OFN Home

Moers International New Jazz Festival : 12-15 May 1978

During the latter part of the 1970s, the premier new music festival in the world was presented at Moers, Germany. Their lineup was a litany of nearly every major musician playing in the style pioneered in the 1960s by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. These fathers of freedom passed on the baton to a second, angrier generation of creative artists who were not content with stairstep integration, passive resistance, or status quo. They wanted it immediately, and the music reflected this attitude. European musicians adopted this intensity and between them, the music of the day was an exciting and dynamic portrayal of the unsettling time.

In 1978, I was living in Nassau, Bahama Islands and decided to make the trek to Germany after reading the Coda review of the 1977 event. Armed with a ticket on Icelandic Airlines and a burning desire to see and hear improvised music after a two-year diet of Caribbean island rhythms, I arrived in Moers to find a campsite and musical event that was the equivalent of Woodstock. A field of sleeping bags, tents, and army fatigue-clad aging hippies with ponytails greeted me as I made a pre-festival tour of the venue. I must have been the only one of the huge throng of fans who had a hotel room. People came from all over Europe to see these artists, and it truly was the equivalent of rock's Woodstock. The event lasted from Friday night through Monday night. In between were concerts that started at 10:30 in the morning and went well past midnight when the planned timing each day went awry. It rained for most of the open-air event, although no one lost his or her enthusiasm. Amid a sea of mud was a crowd totally enamored with the artists and their creativity. We sat on the soggy ground for four days living on a diet of German beer and bratwurst and never complained. Interspersed in this article are pages from the festival program. The text is naturally in German, but the list of musicians is a tantalizing mix that still amazes me when I look through it and see the wealth of artists who today are easily recognizable by any improvised music fan.

Friday night was a four-concert evening and included the prime reason I made the trip. Cecil Taylor was on the bill. The program opened with the Willem Breuker Kollektief in all its humorous glory and included musicians who today are still a part of that illustrious group. Leroy Jenkins Trio featuring Anthony Davis and Andrew Cyrille followed in a demonstrative display of intense artistry.

The hard driving European Jazz Quintet with Alan Skidmore and Gerd Dudek were next and warmed up the shivering crowd that was anxiously anticipating the Cecil Taylor Sextet. Taylor presided over his session in all his iconic glory. He was remarkable, and his sextet was a legendary mix of amazing artists. Ronald Shannon Jackson is actually the drummer, although he is listed in the program as Ron Johnson.

What a start! Not only was I exposed to some of the top improvising artists in Europe, I had the extremely rare chance to see and hear Cecil Taylor. The next morning, I encountered Taylor in my hotel lobby and had the equally exciting experience of talking about the music with him. He was en route to the Black Forest of Germany to practice and then record. I was naively surprised that a master of his level needed to practice. The outcome was the MPS gem Cecil Taylor Live in the Black Forest recorded June 3, 1978. I even was offered an invitation to lunch with him if I ever visited New York. I suppose the offer is still open. While in Germany, Taylor also recorded One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye on June 14, 1978 at Stuttgart with the same group.

Saturday was the first full day of events, starting with the percussively serene Double Image as the morning show and followed by the wildly boisterous Trio Manus, a local group that played vigorously in the freest form possible.

The talent-laden Phillip Wilson Quartet with Olu Dara and Frank Lowe were next up in a set that was subsequently issued on the Moers label as Live at Moers Festival.

Following them was the microtonal experimentation of the Günter Christmann / Detlef Schönenberg Duo with electronics added by Harald Bojé.

Hard bop proponent Terumasa Hino led his quartet through a fairly straightforward session, followed by the Guido Mazzon Precarious Orchestra that featured Radu Malfatti and that identifiable Italian style that combines free playing with melodic folksong structure.

The feature of the evening was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, giving a masterful performance of Great Black Music to captivate the soul. I still have the AEC T-shirt I purchased from Roscoe Mitchell.

It was getting harder to make the early morning session, but the thought of seeing George Lewis in duet with Douglas Ewart forced me out of bed and to the festival grounds on Sunday morning. Lewis's electronics-infused music was new to me and not as accessible as it would be today. It was still raining when the noon act of Theo Jörgensmann Quartet took the stage.

To match the storm, the Peter Brötzmann Septet took charge at two o'clock. Europe's premier players graced the stage—Derek Bailey, Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, a return of Willem Breuker—it was a dream group and included the unlisted trombonist Paul Rutherford. Bass clarinets dominated the wild and wooly scene. The most ambitious project of the festival followed. Anthony Braxton amassed a huge array of talent for his Creative Music Orchestra. Amid a driving rainstorm, the 23 musicians (a veritable who's who in jazz) created a gale of their own with a spectacular display of interactive response to Braxton's stimuli.

In 1999, I was in Antwerp, Belgium and heard Vinny Golia and his tribute to John Carter. During the intermission, I talked with Vinny. We reminisced about this 1978 Moers Festival and his part in the Braxton orchestra, but the most dominant memory for Vinny was the horrible weather. The band, of course, was under cover, but he was amazed at the tenacity of the crowd that sat spellbound through the Creative Music Orchestra performance during that rainstorm.

What seemed to be an out-of-place booking followed. Although I had loved Art Blakey's music since I first heard the 1958 gem Moanin', the hard-driving drummer's style was not an easy fit with the atonal and freely played sounds that dominated the festival. Charles Bobo Shaw followed with his Human Arts Ensemble. With Joseph Bowie on trombone, the band took off in rhythmic fashion to the delight of the crowd.

The closing act on Sunday night was a stellar quartet of Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Paul Lytton, who put on an incredible display of collective and spontaneous improvising.

The last day of the festival again started bright and early. It was Whit-Monday, the Pentecostal holiday in Germany and the logic behind the timing of the festival. Wadada Leo Smith's trio with Bobby Naughton and Dwight Andrews provided the wake-up call of serene vibes and trumpet meshed with ambitious reeds. Blasverbot, a solid quartet led by Teddy Biesterfeld, succeeded them.

Buschi Niebergall led a trio playing quietly exciting and ethereal music. They preceeded the much-anticipated return of Anthony Braxton, this time with his quartet featuring Ray Anderson and the dynamic percussion of Thurman Barker. Their totally improvised set was non-stop, continuous interaction with a high degree of communication developed among the musicians.

One of the standout performances of the festival was given by Fred Anderson and his quintet showcasing George Lewis. It resulted in the LP Another Place, also issued on the Moers label. Equally exciting was the duo of John Surman and Albert Mangelsdorff in a crowd-pleasing set that would not end without a forced encore.

Closing the festival was the Lester Bowie Sextet, a group of big-name all-stars who combined improvised music with a bit of gospel and a bit of theater that made for a delightful ending concert. Arthur Blythe was commanding on tenor, and the interplay between the brothers Bowie was stimulating. It was a fun-filled program and a fitting ending to this staggering event.

Moers' place in the sun was not long-lived. New music festivals began to proliferate in Europe to compete with the success Moers enjoyed. Moers also contributed to its decline as a forerunner by altering its very successful new music formula through introduction of more electrified and fusion-based versions of the art form. Ah, but in the 1970s, this festival was unique and enjoyed the reputation of being king of the hill. My memories of that 1978 event are still vivid in my mind, and it remains one of my most cherished festivals.