Peter Brotzmann: We Thought We Could Change The World, with Gerard Rouy (2014): Books

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We Thought We Could Change the World finds Peter Brotzmann in conversation with Gerard Rouy, the French journalist and photographer. Rouy worked for Jazz Magazine, Paris from 1970 to 2009. He heard Brotzmann first in 1971 and, though already a jazz fan, found something special in free form jazz, the music and the players. The book is based on interviews and conversations between Brotzmann and Rouy spanning 40 years. Much of the information was gathered during filming for Soldier of The Road, a 90 minute film released in 2012 about Brotzmann Rouy was frustrated that a lot of the information just couldn’t be included, and so used some in this book, along with lots of other information gathered over the years.

We Thought We Could Change the World (Wolke Verlag Hofheim) takes the reader through Brotzmann’s life, from growing up in the aftermath of World War II, the influence of his Prussian father, his family and childhood, through to the present day with his thoughts and ideas of where the music is going — and where it still can go. Rouy divides these talks into two main sections, the first on his music and the second on his art, though the two become almost inextricably intertwined in the closing sections. Brotzmann is candid and answers the short questions in depth, giving the reader an insight into what shaped his musical tastes, his relationship with other musicians, his family life, his frustrations at times, and what has gone into the creation of a free-playing phenomenon.

With Peter’s words, prompted by probing yet gentle questions from Rouy, the reader learns a huge amount about Brotzmann — some of it expected and some surprising. It makes you think about how different things were for young German musicians post-war, how the world’s political situations encouraged many in Europe to turn to free jazz, and how European jazz music was formed from similar yet vastly dichotomous lines compared to the American free-jazz scene.

Brotzmann reveals his love of the blues, and his despair at the establishment and how music is funded in many European countries. He is very pragmatic about relationships with fellow musicians and obviously has a clear regard and liking for some whilst others, even though he played with them regularly, there was never the same bonding or even liking — yet, on stage, things worked.

Brotzmann is not afraid to reveal some of the vulnerability and self-doubts that have, at times, plagued him. At the same time, he is determined and forthright in his opinion that what he has been lucky enough to be able to do is important. He also makes it clear that, whilst he has been extremely blessed with musicians he has played with and the times in which he found himself, newer players might not find the road to playing regular gigs easy. He gives his thoughts on how he views those who have compromised and gone for the money, rather than sticking with the principles they started off with. But he also demonstrates an innate understanding of human nature, the need to support families and the commercial pressures that are increasingly put on musicians.

Some of Brotzmann’s thoughts will hit home with those who know him and his music: There is generally quite a bit of nodding in agreement, because he manages to put into succinct words what many musicians feel about the scene and its development, though some of this will also surprise and slightly bewilder the reader.

Throughout We Thought We Could Change the World, there is a candor and honesty to Brotzmann’s answers. He is not giving the answers expected, or wanted, but they come from his heart and he is not afraid to voice his thoughts — even if this makes him appear vulnerable or even naive. He is as open and accepting of those who disparage free playing as he is about those who support it and the musicians who play it.

What comes across more than anything is his sense of community: He mentions several times that working with musicians can be likened to what might work in a society — each one with a role, a job and an input, each one as important as the next, yet with natural leaders and followers. His relationships with other musicians are important to him and some of the most important are not only those he has played with over the years but those of the next generation down like Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark.

This is a book which has a rare quality in that it reveals the essence of the man, largely down to good questioning and listening of the interviewer but also because of the willingness Brotzmann shows to share his inner thoughts. I was lucky enough to be sent a first-edition copy direct from Wuppertal, and on first read I knew it was something a bit special; the second and third reads told me more each time.

As well as personal thoughts, Brotzmann manages to include a lot of history and the reader is left with a far clearer understanding of the development of free music in Europe, the differences between opportunities in different countries and the diplomacy involved at times along with unbelievable red tape at others.

The section on his art is very interesting, and this is an area which is still very important to Peter to keep developing as well as the music. His intrinsic desire to communicate, connect and involve those looking at his art or listening to his music keeps shining through. Without an audience for Brotzmann, there is little point. Humor creeps in at various points, and Brotzmann often reminds us not to take anyone too seriously. He comments on his huge and still growing musical instrument collection, his liking for finding gems among second-hand stores, and odd bits and bobs for his art works lying around. He also says he knows some of his dreams are foolish — but I am not so sure.

We Thought We Could Change the World is a satisfying read but a book which you feel is, as yet, not quite the finished version: Brotzmann goes on. He is still developing his music and has an enthusiasm for free playing, which serves as both an example and incentive to those following in his footsteps. Like the book, Peter still has a lot to offer and I wouldn’t mind betting there will be another one at a future date.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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