Exclaim! caught saxophone colossus Peter Brotzmann in a reflective mood talking about his magnum opus, the just-reissued Machine Gun, recorded in 1968. The album sees a multinational octet come together to make furious noise sculptures that draw deeply from jazz and non-jazz sources. He related the political and musical climate of Germany in the late '60s as background to this recording, and compares today's situation to the revolutionary times of yesteryear.
Let's turn back the clock to talking about Machine Gun, which was a major, major sensation when it was first released (in 1968). Now Atavistic has reissued it — what do you think of the remaster? It was a pretty tricky recording from what I understand.
Yeah, I'm surprised. I think they did a pretty good job. I can hear things that I couldn't hear in earlier times, so I think it sounds alright.
I think so too. It gives it a bit more room.
If you have read the notes in the booklet, it was really a very tricky recording session and we can be lucky that we got anything on tape. After all, it's good to have.
The band on the album contains many different nationalities, East and West Germans, British, Dutchmen. Were you all feeling a certain revolutionary spirit about what you were doing?
Yes, more or less. Of course, maybe I better speak just for the Germans. But for people like Peter Kowald (East German bassist), Buschi Niebergall (West German bassist) and myself, we were born in the war, or like Peter, right after. We grew up after war times and we had to live with what our fathers and grandfathers had done. There was a lot of anger, rage in our feelings — we thought, "Never again. No war anymore." And then we saw the first Nazis in the first government and we saw the old Nazis in the law system and of course we grew up with kind of, maybe not guilt, but shame that still makes the image of our generation in a way. We Germans for sure had a very special reason to fight against whatever the old men around us could tell us. We really wanted to change the world to a better place, which of course was very naïve. But we had the feeling we had to do it. More or less, maybe a little less, our Dutch, Belgian and English comrades thought a little bit in the same direction. You must understand, the '60s were a time when young people were very much aware of political changes, political possibilities, we had the Cold War, we had seen the Korean War, we had 'Nam, we had Kennedy killed, and in '68 we had Martin Luther King killed and especially here in Germany we had to deal with the RAF (Red Army Faction) and the Baader Meinhof people. Twenty-four hours a day everything you did was connected with some political meaning. Talking about the music, which is the main part for us, do you know in Europe we had all the great American music coming over? The big bands like Basie or Ellington; we knew more about the John Coltrane Quartet in the beginning than you did over there in the States — because the band was much more present over here. Or Miles Davis with all kinds of different bands, I heard as a young man. And Horace Silver, Art Blakey. And then the '60s, it was the time of hard bop. As much as I love the music, for us it was kind of stagnation. We had to get rid of that very formalistic way of painting. Playing tunes, playing changes, playing harmonies and so forth.
So this was a conscious break with American conventions?
Our information besides the big names like Miles and Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, I had the pleasure to meet one night in my hometown. We didn't know very much about Albert Ayler, Byard Lancaster – all those cats. The information came very slowly. One might have found an ESP Record [New York-based free jazz label featuring many Albert Ayler classics] somewhere, or brought from a visit from the states. But that already was a time where we tried to develop very independently, or let's talk about me, I tried to develop my way of playing saxophone and I didn't know too much about the new music going on in the U.S. at that time. It came very slowly, maybe with Mingus and Eric Dolphy at that time and the Ornette Coleman thing. I was aware that, even Ornette Coleman, as much as I like that man but he was very simple American music. There was a theme, there was improvisation, then there was a theme again. And that was not enough change for us Europeans. I always was very much – I grew up with jazz, I love the music very much, and when people ask me what kind of music I play I say, "I play jazz music," but my for example, my English friends and colleagues, they at that time they didn't want to know too much about American music. But my first big impressions besides Sidney Bechet [clarinet star of early jazz[ and Coleman Hawkins is when I met Steve Lacy [soprano sax innovator who reportedly taught Coltrane[ and [ex-Ornette Coleman trumpeter] Don Cherry and very early Cecil Taylor in Paris or then a bit later I had a chance to work with Carla Bley, a person I admire very much and so on, so my connection to American music was always very strong.
So in your way you were developing in parallel to what Don Cherry and Albert Ayler were reacting to as well in American music. It's not as though you're reacting to the notion of American music only some of the more retrograde, idiomatic American music, which had been the norm both in terms of domestic European players and a lot of the big names who came over. But you had quite a kinship with Ayler and Cherry and people who were following a new trail along with you?
Yeah. And you know my plan in the early years was to be a painter; I studied painting and then graphics as my main thing. But music was always there on the side and it developed. But on the other hand, being busy with the fine arts (as a member of the FLUXUS movement) and my first exhibitions in Holland and Germany and listening a lot to contemporary music. Stockhausen had just opened up his electronic studio in cologne and John Cage was visiting Europe very often. I had the chance to work very later on with a very famous Korean artist Nam June Paik, which was looking back on a very important influence. So I had influences from this side of the art field, all these kinds of influences were as much as important as finding out what's going on with me and my way of playing as the other side the jazz music was. I mean I listen to all kinds of jazz from when I was very young: King Oliver, the Hot Five, Ellington – jazz history was what I loved very much and I still do.
That's a very important foundation to your playing.
I think so. I remember when I was still going to school I heard my first real jazz concert here in Wuppertal, the town I'm living in for 50 years or more. It was Sidney Bechet. He was living in France and he was touring with some of his American buddies, and that was such an amazing impression. That was so great, it turned me on to the music more and more. And other people too, older people like Hawkins or Bud Powell Kenny Clarke, all kinds of good drummers. It was a fantastic time to get information and to get a lot of pleasure out of the music.
And with that knowledge, people like yourself and Alexander Von Schlippenbach started music with more non-linear and thematic scores to encourage a different kind of improv.
You know, I never studied music; what I know I learned on the road. And I was lucky to meet good older colleagues I could learn from. Alex, of course, came from the other side; he studied piano, he studied composition, he had a very good teacher Zimmerman [Bernt Alois Zimmerman, avant-garde German composer] and when we first met, he was playing with Manfred Schoof [trumpet] and they were playing kind of an advanced hard bop. Whenever Peter Kowald and I showed up somewhere on the same bill people would start to laugh anyway. That changed a little bit when they found out that people like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry took Kowald and me quite seriously.
So the audience was hostile at first but gradually won over more because they knew about your reputation among famous American jazzmen rather than the content of the music?
Yeah, the audiences we could reach were very small. But then with bands like Machine Gun I were able to reach for the first time a big festival audience because the first performance was at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival, which was the biggest in Germany and of course people were shocked in a way. For them, for the writers, for the normal audiences, that was no music, at least no jazz, so it was quite a disaster. On the other hand we realised there is an audience. A bunch of young guys have been waiting for this kind of music so we kept on going. I think especially Machine Gun, nowadays it's kind of a classic for European free jazz. It's a really classic recording because it was the first time I had a chance to get the English, the Dutch, the Belgians and the Swedish together. At the same time, the English friends were just busy with themselves. The Dutch scene was small. I must say one good thing about my country at that time, the German radio stations were very open. Don Cherry was working a lot at the radio stations in Baden Baden and Cologne and they gave us work and they made things like the Machine Gun band possible. There was a little money to help us out. So I could ask my Dutch or English comrades to come on over. The fee is not great but we have something, and that was impossible in the other countries.
So the key in promoting this sort of international cooperation was this recording?
Yes, it's a good thing that I was not alone. Okay, I started my own record label [BRO Records], we were all reading our Karl Marx and he says the tools have to be in the hands of the guys doing the work and so we tried to keep the fabrication and the distribution in the same hands. Slowly, quite slowly, it became kind of successful. We had the chance to invite all kinds of people to Berlin at the Academy of Art, or to the Moers Festival, which at the beginning was the foundation of Peter Kowald and myself. So it was a good time to make things happen, and the exchange between the Dutch and the English, that was a very important thing to happen. The French at that time, the good French musicians, all played in American bands in Paris. All the guys like [bassist] J.F Jenny-Clark played with guys like Steve [Lacy] and Don [Cherry]. So the connections to the French were not so strong but the cooperation between the Dutch, the English and the Germans was working quite well.
In terms of the reaction to the recording, this may have been the first time that people heard you on a wider scale. You've certainly got an incredible tone, but did you face criticism that you were a one trick pony?
I like "one trick pony," yeah, that's nice. For the rest of my life I can play ballads and sweet stuff, I still have this image. I mean, I like the physical way of playing: a horn has to sound, to go somewhere. But if you listen a little carefully even to my first recordings you will find already a lot of sensitive spots and all of what I developed over the decades is already there at the beginning. At that time, people see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear, and for them I was just the loudest, very brutal saxophone player who couldn't actually play the horn, it just was loud. This image is still there, not really, but it won't go away. But I still love, for example, where our saxophone line in the Chicago Tentet, Mats Gustafssonn and Ken Vandermark, when that sounds really heavy… I like that very much. Nothing against that.
Did you feel you'd made an important statement when you made Machine Gun?
At the moment we did it, I think we didn't think about that, but looking back you can see that it was a very important statement. The energy… all of us put in whatever we had, in those days we could stay together. I think it was a feeling you don't have so often in your lifetime… I think everyone wanted to give 100% or more if possible. But it had very much to do with the whole political situation in Western Europe and the whole world actually, what was happening in Washington DC, in Detroit, in the (American) South – it was hell. It was really a kind of steaming point where we young guys thought we would be able – even with music – to change the world.
It's a common sentiment back then – does it still relate to contemporary improvisers? Does it still have the same kind of influence?
I think so. My experience is, especially when I'm working in the States, very young people come to me and ask me questions about the time when Machine Gun was created and I think not only people connected or educated from the jazz scene, but from rock and electronic music. I think with all modesty it's quite a milestone in music history. And especially because young American audiences had never such possibilities to get information about the years, about what was happening in the '60s and '70s in Europe. Now with companies like Atavistic and other labels they get a little insight in the development of European music. I feel that in the United States the young kids are really interested and they want to know more. We just come and play.
Hopefully there are more opportunities these days. Do you find there are local scenes around the world that remind you of when you were coming up?
No, I think that might be one of the reasons I like being in Chicago so much. The Chicago guys, there is a bit more cooperation going on. There are good labels: Okka Disc with Bruno Johnson, who's now in Milwaukee, and we have Atavistic; the Chicago Tentet is now ten years old. We never intended it to last so long but people love to work together and that kind of feeling between the musicians there reminds me of the good old feelings of Germany, which I think in Western Europe, this kind of solidarity feeling is gone. In Chicago you have it, or at least I fell I have it. I love the town, I love the lake, some of my best friends and colleagues are living there. I mean, I love to be in New York for a week or two, but then it's enough. New York is getting too complicated or too expensive. But the pay situation in the States is such – it's better to keep working in Europe or Japan.
Do you think the money is better or worse now than what it was in the '60s?
I think it's harder now. Before, I mentioned the work at radio stations - this is over. Before you could go from the north of Germany to the south, you could make a tour of two, three weeks through the bigger and smaller towns from East to West and all these possibilities do not exist anymore. You have to travel a lot more. One day you are in Oslo and the next morning you leave for Lisbon or Barcelona. So you travel really long distances and that costs a lot of money and it's sometimes kind of tiring too.
And I guess you're not getting any younger.
And I meet younger musicians who are all complaining that they have no local situation. On the other had the younger generation are maybe just a little bit lazy; I try to kick them in the butt from time to time because you can't sit at home and wait. If nobody is around you have to do it yourself. And that's the same situation as it was 50 years ago too, for this kind of music - if you don't want to belong to the mainstream of the music and the media don't give you the attention you have to do it yourself. I personally can't complain after doing it 40 to 45 years; I know I never will get rich but I have what I need. But for younger people it's even a bit more difficult. On the other hand, you have possibilities we could never even think of with the internet, using all this modern technology. But there is nothing to compare to playing a gig in a stupid, old fashioned jazz club. This kind of music, you need an audience, you have to make your experiences, you have to travel, you have to meet people.