′If it ain’t got that swing′: Paul Kuhn at 85 | Music | DW | 12.03.2013
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'If it ain’t got that swing': Paul Kuhn at 85

In one small step, German pianist and bandleader Paul Kuhn - who turns 85 on March 12 - went from child prodigy to swing legend. For 70 years he's been a fixture in the fields of Schlager and Jazz.

October 1972. Paul Kuhn – nicknamed "Paulchen" (meaning Little Paul) – was invited together with the SFB Big Band to the former Soviet Union to play three concerts in Moscow. After the soundcheck the band relaxed backstage, listening to the cries of anticipation from the auditorium. There was a delay because they didn't understand the cue for their stage entry in Russian, explained Rolf Römer, former saxophonist with the band. Kuhn however remained calm, eventually made it onstage and gave a highly acclaimed concert.

Characteristic composure

A good deal of composure is something Paul Kuhn – also nicknamed "The Man at the Piano" – has required several times in his lengthy, and often turbulent, career. A child prodigy, he was onstage at age eight playing accordion at the Internationale Funkausstellung (Berlin Radio Trade Show) in Berlin. In 1942 he discovered his passion for jazz after hearing the Glenn Miller Orchestra on BBC Radio.

That in itself was a dangerous act; in the Nazi era listening to foreign broadcasts was strictly forbidden and genres such as jazz regarded as "degenerate music." Making the best of a difficult situation, Kuhn somehow managed to bridge the gap between jazz fan and entertainer of German troops in France.

It was after the end of World War II that the Wiesbaden-born Kuhn was finally able to pursue his taste for jazz, playing concerts both on American-controlled radio and in jazz clubs for US servicemen. GIs stationed in Germany were impressed with the swing style of the energetic kid behind the piano, influenced by American pianists Art Tatum and George Shearing. 

Bilder Puhl Kuhn 80. Geburtstag

Kuhn in one of his many TV specials for SFB

A taste for jazz and Schlager

A jazz musician in the Germany of the 50s and 60s had to face the problem that simply playing concerts for the Allies wasn’t going to be especially lucrative. After six devastating years of war and during the "Economic Miracle" of the early 50s, Germans could again afford the better things in life; hearty food after years of near starvation, cars and foreign jaunts all served to improve the national mood. One track from Kuhn which tapped into the Zeitgeist of the day was "Geben Sie dem Mann am Klavier noch ein Bier" (Give the Man at the Piano another Beer), which went on to sell around 250,000 copies after its release in 1954.

The 1963 Schlager song "Es gibt kein Bier auf Hawaii" (There’s no Beer on Hawaii) also went on to be a best-seller and became as much a part of Kuhn's public image as the trademark gap between his front teeth. It was around this time that he began working as a producer, taking on mixing duties for the younger generation of Schlager stars including Ralf Bendix, Rocco Granata and Howard Carpendale.

A few years ago, in an interview with German newspaper "Die Welt," Kuhn went on the record to say that he was never embarrassed singing Schlager. Once asked whether he wanted a recording contract with a record label, Kuhn immediately said yes but was then disappointed to learn this would restrict him to singing only in German. Today he says if he could turn back the clock he'd have rejected the offer. Nonetheless, the contract did open doors – particularly to the then new world of German television.

Big band on TV

"My real instrument is the big band," Kuhn once said. In 1968 he accepted an irresistible offer from SFB (Sender Freies Berlin, the public radio and TV channel for West Berlin). For twelve highly successful years, he led the broadcaster's own Berlin-based big band. Kuhn's approach to conducting and arranging was heavily influenced by legendary American bandleader Count Basie, infusing the orchestra with a healthy dose of swing. It seems the swing-jazz habit is a hard one for Kuhn to kick; on stage three years ago to pick up his Lifetime Achievement trophy at the annual ECHO Music Awards, Kuhn quipped during his acceptance speech, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Bilder Puhl Kuhn 80. Geburtstag

Kuhn heading the internationally-renowned SFB Big Band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976

Musical professionalism and an infectious swing vibe made the SFB Big Band a local legend and an international institution, recognized worldwide as one of the highlights of the then divided city. The contract included three television broadcasts per year, and shows like "Paul's Party" and "The Gong Show" brought Kuhn and his band to their commercial and critical peak.

End of the Big Band and financial difficulties

But times change, and with them, tastes. By the end of the 70s, newer styles such as new wave, rock, punk and disco had outgrown the big band sound in popularity. SFB cancelled its professional connection with Kuhn, who bitterly called the decision "expulsion." In Cologne, he went on to found his own band and toured at gala events with the Ute Mann Singers, a vocal group founded by his wife, Ute.

Fitting the cliché that big stars are seldom good businessmen, the Kuhns were saddled with back-tax payments to the tune of 1 million Marks in the 1980's. The debts were settled within a couple of years.

Bilder Puhl Kuhn 80. Geburtstag

Still a visible personality in his 80s: Kuhn with wife Ute pose for the press in 2012

The Trio and The Best

In the early 90's Kuhn, by then losing his sight, reported to the dpa press agency that he had made a dream come true - touring again, this time as part of a trio. Up until two years ago he was part of the Jazz Legends tour, wowing crowds in concert venues around Germany alongside the likes of saxophonist Max Greger and clarinettist Hugo Strasser.

Turning age of 85 on March 12, and almost totally blind, Paul Kuhn shows no sign of slowing down. An anniversary tour with the Babelsberg Film Orchestra is well underway, and his birthday is being commemorated with a new album, "The L.A. Session," recorded in the legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles where musical heavyweights such as Frank Sinatra cut some of their most popular discs.

"Old Blue Eyes" is someone Paul Kuhn, in his long career, never managed to meet. But he takes the disappointment with a characteristic pinch of salt - something he's done during his entire, seventy year career.