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Dutch Swing college Band
Image: DW/S. Rheinbay

Jazz for Kids on tour

Stefan Rheinbay/gnb
December 13, 2013

Music lessons are hard to come by in German schools. Hoping to change that is the Dutch Swing College Band, introducing students to jazz music as it should be - live.


"I've always loved this kind of music, that's why I’ve stuck with it so long." It's 9 o'clock in the morning and already 74-year-old Bob Kapers is standing with his clarinet in the wardrobe of the Mülheim town hall. Dressed in a suit and tie, the Dutch musician is warming up his instrument prior to a show for schoolchildren. "I've been with the same ensemble for 44 years; the Dutch Swing College Band," he laughs, still with no intention of retiring. "We play upbeat music that isn't as difficult to understand as some modern jazz." While the genre itself has developed and changed over the years, the world's oldest jazz band sticks defiantly with an old time sound. The Dixieland harmonies aren't as complex, says Bob, and the melodies are simpler, which makes it more accessible for youngsters. And that's what led to the legendary Dutch band's current tour of Germany.

Raising the profile of jazz

The program "Jazz in the College" is being presented in five schools in the Mülheim region as part of a local music festival.

In the foyer several different school ensembles are already playing, but all pupils are looking forward to the appearance of the professionals. "Listening to music is as important as drinking water," says Bob Kapers, "The situation in Holland is definitely worse than it is in Germany. Young people there often have no idea what jazz is. That's why with these school concerts we're trying to make it more popular. The kids have to experience it live."

Dutch Swing college Band
Students try their hand at playing live jazzImage: DW/S. Rheinbay

Around 1000 pupils enter the hall with their music teachers, eagerness on their faces giving way to something resembling terror after the announcement that cell phones are banned during the concert. After a welcome speech by the town's mayor, life seems to return to the assembled audience.

Free-form and standards

Then the musicians of the Dutch College Swing Band take over. Three of them are around 30 years old, the others could well be the grandfathers of the assembled pupils. But nevertheless there is a youthful exuberance to their performing.

The show opens with the inevitable standard, "Oh When the Saints". The musicians then introduce each of their individual instruments with short solos; trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone and the rhythm section made up of banjo, drums and bass.

Together the musicians play an unusually free-form section. Bandleader Bob Kapers wants to show that "jazz isn't senseless tootling" by letting the other musicians play freely around him. "We could just carry on like this," he says with a grin, as the piece meets with an enthusiastic reception from the schoolchildren. Instead the band launches into one Dixieland hit after another. The long-winded introduction to each song by the representative of the local jazz initiative is something the increasingly annoyed students find totally unnecessary but bandleader Bob soon whisks them off again with his music. New Orleans jazz may be antiquated, but it is admirably played here.

Dutch Swing college Band
Dutch Swing College Band, the world's oldest jazz comboImage: Roy Beusker

The music of freedom

"Jazz is the music of freedom," Bob Kapers explains to the students. Their town indeed has a remarkable tradition in this context. "In New Orleans after the Civil War, Dixieland was an expression of liberation from slavery for many Afro-Americans. And for us in Holland, it also represented a liberation signaling the end of the Nazi occupation."

The Nazis regarded swing as "nigger music" and as the epitome of "Jewish-Negroid infiltration." They chose not to interfere with the vibrant jazz culture of the Netherlands however, so the Dutch Swing College Band was able to start relatively problem-free in 1945.

But in post-war Germany, whether East or West, jazz was still frowned upon. German chancellor Konrad Adenauer expressed a preference for male vocal choirs instead while East German head of state Walter Ulbricht derided jazz as "monkey music".

"Who would have guessed," Kapers asks the students, "That after the war the first efforts to have jazz openly recognized started right here in Mülheim?" And indeed it was in this relatively nondescript city on the Ruhr river that the German Jazz Federation was founded in 1952 in which "all clubs and individuals seriously concerned with jazz" were invited to unite. The main aim of the group however was to have jazz recognized as a cultural form.

Ausstellung Entartete Musik
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at a "degenerate art" exhibitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Harsh criticism

The fact that the Dutch College Swing Band aims to prevent jazz from becoming extinct with their "Jazz in the College" series fits well into Mülheim's historical picture. But criticism from the audience isn't ignored. One teacher said it was unfortunate that "Jazz is associated with old men representing an out of date musical genre." Such initiatives can't hide the fact that music lessons hardly take place in German schools any more, said another.

"Ultimately this is just a drop in the ocean," agreed pianist Martin Johnson, who runs a similar project in the state of Baden-Württemberg. He criticized the decision to outsource music lessons nationwide to music schools. "With prices in the region of 90 euros ($122) a month for a lesson a week, it's just not affordable for many families. This trend is also coming to comprehensive schools, and children simply don't have any more time," he said.

But as bandleader Bob Kapers says, kids should always take time out for music. "This isn't about us,” he says, "This is about the music…and the music mustn't die!"

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