1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Peter Materna: 'The moment of surprise'

Rick FulkerApril 22, 2016

The Jazzfest Bonn has an unusual format and a notably international lineup. As the festival's two week season gets underway, its artistic director explains what makes the genre special.

Peter Materna. Photo: Lutz Voigtländer
Image: Lutz Voigtländer

Deutsche Welle: Recently, we were all shocked at the untimely death of jazz singer Roger Cicero. Did you know him personally?

Peter Materna: I knew him from my days in the "Bundesjazzorchester"(National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Germany). All of us in the community were deeply distressed that such a young person should leave us so soon. It's terrible! Many jazz musicians work themselves into the ground, giving little consideration to their health. Others learn how to cope with the stress. But what most have in common, is that they have to travel a lot.

The "Roger Cicero Jazz Experience" was to open this year's Jazzfest Bonn. Following his death, you managed a coup: Thomas Quasthoff will step in. The world knows him best in connection with German art song, the "Lied." I can hardly imagine a genre that is further removed from jazz, which puts so much emphasis on freedom. How does he manage to cross over into a totally different music world?

I really have an affinity for the way he sings jazz. He's technically brilliant, and his sound is totally mature. Sometimes jazz singers have a lot of dirt in the voice. Quite often, great singers make a practice of just scraping by the actual note. But Quasthoff is extremely poised, yet he can give his voice a lot of freedom in jazz arrangements. In the Thomas Quasthoff Quartet, Frank Chastenier plays the piano, with Dieter Ilg on double bass and Wolfgang Haffner doing percussion. They belong to the German jazz elite, so it will be a summit.

So we can dispense with the notion that, to sing jazz right, you have to sing it wrong and not hit the notes!

That also held true for Roger Cicero, whose singing was perfect and subtly nuanced.

You're a musician too. Does that help you when negotiating with artists?

The fact that I know how they live works to my advantage. Because we depend on sponsors and get very little in the way of public subsidies, we have to keep an eye on the budget. But looking at it from the other angle, I see this festival as promotion for freelance jazzers. We give them a platform - and through our media partnerships, they reach much bigger audiences. That helps them enormously.

Jazzfest Bonn - Gruppe Fats0. Photo: Jimmy Medellín
Flexible and fun: Fats0Image: Jimmy Medellín

What makes your jazz festival different from others?

The difference is that every night there's a double program, so the audience can take in two different acts. Many people find the dual package exciting. When they go home, they wonder: "Which one did I like most?"

For my part, I like the fact that this results in shorter acts. After 60 minutes, you've usually had enough and are ready for something different.

That can also work to the artists' advantage. After 20 minutes, they've warmed up, and after an hour or so, they've said what they had to say. There are many beautiful moments in these performances.

How do you select the artists?

Sometimes I'll take a look at older projects and ask the artist: "What are you doing now?" Not to interfere, but to reach out. Then I consider how a certain gig at a certain location on a certain day will fit the dramaturgy. I spend about half a year planning, juggling acts on note cards on a board, also taking other events into account, like the exhibitions planned in Bonn’s museums, looking for a connection to the act or the festival.

Does the audience consist mostly of passionate jazz fans?

Not only. We did a questionnaire, and 50 percent of those who answered were actually attending a jazz performance for the first time in their lives.

Bonn must be an unusual city.

An amazing 25 percent of Bonn’s population has a university education. It's the highest percentage of any city in Germany. It's an audience very open to the arts. Some love classical music, but through us, they discover jazz.

Which acts would you recommend to audiences abroad?

We're already sold out!

Jazzfest Bonn - Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus. Photo: CF-Wesenberg/kolonihaven.no
Endresen & Westerhus are on the playbill this timeImage: CF-Wesenberg/kolonihaven.no

All right, our users won't manage to get a hold of tickets anymore, but which artists are particularly interesting to international audiences?

What I find particularly exciting is the program with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Germany presenting compositions of its members. They were here two years ago, and I was totally spellbound. Lisa Bassenge surely has a great future. Sidsel Endreson from Norway is a highly sophisticated artist; her voice can create a unique atmosphere. Then there's the South American group Fats0, who can jump back and forth in incredible ways between jazz, blues and soul. Or Matt Herskowitz, a classical pianist originally, but listening to him, I just knew: "This guy is impossible to ignore!" Oh well, that applies to all of them!

Is it normal for this festival to be sold out?

Always! Tickets to some of the events are snapped up in two or three days. Two or three months after sales begin in December, the whole festival is usually sold out.

If you were put yourself in the position of an international broadcaster based in Germany whose audiences live in Kazakhstan, Nairobi or the Philippines and who offers exclusive recordings from the Jazzfest Bonn: why should DW do that?

It should definitely do that, because music dissolves borders. Jazz is actually rooted in a rather elitist, European classical tradition. That’s a part of our identity, and many jazz musicians once studied classical. Others started out in jazz and later explored their musical roots, studying Bach, for instance. But in any regard, it's a multi-cultural scene, all influencing each other. In these times of mass migration, jazz can bridge worlds. Where else can you find such a high degree of internationality as in this art form?

JazzFest Bonn 2012 Peter Materna. Photo: Jazzfest Bonn
The festival director is also a saxophonistImage: Peter Materna

On your program brochure, it says "The Magic of Jazz." What’s the essence of that magic?

The moment of surprise! You never know what's going to happen next. Each performance is unique and at a venue the musicians can't prepare for. At a concert of classical music, by contrast, you might be listening to a piece for the 20th, 30th or 40th time, so you can focus on certain lines or nuances. But with jazz, it's a cold shower! You find yourself wondering: "What was that!?!" With a Rembrandt painting on the wall, you might get a different impression of the colors, depending on the influx of light. But in jazz, it's not yellow, but green or blue. Jazz has its own traditions of course, and they are not to be ignored. But acceptance for new sounds is large among jazz fans.

It's said that the ear prefers the tried-and-true, the familiar. So are jazz fans particularly open-minded?

I think that’s a misunderstanding. Our ears are always searching for new sounds. As living beings, we are predestined to listen very sensitively. Over the course of history, we've learned to dig out classical works of art and polish them up. Rightly so. But while doing so, people have sometimes ignored contemporary trends. We're trying to make up for that.