Peter is also one of the most pleasant people I have dealt with as a contact. When I first started writing a piece on the history of free jazz a couple of years back, he was very supportive — giving me well over an hour of advice and anecdotes on the phone and replying to my questions with clarity, gently correcting some of my misconceptions. He never made me feel like a novice even though, at that time, I definitely was. He supports upstarts and experienced players alike.

He recently emailed me from a train en route to Paris and then again from New Zealand and again from home. He says it is about communicating, and he does just that to keep enthusiasm for this music going. He also has a great sense of humor and can talk for a very long time when he wants to. Peter puts a lot of emphasis on communication. A recent email said: “Please go ahead the way you think is good for us, and if you need some more information I am here.” He then apologized for being so busy. There is no ‘me’ or ‘you’ with Brotzmann; everything is about creating together — the ‘us’ of creation, including the music, which I definitely get. I hope he stays busy.

Too often writers use the terms icon or founding father glibly, but in Peter’s case, it is possible to use them in a very real way without being sycophantic. Yet somehow, with his impeccable politeness and generosity with his time, he still comes across as a musician who — whilst hugely enjoying his music and having incredible dedication to detail, timing and listening to those he plays with — is still pinching himself just a little bit over the thought that he is where he is.

At the moment he is preparing for a round of faraway fall dates. “I am lucky to say I have guys around me I like to work with,” Brotzmann says, “and we will spend nearly the whole of October in China with exhibitions and touring with Full Blast. I hope my lungs, body and health in general let me have the pleasure to go on with the life I like.”

Peter, the pleasure is all ours.

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.