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peter brötzmann | interview made by gérard rouy
August 2001. After spending a couple of hours at Peter Brötzmann’s home in Wuppertal and a night’s performance at Talklänge festival (Germany) to celebrate his 60th birthday (a duet with Albert Mangelsdorff, then joined by Louis Sclavis, Henri Texier and Aldo Romano in a quintet), I met Peter Brötzmann again at Jazz à Mulhouse festival (France) three days later. The festival displayed an exhibition of my photographs, “Blue Balls/Brötzmann”. Peter started to talk about lost friends, Buschi Niebergall, Harry Miller, Frank Wright… Interviewed and photographed by Gérard Rouy (August 21, 2001).
Peter Brötzmann: I like some of the old stuff in the exhibition. It was moving to me to see Buschi again among this, and to see Harry and Frank for example. Usually you are so busy with all the daily life work, that means travelling, playing, cleaning instruments, writing letters, doing phone calls, sending faxes, you don’t have the time or you don’t find the time to think back. But of course this exhibitition is a reason more to do that, and it’s really funny now being sixty years old and even our togetherness, our connection to each other, is already thirty years away so there is a lot to look back on. And sometimes you realise that you have much more time and years to look back on than to look at what’s coming up, so maybe I would say if my health is going on like this and everything is going well, I give me another ten years for example…
Maybe more… Maybe more but I think ten years is realistic, I don’t want to end up repeating things of the good old times and playing some weak shit. Then I hopefully have some good friends who can tell me, “Ah Brötzmann, take some brushes and paint!” I don’t want, I’ve seen some examples, at the end of their careers, it was not a pleasure anymore. I don’t want to end like that.
I met some good old friends, especially three of them who are dead, that’s Buschi, Harry Miller – two bass players, what has happened to the bass players ? – and Frank Wright of course. All three of them were good friends anyway, but in my ‘career’ important persons to meet. Beside being an excellent bass player, Buschi Niebergall was a very extraordinary guy.
He was a bit older than me and he had more experience travelling around, working with a lot of guys, a lot of famous guys even. He had a very philosophical background in a way so he could tell me a lot of things I didn’t know. We were hanging nights and nights in my place, on the kitchen table or in some bars, really all night long. Beside working with him, this was an important point for me, talking sometimes very intensively, because when Buschi started talking about life and the world and philosophy and whatever, it was hard to stop him, we had to buy so much beer that he finally fell asleep, but that happened very seldom in the early years.
The next experience was Harry Miller, another excellent bass player and I think we all miss him very much. He came out of another world, a Jewish background coming from South Africa – his family came from some part of the Black Sea – and working with all the South-African guys, knowing a lot about this type of music, about rhythms, he was such an intense guy by all meanings of the word. His way of life was very intense, his way of playing the same, and of course there was a very fantastic couple to have, him and Louis Moholo together. It’s really a shame that his accident ended not only his life but also the trio with Louis, which I think after the famous trio with Han Bennink and Fred Van Hove was another trio really starting to work very well.
And the third guy on the photographs being dead, Frank Wright, what to say? He was quite a crazy guy, in the best of all its meanings, strong, powerful and very, very good company for me. I think he was the first black man I really developed quite a deep friendship with, he showed me a lot, not only in playing – at the time we met we already could do our thing quite well and we had our in a way similar but on the other hand different way of playing the horn – but I think with the same energy, the same power and the same will of just keeping it going. Being in his company was very inspiring to me all the time.
Gérard Rouy: Fred Van Hove told me about a kind of musical match somewhere between the Frank Wright-Bobby Few-Alan Silva-Muhammed Ali quartet and the Brötzmann-Van Hove-Bennink trio. He even said the trio won…
Peter Brötzmann: I remember that we did it, I’m not sure about the winner or if there was or should have been a winner, but yeah we did it a couple of times, it must has been at least once at some German radio, maybe Bremen or Hamburg. Maybe they even have some tapes around, that would be an interesting thing for Mr John Corbett. He was here two years ago and was travelinng through all radio stations in Germany, he found that Fuck de Boer tape which I completely had forgotten. The group was four trombones and so, yeah, there must be a lot of things somewhere in archives. I just forgot about these things, but on the other hand you are always busy to think what’s coming next.
Gérard Rouy: Any other persons you miss among those pictures?
One another bass player, Fred Hopkins, I miss him very much. I’m working with and I know William Parker now since nearly twenty years and I liked him from the first tone he played on his bass. I liked his way of playing very much and I still do, and Fred had a completely different approach to the instrument so that was a very good contrast. He was such a beautiful person, such a gentleman, it’s a shame. Once for a short time we had a trio, Fred and Philip Wilson the drummer who was killed some five or six years ago; it’s a shame that we could not go on with that. But there will soon be out a record on Okka, an LP, real vinyl, from one of the last concerts Fred was doing, it was a trio in Atlanta Black Arts Festival from 1999, Fred, Hamid and myself, so finally we have at least this.
And another bass player, Jay Oliver. Sometimes I’m sitting somewhere smoking my cigar and thinking I have to be thankful that I’m still able to work, it’s going quite well I must say, and if the health is going on like that… It’s anyway very funny: already twenty years ago people were asking me: “OK, how long you think you can go on?” I always said I never thought about, in these years, it goes. But getting a little older you start to think about it, which is I think quite natural.
Gérard Rouy: Do you still have the idea of publishing all the trio tapes in a Brötzmann-Van Hove-Bennink CD box?
Peter Brötzmann: It should be on the market because wherever I go people are asking, “where can I get the Schwarzwald?, where can I get Nipples or Balls?” Nipples is available now. Looking back in history, after the world war it was an important time for European music, but even in the whole context of improvised music it was quite an important thing, so it would be good to have those two too. Of course the guy from Atavistic is very happy with the success of Nipples anyway, and he told me that the other production on Fuck de Boere is going very well, as well as the other CD of Alex’s quartet. It’s going at the moment and I think we shouldn’t waste time to use that good opportunity.
Gérard Rouy: How many copies of Nipples were sold?
Peter Brötzmann: In April-June it was 3000, in nearly half a year or three quarters of a year, which is great. I was happy, I could send everybody quite nice money. Of course it would be nice to have the trio box on my shelf and “look-at-that-what-we’ve-done”, I think it should be out to the public, especially to the young people in North America who are asking really for this because they have no idea of the early years, they never had the chance to listen to that. We’ll see…
Gérard Rouy: Do you hear some of your music in any today’s younger players?
Peter Brötzmann: I know one, I really think he has quite a future, that is this drummer I’m working with from time to time, Michael Wertmüller, the Swiss guy, he’s a very bright guy, and he has both sides, he studied composition in Berlin in the last years with Schnebel — besides Maurizio Kagel and Stockhausen maybe one of the most important German contemporary composers — and on the other hand he’s really a drummer, with a lot of energy. We did this year a couple of things that worked very well and I think he understands what it is about. Other guys I don’t know that much.
Gérard Rouy: I was thinking of younger reed players…
Peter Brötzmann: Younger, what means younger ? Mats is younger than me but he’s not young anymore. I’m not so keen on saxophone players. What they might be able to learn from me is that this kind of music is not a thing from today to tomorrow, it’s a really a music developing in longer terms, in really long terms. Mats understands this, Ken has it in his very American traditional way. I think hopefully I’m still able to give some of what I have learned a little bit further to some of the youngsters. But you know when I started the shit you know I was in the middle of my 20s.
And if you look around, if you listen to some music nowdays, I’m not so optimistic. I don’t mind if it’s a really completely different music, what we did was what we could do in these years from the sixties to the eighties/nineties to now. But I have the feeling that some of the young people I’ve met they think already, before they start playing, they think already about the product: how can we sell it? what shall I play so that I can find a little space in the market for this and that… ? And maybe my view is really very old fashioned nowadays, but I think art at any times needs time for development and this fast food bullshit is not working.
Gérard Rouy: Too many records, too fast?
Peter Brötzmann: Yeah and maybe you know how difficult it was for me to produce my first records, we had no money. At that time you needed a guy who had the machines, you needed engineers, everything was expensive, to press, and actually if you had the tape ready which already cost lots of money for our situation, the pressing was expensive, the whole thing was nearly impossible. But nowadays, if you have a couple of thousand marks together, you can do with little machines good recordings, the pressing is relatively cheap so everybody can do it and everybody of course wants to do it, wants to be on the market.
Yeah sure, everybody has the right to do it but on the other hand I think this development makes younger guys think: “if we are on the market we make it”. That’s it already, and of course that is not true, especially as the market is so because everybody is able to produce, it’s so big and so, I don’t know what I would say to younger guys: take your time, music is really a thing of long terms, actually it’s a lifelong thing to learn and to develop your own stuff.
Gérard Rouy: Do you think you developed your style in the direction you had in mind as a young man?
Peter Brötzmann: Of course when I was a young man I wasn’t so sure, when I started the things for examples with Kowald and then the other trios. It’s not a thing you can tell what you want to do, you have to work on it, and you have to surprise yourself all the time where it leads you, sometimes just a combination of the trio or quartet leads you to another thing, to another experience… But all in all, if you compare old recordings to the things I’m doing nowadays, I think the roots, the source, is the same, yes, of course. Hopefully I learnt and I handle things differently nowadays than I did twenty years ago. But it’s a kind of passion, or a kind of vision too which belongs not only to music, which belongs to your life, and that is quite the same in a way.
Gérard Rouy: The Chicago Tentet, do you want to keep it alive for a long time?
Peter Brötzmann: At the moment I could imagine it goes for some more years, it goes on like that yes, but you know my experience let’s say from the Globe Unity times, after some good years I think the guys develop in different directions and then that’s OK, then it’s over, but then you can think about other things, differents combinations. But at the moment I think we all are quite happy that the thing is going on a little bit, I mean nowadays is not the time anymore for a kind of Duke Ellington orchestra going on for a life long, that’s impossible and the whole industry changed so much that you just keep things like that going in shorter terms in a way, but as long as we all have the feeling we like to do it, we try yes, but it never should get a kind of institution.
Gérard Rouy: At home, do you still listen to your old jazz heroes?
Peter Brötzmann: Actually, in the last times I started buying CDs again, the old ones I lost or somebody stole or I don’t know. Just before I came down here, I found an old Coleman Hawkins which has on it just one piece I had on an EP, I surrender dear, it was a band called The Chocolate Dandies or something like that with Don Lammond on drums, Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, it’s really beautiful. I also have a very nice Don Byas compilation box with different bands, especially the duos with Slam Stewart: this kind of stuff I really still like. The new stuff or my comrades nowadays I hear on the festivals and concerts, then I mostly know what’s happening.
I also found some different versions of the Dizzy Gillespie big band at the time of Cubana Be Cubana Bop, or Woody Herman. Some of it, not all of it because there was a lot just made for dancing, they had to make their living out of that, but on the other hand there are very interesting things from the Woody Herman bands or especially Stan Kenton’s, very impressive. Maybe I’m busy with thinking about what can we do with the Tentet, maybe it brings me back a little bit more to bigger combinations of big bands.
Gérard Rouy: Did you listen to the Tristano school?
Peter Brötzmann: Oh yeah, sure. And a guy I discovered again recently, Art Pepper for example, there are some really good recordings there too. When we toured with Hamid and William, our driver Michael Ehlers from Eremite Records had a whole box of Art Pepper’s live recordings, that was really nice, you can hear sometimes some comments on how to do it or what to do, I think he was really a great player and very underrated. I don’t look for special things, I just find them.
Or if I go to the Völker Kunde Museum, the ethnic sources of African music. I’m more interested in African music than music from other parts of the world: I think that all that north western part of Africa and maybe going to Iran, Afganistan and the Mesopotamian countries. But it’s such a huge field so I just know a little bit, I buy some records and listen and find some good stuff. It sounds really very profane but I think the sources for good music are actually everywhere the same in a way and that’s why we are missing in our western capitalistic world.
I think I always was and I’m still interested in the social function of music too. I mean we can’t get things back, but on the other hand I think we are able to build up in our little circle some kind of communication which goes over the border, the limits of just music, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in for example the Tentet or in bigger groups or in playing with Mahmoud, things like that. I don’t believe in the world music business which is really getting a business and which I’m sure will destroy a lot of good old sources for the musicians from Africa and other so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries. I’m not a friend of putting things together and having some Africans playing drums behind some jazz band and this kind of shit, but just listening and sometimes meeting people and then finding out what’s possible, I think that’s what I would like to do.
Selected Recordings Peter Brötzmann