REPORT: A Trip to Jazzfest Bonn and to Cologne

A major Bonn landmark, the Post Tower
illuminated during  Jazz Fest Bonn 2017
Photo © Deutsche Post DHL Group, reproduced with their permission

Jazzfest Bonn was the focus of a press trip for journalists from Austria, Holland,  Nigeria, the UK and the US to Bonn and Cologne. Sebastian was one of the lucky group of seven to make the trip, and summarizes what he saw, heard, tasted and thought - in the form of an A to Z:  

A is for the Asparagus season. (Spargel in German). The Germans have a much stronger sense of the changing seasons than we do, and early May was a good time to be visiting Bonn. The tree-lined avenues planted around 1750 with chestnut trees were in full blossom – red and white – in the early summer sunshine. And asparagus seemed to be in profusion, with many varieties in the stalls of the market square. And when Germans put their minds to something, they tend to make sure it gets done properly ("ordentlich"). Like an asparagus menu:

"Asparagus time"
A full asparagus menu including soup, salad and a burger.

B for Jazzfest Bonn. This press trip was mainly centred around three double-bill concerts at different venues in this ninth edition of JazzFest Bonn, which in total has 24 concerts in 12 double-bills spread across four weekends.

B is also for the Brotfabrik in Beuel. The festival uses all kinds of different venues. One of them was the Brotfabrik (bread factory), an arts centre in Beuel, the only district of Bonn on the east bank of the Rhine, the other side from the historic city.

C for Philip Catherine who played at the Brotfabrik. The London-born Belgian guitarist was in his duo with bassist Martin Wind, the pair producing an elegant and civilised conversation.

C is also for Centenaries – and also, cheating a bit – one very big 'Sester-centennial' - or should that be  Bicenquinquagenary (?)  in 2020. (See M for the latter and N, U and Z for the former)

C is also for the depth and breadth of the cultural offering in the region. That was the strongest impression from the trip – that there is a massive amount going on, well linked into education and the broadcasting set-ups. The discourse one hears often is that "it's not what it was back in the day"... but other countries can look on and admire the level of commitment to culture. So this C could also be for my Conclusion.

D is for the Brooklyn-based Canadian bandleader and arranger Darcy James Argue. He wasn’t involved in the Bonn festival but will have an interesting and prominent role later this year at the new European Centre for Jazz and Improvised Music (see E) based at the Stadtgarten. Darcy James Argue will not just direct programmes involving groups such as the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, he will also have the mission to reflect upon, comment and evaluate the state of the creative music scene in Cologne.

D is also for DM Drogerie Markt, that well-run and indispensable store chain where all the essentials are to be found when in Germany. In my case, and nothing to do with the music... ear plugs.

E is for the European Center for Jazz and Contemporary Music. (LINK). (See S)

Lage Lund Trio at the Brotfabrik
Photo courtesy of Jazzfest Bonn

F is for Justin Faulkner, the powerful drummer in Lage Lund’s New York-based trio, replacing (for some reason) the advertised Johnathan Blake. Faulkner first came to my attention in Branford Marsalis' group. I always find his work fascinating but others on the press trip thought he over-dominated. Lage Lund meanwhile lived up to an old quote from Nate Chinen: "His playing and presence can both be casually magnetic."

G is for Haus der Geschichte – House of History (see also X) was a very good venue. This museum is part of Bonn’s “Museum Mile”. It has a superb auditorium and presented a double bill of Julia Biel’s quartet plus Wolfgang Haffner’s quartet. Like all the other gigs in the festival (NB), this one was sold out.

H is for Wolfgang Haffner (see Q).

I is for Inga Lühning. This German singer was the first ever performer at the first Bonn Jazz Festival and appeared again in the auditorium of the Beethoven Haus with bassist André Nendza. They chose interesting songs, built them into a varied and entertaining programme, and it was good to be reminded how the songs of Franz Josef Degenhardt have become imprinted on the German consciousness.

J is for two very different Julias.

Julia Biel's set built to satisfying conclusion with an upbeat Nina Simone Feeling Good which gave each of her band a chance to solo and then Catching Breath which allowed the audience to join in some call and response singing. A popular choice for a Saturday night at the Haus der Geschichte. And, rare for a British artist, Julia Biel was able to do her announcements in German.

Julia Hülsmann and Christopher Dell
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender / JazzFest Bonn

Julia Hülsmann. A performance in Bremen in 2017 was described by Richard Williams (here) as having "quiet poise, purity and radiance." Those words would describe her new composition Weit Weg (far away) which was the solo spot in her first-ever duo performance with vibes player Christopher Dell (see also P). Hülsmann is Bonn-born, and has family in the city. She is a major figure in German jazz both as musician and politically astute advocate, and her native city and its jazz festival are justifiably proud of the association with her.

K is for the KLAENG Collective. During the trip we met drummer Jonas Burgwinkel and saxophonist Niels Klein who are both members of this influential Cologne-based group of musicians which also includes Pablo Held.

The sign outside an important venue,
the Loft in Cologne

L is for the Loft. A great little venue and recording studio in Cologne which was founded by Hans Martin Müller, a musician utterly devoted to helping the scene among creative musicians in the city and to ensure that they would have a good welcoming venue. It is now co-run with his son Dr. Urs Benedikt (Benny) Müller. There is even sleeping accommodation to make things as easy as possible for the musicians.

M is for two significant figures in the Rhineland jazz scene, Reiner Michalke and Peter Materna.

Reiner Michalke is Artistic Director of the Stadtgarten, and has been a stalwart organisations such as the Europe Jazz Network. (See E and S)

Peter Materna, a saxophonist, was the instigator, and is the Artistic Director of JazzFest Bonn. (see also B)

M is also for Moonlight Sonata. Bonn is the city of Beethoven's birth in 1770. "City of Beethoven" proclaim the leaflets from Bonn information. We were taken round the Beethoven birthplace Museum, where Beethoven's collection of ear trumpets from the period of his deafness resides. The crown jewels of the collection of its manuscript collection are its manuscript scores, notably the Moonlight Sonata. but it is a huge digitally archived collection. The house is gearing up for the 250th BHTVN2020. The collection had its biggest deposit of archive material from a Swiss (medical) doctor who qualified but was never in practice, Hans Conrad Bodmer (1891-1956), who dedicated his adult life to acquiring Beethoven manuscripts and whose will left his entire collection to the Beethoven=Haus.

N is for saxophonist Niels Klein. He was there to tell us about things going on at the BundesJazzOrchester (BuJazzO) where he shares the artistic directorship with Jiggs Whigham, and is also leading the orchestra’s most ambitious project to date, a concert programme accompanying silent films with Bauhaus resonances to mark the centenary of the Bauhaus. It has already been performed at the annual Kurt Weill Festival in Dessau, instigated by the director (until recently) Michael Kaufmann who also commissioned Carla Bley’s Christmas Carols during his time in Essen. (See also K and U)




is for the fact that Bonn is the Old Capital city of Germany and has had to re-discover and re-orient itself since the capital city moved to Berlin. It was "Bundeshauptstadt" and now has a special status as "Bundesstadt." (federal city). Bonn (we were told by the very well-informed tourist guide) is a relatively small town with 320,000 inhabitants was the German capital from 1949 until 1991. There has been a coherent plan around five objectives to give it an identity and economic viability

1) A Federal City. While the seat of government moved to Berlin, a significant proportion of the staff of 14 different ministries stayed behind.
2) An international city with 19 United Nations organisations
3) A city for science and research base, based around the presence of the university.
4) A "forward-thinking economy" base with the major employers being Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post DHL and the University (See also T)
5) Culture (see C)

P is for Plötzlichkeit (suddenness) a solo piece by vibraphonist Christopher Dell which had two outings at the festival. He played it once in the restrained context of his duo with Julia Hülsmann and again as a contrasting moment of repose in the set he played as a member of Wolfgang Haffner's more extrovert set. Dell is a true polymath. He went to Berklee on a scholarship, won a Downbeat Allstar Award and the Gary Burton Jazz Award but these days also has a different life when he puts his four mallets away. For example, he has a professorial chair in Hamburg where his full and rather glorious title is "Professor for Urban Forms of Knowledge, Organisation Theory and Relational Forms of Practice".

Wolfgang Haffner
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender / JazzFest Bonn

Q is for the Quartet of drummer Wolfgang Haffner. Whereas his new album for ACT, Kind of Spain, is populated with Swedes, eg Lars Danielsson and Jan Lundgren, his working German band playing mostly the same material in their set at the Haus der Geschichte are all old colleagues, and their set was a happy celebration of their deep and long-lasting friendships. There is much of the finesse and showmanship (and nothing of the overweening ego) of Buddy Rich about Haffner's playing. He generates enthusiasm, warmth respect for his colleagues, and received one standing ovation after another.

R is for the Rhine. The vast waterway with its huge barges is always there in the background in the two cities of Bonn and Cologne. Paths, vistas, space to breathe.

S is for the Stadtgarten (see also E). Back in the late 1970s, the City of Cologne gave a rent-free concession to a group of creative musicians to run and operate the Stadtgarten, an 1890s building at the centre of a small urban park. It has a 24-hour licence. "Our curfew is the arrival of the cleaners at 8am," we were told. There was a construction project in the mid-1980's to create a venue with seated capacity of 200 and standing capacity of 400. The transformative element in recent years was the decision in 2016 by the region of North-Rhine Westphalia and the City of Cologne to endow the venue with a significant annual grant to operate as  The European Center for Jazz and Contemporary Music. (See also E)

T is for “Telebonn”, a nickname for Bonn because Deutsche Telekom is the largest employer in the city. Bonn is also present in the name of Haribo sweets. The inventor of the Gummy Bear in 1922 was... Hans Riegel (from) Bonn.

U is for Gerhard Ullmann. The saxophonist, born in Bad Godesberg just next to Bonn is one of the varied group of composers who have been commissioned by BuJazzO to write music to accompany silent film in an ambitious project to celebrate of the centenary of the Bauhaus (See N). The work was performed at JazzFest Bonn but after our tour ended. Other composers who have been commissioned for this project include Julia Hülsmann, Christopher Dell, Ansgar Striepens, and Bill Dobbins, with Niels Klein also composing and co-ordinating the project. It will be performed at the festivals in Rochester (Eastman School is also involved) and Toronto and Ottawa.

U is also for Bonn's University which was founded in 1818, has 38,000 students, has buildings all over town and is a significant employer. (See O)

V is for Verona, the Roman name for Bonn. Bonn and Cologne were both cities in Roman times and there is a strong sense of history.

W is for broadcasters WDR and for Deutsche Welle. JazzFest Bonn works with local TV and radio broadcasters. The concerts are mostly filmed and were MC'd by Thomas Hayek. In more general terms the broadcasters are a strong extra pillar in building awareness of the cultural offer, and with, for example, their orchestras, big band, cultural programming and awards... being a major part of it.

X is for Exhibitions. We had a very full programme and if I have one regret it was that I wished I could have made the trip to a museum dedicated to a very great artist from Bonn, August Macke. Another time (see also G and C)

Promenade by August Macke
in the collection of the Lenbachhaus Munich
Public Domain

Y is for Yellow. The brand colour of Deutsche Post DHL. The big locally-headquartered businesses are sponsors of JazzFest Bonn (see also O and T)

Z is for Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose centenary falls this year. There is a post-war composer tradition in Cologne – with Stockhausen and Kagel for example – and Zimmermann’s most famous work, Die Soldaten, has just had a new production in Cologne which has created quite a buzz. People we met talked about the massive scale of opera funding in the German cultural world. Stats from 2011 had 84 German Opera houses and an average subsidy per ticket of EUR100. The targeted support given to the Stadtgarten to help develop their programme and to be a European focal point – is it not ever thus in jazz? – looks like money well spent.

Sebastian's visit to Cologne and Bonn was organised by the NRW International Culture Secretariat. 

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