Let me tell you a secret. Hamburg has a well-guarded gem: Jazz. As a seaport, the city has always embraced the mélange of different people and influences. Its musical scene has been shaped by those passing through as much as by those who stayed: Brahms with his prodigious sonatas, the British forces with their wicked jazz, and the Beatles with their humble origins. The music landscape has been strongly influenced.
For some, jazz has simply become synonymous with noise, said Gary Giddins in an interview wann? with Ken Burns; for others, it has been the Jewish-Black ‘forbidden fruit’. Jazz came to Germany at the very end of the First World War, but it was not until the end of the Second that it arrived at the Port. During the British occupation, the syncopated music was played in cellars. And that is where the secret is…
Under the rails
We find ourselves searching for this ‘thing’, sometimes perfect, sometimes imperfect. “Come in, you are at the right place,” Jerry Tilitz said with a thick New York accent. The vibe is different here. Look around. These are not Monets. The band is not playing a sonata. In the blink of an eye, the imperfectly but perfectly put-together art gallery transports you to Broadway.
The quartet started with a classic famous tune. While Jerry plays Bajan Bacchanal, one of his original numbers composed in the Caribbean, one can easily hear the ‘chug, chug, chug’ of trains chugging down the tracks. On this wall, Jerry’s portrait. On the other, sketches. Over there, oil artworks of nude women. Look around again. Its coziness and granny living room decor is offering live jazz.
How is the jazz scene in Hamburg? “Well, it is mainly European jazz,” Jerry answered. Jerry Tilitz is an American trombonist, composer and vocalist from New York City. He has been living in Hamburg for more than a decade and has been turning his wife’s art gallery into a jam venue. Every Friday evening Tilitz plays American jazz with his band. “We have been ‘Americanizing’ the jazz scene,” he said. Nothing here is improvised. The candles, the leather couch, the wine and fizzing water, the paintings, the tunes, and the location are all well planned. They are trying to take you directly to the Big Apple.
A missionary spirit
Here in this gallery by the Dammtor Bahnhof nothing is imposed. Tilitz plays American jazz because these days few bands are jazzing up the city with traditional beats. “Most play British jazz or the so-called European jazz. But Hamburg itself has become mainstream,” Tilitz emphasized. Within the past decades, Hamburg’s jazz scene has gone through many changes. The respect for the arts in Germany and an affluent population in port on the Elbe provided the basics. Understanding Hamburg’s jazz scene takes time. It is multifaceted and it covers a wide range of styles, traditions and techniques: From the rising swing and bebop to free jazz, jazz rock and mixed forms.
For years, the Riverkasematten hosted swing fans and tourists, but it was its closure that brought jazz amateurs and young gifted musicians together. A new generation of jazz emerged and was mentored by associations interested on reviving the jazz culture on the Elbe. The music could now be heard in a growing number of underground bars.
Cotton Club and Birdland are some of the venues that offer jazz sessions regularly. Jazz in Hamburg is influenced not the least by musicians who come from other countries and who bring new impulses and variety to the jazz culture. There is no need to compare the harbor with others; its openness, maritime charm and cosmopolitan independence are leading to a revived and rejuvenated jazz.
Hamburg has never been shy
“Hamburg is individual and creative. Liberal and international; it is a gateway!” Tilitz said. “I’m a missionary in this port. I do improvise and I offer my passion and knowledge with every gig. But I’d rather contribute to the scene as an American musician that plays in Hamburg”. Either here at the Tilitz’s or next to the Elbe, people are having more interest in this genre. British, American, acid, contemporary or classic, Hamburg is building up every night its jazz name. Who could ever imagine that a German city reputed for its commercial prowess and maritime spirit would become a hub for jazz.
Let’s keep it as a secret.