The recent closure of well-known Hamburg jazz institution Birdland has raised eyebrows for jazz fans in Germany. A symptom of the scene's downfall? A survey of three top venues gives reason for hope.
News from Hamburg left the German jazz scene a bit melancholy a few weeks ago. The famed jazz club Birdland closed its doors. After more than 20 years, its proprietors had had enough.
A sign that Germany's jazz scene is in crisis? Tracing what's going on in the scene suggests the opposite. Cities including Munich, Berlin and Dortmund offer the chance to hear live jazz nearly every night of the week. Munich's Unterfahrt, Dortmund's Domicil and Berlin's A-Trane are among the internationally known addresses in Germany for the genre with roots on the other side of the Atlantic.
New audience every night
"We regret to see Birdland close because there are getting to be fewer and fewer venues for jazz in Germany," said Christiane Böhnke-Giesse, artistic director for Munich club Unterfahrt. But the Munich institution looks unlikely to shut its doors any time soon. The official association that has maintained Unterfahrt since 1980 can count on a huge group of supporters. The association counts 1,050 members - for a club with a capacity of 150 seats.
"I have to find an audience every night," says Christiane Böhnke-Giesse. "That's why we try to make our offerings very broad - we have big band night on Monday, and otherwise it ranges from newcomers, to old hats all the way to the stars."
The club also dips into other genres, presenting flamenco, tango and blues. That model seems to work, says Böhnke-Geisse, explaining that it's not just the die-hard supporters of the venue that come regularly. "Sometimes a concert is sold out, and I'll only know three people in the audience."
Two other factors contribute to Unterfahrt's success. It receives a subsidy from the city of Munich and gets much support from five local jazz labels that are happy to work with the club to organize concerts for their musicians.
Showcasing newcomers in Domicil
Dortmund's hotspot for jazz made its home in the central part of Germany's eighth largest city in 2005, but it has been in operation since 1969. Moving from its old home to a less appreciated part of town seems to have done the club some good. It's now located in a renovated old cinema.
"We were able to reconfigure the cinema thanks to the help of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the city of Dortmund," said Waldo Riedl, who heads the non-profit group in charge of managing Domicil. That group's 200 members volunteer thousands of hours each year in service of jazz, ranging from running the ticket stand to taking care of the performers.
Domicil hosts around 330 events per year, offering a large hall that can accommodate 500, and a smaller concert space for about 200 guests.
"We have a healthy mix - from stars whom we're able to get on stage thanks to our size, to up-and-coming regional talents," said Waldo Riedl, who believes strongly in partnerships with area music academies. Young performers are encouraged to take the stage at Domicil, bringing in fresh air.
Berlin's jazz hideaway
There's just one man who has the say in A-Trane in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. Sedal Sardan is the sole owner of the jazz club and has to do much of the work himself.
"Of course, it means I have less of a private life, but the logistics always run perfectly," he said.
A-Trane came into being in 1992, but Sardan, a former basketball player, took it over in 1997.
"The amount of work depends of course on the concert, but interest continues to grow as the club gets more established," Sardan said.
Tourists flock to the Berlin club, and several of the genre's international stars have turned up on the program. Herbie Hancock, for instance, played the small but intimate venue with space for about 100 people. A-Trane's guests can look forward to a good cross-section of jazz and a mix of familiar and unknown names on stage.
The club has solid footing, says Sardan: "A-Trane is a club that will still be adapting to the times in a hundred years from now."
So far, it's been able to thrive without any sponsorship.
Is jazz in crisis in Germany?
"I don't think at all that jazz is dying out," said Christiane Böhnke-Geisse. "It's changing, and, in my view, a person shouldn't make the mistake of saying: That's not jazz anymore."
Young musicians try out new styles and popularize their take on the genre. Those within Germany's scene can also be glad that the country enjoys a certain degree of cachet for jazz abroad, including in the US and Eastern Europe.
Looking east, Sardan sees a great deal of potential. "They have a lot to catch up on that they missed in the past. Now they really want to and are really going after it. I see an incredible amount of movement there."
Böhnke-Geisse points out that it's gotten tougher for American artists to get established in Europe because the continent has its own increasingly thriving scene. But that's just one more reason for jazz musicians from the US to try and reach German ears.
Unterfahrt, Domicil and A-Trane survive thanks to the enthusiasm of their proprietors, in whatever form they take. But they also live from the dynamism of jazz, a genre that continues to re-invent itself.