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Mike Heffley
Northern Sun, Southern Moon : Europe's Reinvention Of Jazz
(Yale University Press)

Gifted with an imaginative thesis—the migration of innovative free music from the African-American community of the United States and its adoption and mutation by Europeans—Mike Heffley’s book encompasses interviews, analysis, musicology, and philosophical concepts. Unfortunately, the academic emphasis makes some of it a hard slog for the lay reader. Often non-linear, as benefits a book on free jazz, the narrative is so discursive at points that it resembles those John Coltrane solos where the variations so outdistanced the theme as to almost make the head an afterthought.

Heffley, who has a PhD in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, has over the past quarter-century worked as a writer and editor—his previous (1996) book was The Music of Anthony Braxton—as an educator, teaching both music and creative writing, and as an improvising trombonist, most prominently with Braxton. Northern Sun, Southern Moon is the first comprehensive English language study of what Heffley terms European jazz’s Emanzipation; the period after the 1960s when local jazz musicians went beyond the previously paramount American influence to shake off centuries of Western music conventions and create unique sounds. As French bassist Didier Levallet says, “With the advent of free jazz the breakdown of forms believed to be eternal opened the door to all possibilities… the lesson the ‘new music’ taught us was to finally become ourselves.” Taking his cues from psychiatry and sociology as well as musicology, Heffley describes the change as empowerment or, more theatrically, “kill the fathers”.

Although the book’s subtitle is Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, the author’s attention is more focused. While he devotes some space to innovations in the rest of Europe, including the former Eastern Bloc, his concentration is on Germany, both its western, and—most definitely before the fall of the Berlin Wall—its eastern section. Described by some as a Utopia of free jazz, Germany was where entire outside music festivals flourished while even individual concerts were sparsely attended elsewhere in Europe.

A series of socio-political considerations were responsible for this situation, explains Heffley, who intertwines the growth of the seminal free jazz label FMP plus mini-portraits of about a dozen or so pioneering free jazzers to make his point. According to his thesis—which is buttressed or diverted by secondary information, so frequently do multiple footnotes decorate these pages—Germany, at least since J.S. Bach, has been the center of Europe, and thus of contemporary serious music.

Brushing off the assertion that one free jazz center, Germany’s Ruhr Valley region, was with its agricultural economy and peasant population “something like the American South”, he’s on firmer ground when he points out that African-American saxophone and brass traditions that fed directly to jazz—and gave German musicians a base against which to rebel—itself grew out of the brass bands prominent in the U.S. before the beginning of the 20th century. Fascinatingly, the loudest and most accomplished players then were of German origin, he states.

After the Second World War, when Nazi xenophobia tainted previously glorified Teutonic music associations, the German tradition of self-criticism dating back to Goethe found an outlet in improvised sounds. Simultaneously a strain of anti-Americanism, which reached a pitch in the 1968 leftist student uprising throughout the continent, and especially in Germany, solidified this focus on distinctive free jazz.

These manifestations took different forms, as his profiles attest. German trombone master Albert Mangelsdorff, for instance, started off as a mainstreamer, and after a free flirtation, has returned to his roots. Pianist Joachim Kühn, whose church musician associated upbringing in Leipzig historically links him to Bach, mixes a strain of romanticism into his work—an outgrowth of a long residency in France. His earliest recorded work bordered on free form and he is the only pianist to have recorded in duo with free jazz avatar saxophonist Ornette Coleman. But—and Heffley’s linkages between Bach and Coleman gives weight to this—it’s likely the Texas saxophonist valued Kühn for his non-free jazz conception. Certainly most of his other work has bounced among modern new music, jazz-rock, and contemporary jazz with so-called classical inferences. Interestingly enough, both Mangelsdorff and Kühn achieved American fame long before any of the others profiled here.

More generic to the tome are the careers of saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and pianist/band leader Alexander von Schlippenbach, who are among the founding fathers of West German free jazz. Schlippenbach, like vibist/reedist Günter Hampel, who also figures in the tale, was one of the German hard boppers converted to free sounds in the 1960s—and who has stayed true to them ever since. Spiritual and philosophical, his Globe Unity Orchestra, which has existed on-and-off for three decades, was a non-hierarchical, collective big band dedicated to the universality of free music, matching organized arrangements with the talents of Europe’s top improvisers.

With influences ranging from pan-Germanism and other ethnic sounds, contemporary classical echoes and standard jazz—as a pianist Schlippenbach was impressed by Oscar Peterson as well as Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor—the band’s performances and records were as often frustrating as triumphant. Mostly now the pianist concentrates on trio work with British saxophonist Evan Parker, among others.

Referring to Brötzmann, Parker has said, “…the music [is an] expression of a way of life. On-stage, off-stage, it’s all one thing: an intensity of experience which has to be communicated. Peter embodies that…”  If anyone symbolically couples what the author calls “the barbaric spirit of the Northern forests” that flourished in German pre-history with the unbridled freedom of avant-jazz, it’s the Wuppertal-based saxophonist. Growing up in what was then a small town removed from the action, Brötzmann’s involvement in leftist politics and the Fluxus art movement helped him evolve “a sound so big and dirty that one note implied within it all the notes in the octave”. His first LPs, Machine Gun and ForAdolphe Sax, defined his—and many other Continental improvisers’—go-for-broke, try-anything aesthetic, which in a multitude of settings from solo to big band with fellow international players, he’s maintained until today.

The heart and most fascinating part of the book however, is shaped around telling the back-story of the members of East Berlin’s Zentral Quartet: pianist Ulrich Gumpert, self-described Saxon drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer, saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrovsky and trombonist Konrad Bauer, who started as a rock singer with a large youth audience which, incredibly, he brought along with him to free music.  Facing a pseudo-Stalinist culture that supported so-called socialist realism like sanctioned Gebraunchmusik, or “useful music”, over free expression, their situation was much different than that of free jazzers in prosperous West Germany. Paradoxically, this led to government support as often a repression, since jazz was as often seen as reflecting a cry against racism and decadence, with its Nazi era echoes. Fittingly, Heffley explores the pre-free roots of East German jazz in comprehensive details, mentioning almost-forgotten gigs, LPs, band leaders, art, literary and threatre influences, and visionary soloists.

“East Germans were not only less worried about being seen as imitators of Americans, they were also less guilt-ridden about their own German history,” he writes. When translated into free music, this added a Teutonic strain—a variation of East German blues referred to as “Afro-Slavic soulmating” plus a use of old Germanic hymns as a basis for improvisation—that had been ignored and self-suppressed by West Germans. With visits by Western players and East-West collaborations more common, regular concerts broadcast on the state-supported radio networks and series of East German LPs on FMP available, East German musicians’ profiles rose. Acclaim and steady work, first in Eastern Bloc countries, then West Germany and the rest of Europe eventually appeared.

Although theoretical—Gumpert states “for me there is no such thing as GDR [German Democratic Republic i.e. East Germany] jazz”—the situation for free jazzers in the GDR changed with unification. With Western commerce in all its manifestations replacing state support, Gumpert and Petrovsky, the latter of whom said ironically before the fall of the Berlin wall that jazz musicians “didn’t have enough problems”, are now often mere jobbing musicians, the latter concertizing with his pop-jazz-gospel singing wife. Sommer has a teaching position and often tours, whereas Bauer is a festival fixture throughout Europe and North America. “It does seem clear that Petrovsky and Gumpert enjoyed relatively more fulfillment than frustration of their gifts in the GDR, that Sommer and Bauer were more chafers at the bit, and that the latter are having an easier time of it now that the bit is removed,” Heffley notes.

Leaving aside this important reportage and analysis, the rest of Northern Sun, Southern Moon links to earlier sections and becomes progressively more theoretical and academic. Seemingly intent on wrapping every musical current into the volume, Heffley uses German bassist Peter Kowald’s many international musical alliances as the lead-in to a necessarily cursory discussion of non-Western improv and its links to earlier Western music. “It seemed to me that the more people try to make something that is new to them, the further back they go into the depths of time, to the old, in their own sphere,” he writes. This theory, however, sounds like it could be the basis for an entire other volume of work.  Like Petrovsky and Gumpert in their milieu, it appears that the author has “relatively more fulfillment than frustration of [his] gifts” when writing about the GDR than the twists and turns of free jazz as part of the global commercial music business.

Additionally, a thickset of charts, graphs, and tables begins haunting the pages around this time. Earlier on, and in these sections, his discursive detours into historical, social, political, and cultural contexts of the music slows down the narrative, and as the chapters unroll the non-specialist begins to feel guilty for not possessing a thorough knowledge of the theories of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin among many others. Especially in the expository, rather than the descriptive sections, Heffley sometimes falls prey to cumbersome overwriting. For instance, one obtruding run-on sentence is 138 words [!] in length. Furthermore words like “hetarchy”, “individuation”, and “liberatory” aren’t in most persons’ vocabularies. Conversely, although at times they distract from the narrative, Heffley’s minute analysis of important free jazz sessions adds to the significance of this volume.

At his best—when dealing with German free music—Heffley has produced a ground-breaking and insightful volume. Non-specialists may wish, however, that there wasn’t so much rococo decoration around its solid core.