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  Peter Kowald and the New York Unity Village  


By Mike Heffley
Photo by Enid Farber 2002-12-20

In the months before Peter Kowald's death on September 21, 2002, at 58, the master bassist and dedicated organizer was in the process of relocating to New York City. He had taken an apartment in Harlem and was heavily involved in that year's Vision Festival, even working the concession stand any time he wasn't playing, methodically cutting bread and cheese and selling sandwiches.

Kowald was no stranger to New York, of course. He had helped to organize the Sound Unity Festival, the precursor to the Vision Festival, in 1984, and had a long-standing relationship with fellow bassist William Parker and his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, the driving force behind the Vision festival.

Just as he organized musical groups and festivals, Kowald was a builder of communities. And while no one can say what a life cut short might otherwise have brought, one thing seems certain: had he lived just five more years, the free music scene in New York would have been dramatically different.

The following selections show Kowald's interest in New York and in American jazz. They are excerpted from a remarkable 1,200 page manuscript on the history of FMP records and German jazz by Mike Heffley an English Professor at Rutgers University and author of The Music of Anthony Braxton and the forthcoming Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz, due out in the Spring and based on his dissertation.

Thanks to Mike Heffley for allowing us to reprint sections of his work, and to Harold Meiselman for pointing us to this important document.

"I first met Peter Kowald in New York, when he performed at the Vision Festival in 1996. He was totally receptive to my desire to write a book about European improvisers centralizing him and his FMP colleagues. He invited me into his home in Wuppertal for several days while I interviewed him and his neighbor Peter Brtzmann. His opennessa nd generosity of intellect and soul opened the doors to other musicians in his circles from around the world, both for me and my project and for the music itself. More than anyone, it was he who put a face to what Western music might look like as just one flower, well placed, in the bouquet of the world's musics. I am grateful to have known him..." ?Mike Heffley, November, 2002

Kowald's impromptu summary of his history with groups paints him as the perfect personality type for the oft-noted European organizational preference for collective bands, in contrast to the individualistic leader-sideman constructs more typical of American groups (to say nothing of the fit such a personality is with the traditionally supportive role of the bassist in jazz).

Peter Kowald

"The trio with Pierre"?Favre?"and Irčne"?Schweizer, from 1968-69?"was more of a collective group," he says, "but I have to say that again I was the youngest in that group. Then I started playing with [Alexander] von Schlippenbach in both Globe Unity projects and in the quartet"?1973-78?"but still I felt more or less like a sideman. The quintet I led"?1970-72?"was an exception to the norm, and I gave it up largely because it was too early to do my own projects; they still lacked conviction.

"The first of my own projects was the trio with Leo Smith and Baby Sommer in '79. It was my choice of people; it was still basically a collective group, and we gave it a collective name. So I guess I'm not so much of a bandleader type anyway, to this day, even though I've had my own groups for a long time."

A glance at Kowald's resumé nonetheless reveals the strength and maturity that can issue from such a personality: collaborations with a vast network of well-known players, poets, painters a n d dancers from America, Asia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia, Russia, and Europe; recording projects such as Duos (1992 FMP, a 3-LP/1-CDset of short impromptu duets with thirty different instrumentalists/vocalists from Europe, Japan, and the U.S.); ongoing collaborations with a few of these combinations, including the Siberian singer Sainkho Namtchylak, the Global Village group of improvisers from Asia, America, and Europe; and a pattern of art activism that results in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural formations and organizations devoted to presenting and promoting their products, such as the Sound Unity Festival and Musicians Coop he set up in New York with fellow bassist (often Cecil Taylor's) and friend, William Parker. By comparison, the approach of a strong leader always forming groups and statements around his own personality and concept would conceivably miss a lot of ground Kowald has covered, even broken, for the music.

I ask him about a trip to Africa he had mentioned. It was an exchange of mostly visual artists organized by an African painter who had come to Wuppertal to study with German painter Joseph Beuys. Kowald was the only musician, with four German artists, who lived in a West African village for two-and-a-half months in 1992 to work with five artists there; the following year, the five came to Wuppertal.

"I draw a little bit, so I did some drawings there too, but I played with different people, a kora player and two drummers, and a singer regularly. They tried to teach me all these rhythms, and I couldn't learn them," he laughs, "but I didn't say no. It took awhile for us to get to a point of trust, after which we arrived where I wanted to arrive, which was for me to be able to do my thing and let them do theirs, and organize it only in terms of when to start and stop and roughly what to do-and it worked, in the end; we did a concert or two, and it worked out. I didn't have to leave my material and they di d n' t have to leave theirs...

"I have a group called the Global Village, after the Marshall MacLuhan term. Sainkho is one of the best examples from that group of this co-creative concept. There are different people from Japan too, and from Greece, and from anywhere, in the theory that people grow up in their tradition-but Sainkho is an interesting example because you can see it so obviously in her life. Her grandparents were still nomads. Both of her parents were already teachers, so she grew up with the music there in Mongolia, then she studied and learned some other things?but her early life, in her twenties, she was singing Tuvan folk songs, going on tour with four other women. Then at a point she went to Moscow and met other people and left the folk song. But now when she improvises with us?she's now part of the family, okay? She left the folk song, but she brought all the stuff she learned in it, except for that local form, to our improvised music.

"It's the same with the Japanese shakuhachi player who starts to improvise: he leaves the local folk song but brings the techniques and vocabulary. Or an African drummer, or a bandoneon player from Argentina?they all leave the traditional local forms behind and come into the open situation of free improvisation, basically, and then they make the step into modernity?die Moderne, we say?they make the step into the twentieth century, somehow.

"I mean, I don't mind folk songs, they're fine; let's just say that if you leave the folk song?what Sainkho brought, all the throat singing, the shamanistic breathing, all that is still there, but not in its original context. She plays with Butch Morris on this record we did [When the Sun is Out you Don't See the Stars, FMP 1990]; the first night they played together she did her stuff and Butch did his, and it works. This is wonderful to me, this is really wonderful. That's how I believe it works. It's a method that could be so m et hin g of a model, of how people can come from different cultures, different areas, with different characters, with all of that, and they bring what they bring,and it's okay?just throw it together with the other stuff, and it works. After just a little bit of figuring out how it works together, then it does."



But if New York was to be Kowald's next village, it was a very different one than his Wuppertal home And Kowald had a very different relationship with what might be called American folk music than he did with European and Asian traditional musics.

The relationship with American jazz has been as problematic in its own way as that with Western civilization as a whole, in terms of achieving healthy individuation. Kowald is a good source for this phase from FMP's first hour Emanzipation, because he is the one who articulated it with phrases such as Kaputtspielphase and "father-killing." The "fathers" in America's case included both European- and African-American aspects of the music and culture: the white side was the same Western diatonic tradition the FMP players were leaving behind in their own European culture, plus whatever particular musicians had been emulated for their mastery of that tradition in jazz terms; and the black side was whatever was peculiarly African in the American mix, an identity that could only be learned from, not drawn directly out of German musical/cultural soil.

"I remember in the studio we did a lot of things we'd never done, like playing with knives on the table, tapping," Kowald says. "So in this way I thought we did something of our own; but at the same time I remember thinking myself?I don't know if everyone else thought this?that I wondered if it would fulfill American standards... I think many of us wouldn't say that out loud; there was a point when we said we didn't want to be beholden to America?'father-killing,' as they say in psychology?so at that time it was sti ll no t cl ear....I remember when we played in Donaueschinger in '66 or '67 with Globe Unity: [Archie] Shepp was there, with Beaver Harris, a very good band, two trombones, Roswell Rudd and Grachan Monchur, Jimmy Garrison; they played after us. I think everybody admired Shepp in a way we wouldn't do now. I mean, we were still the young Europeans looking up to them, even if we didn't admit it, we did... I guess it's really normalized now. But those were phases of emancipation; you have to kill your father for awhile, or tell him to leave you alone. In the late '60s, early '70s, step by step we did that."

Of course, that is the same thing black Americans did with white musical culture to come up with jazz itself, and with advances in it all along the way.

"Let me go back for a minute to Machine Gun and that period," I say. "You gave me a good explanation of the GUO experience. For the smaller groups, and the records that came from them that have become classics, was there a feeling in you at the time of the kill-the-American-father thing, of leaving America aside for something better?"

"I remember when we played with Machine Gun, that band played live first," he says. "So we played in Frankfurt in the festival. And I think Jeanne Lee played with Gunter there, and she liked us, I remember that; and Lee Konitz was sitting in the audience, and he came up after the concert, and he liked it. So I wouldn't say we... it was more the feeling that we got respect from established Americans somehow, like Lee Konitz was. We didn't expect him to like Machine Gun, but he did. Maybe he was just being nice, but I think he was really interested in the movement of the late '60s and stuff, so he was open."

"So maybe you had a connection. Once you stepped out on a limb and killed the father, if the father says, yeah, it's okay, then maybe it's..."

"Well, it was two things at once. You still admired the American musici an s, b ut yo u also were saying you didn't need them. Very normal father relationship."

"But the expression of your own music, once you got to that point:especially now that you've gone so long with it, what is it that you find in this music that you don't find in American music?"

"Well, I must say there were two people who were very important to me after the early experience with Brötzmann and everything, and that was Han Bennink and Derek [Bailey]. Han regularly, because he played in the trio with Brötzmann at the time?and that trio was a great trio, with Fred Van Hove and Bennink?and Brötzmann invited Derek sometimes. They did some really great music; I remember leaving concerts really very emotionally touched, deeply, yes."

"In a way that was unique to European identity?"

"Yes. I must say, now, that thinking about it, it was really European music, and it really touched me sometimes. It was crazy, you couldn't believe it."

"Is that one of the main reasons you were just able to be free and open it up?"

"Yes."

"And it was a different?no hint of trying to play like Americans. That was what was good about it."

"No, it wasn't just that it was reactive?it was its own self?if you talk about it theoretically I guess you would say that we were developing our own territory, but you wouldn't think about that American thing all the time."

"I guess what I'm trying to figure out is," I push, "...it's obvious what happens on a human level; it's obvious from the recordings what happens on the musical level, you can hear it there; but when your experience as a European or German who has learned the music through American jazz and European classical tradition, or through art or poetry or the other things you do?then all of the sudden you have a music that works uniquely for you...what is new there, what in the consciousness is new? Did it sing something ab out your histo rical experience here, or what?"

In response to that, Kowald backs into his own personal history in America.

"The developments were very organic. They didn't happen overnight, so the consciousness developed slowly too. I had a secret criteria in myself for many years back then, which was: would Cecil Taylor like to play with me?" A search for a figure to replace the fathers who couldn't be trusted, or had to be killed? "That lingered for a long time, until the late '70s or early '80s. Then I went to New York in the early '80s a few times, and then I applied for a fellowship here in Germany to go to New York, in '82, then '83, then I got it in '84. ... So at that time I wanted very much to go to America and play with musicians there. I had met a few people?Billy Bang, John Betsch, and Marilyn Crispell, with her quartet in '83, we had a long tour here?and then I played with different people in New York here and there when I visited.

"Then, even still in the '80s some musicians said they didn't want anything to do with the Americans. But by the late '70s I decided I wanted to collaborate with some of the people, and I was not in a position that I was asked by Americans to play with them. Here and there I did; I played with Marion Brown for a couple of concerts in the late '60s, and then Jeanne Lee for a couple of times; she was living in Europe, but then she married Gunter [Hampel] and so on, so they did their stuff. But then I was not in a position that many Americans would ask me to do tours with them or something?like Han Bennink was, for example, he worked with a lot of Americans on European tours at the time: Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins and others.



One chief difference between the American and European players, according to Kowald, was the way time was filled.

"The time question is difficult, because I realized when I went to New York how bad I was abouttime ... I'm f illing up all this time [duration] with time [pulse], and I don't have that time [swing, feel] the Americans have, because you grew up with it...it has to do withthe blues, I guess, or the American tradition of having time. I know it's very difficult for European people to keep good time. I don't mean the beat going on?that's one thing too?but I mean rather to keep space between your phrases, and how to phrase, in a way that keeps space and pulse both happening in the time.

"But I'm not the only one who has problems with it. I noticed it especially when I came back from America, I felt all the drummers in Europe played nervously, after I played with Rashid Ali and Denis Charles and Andrew Cyrille a lot and so on. That's an aspect of the time too."

"Did that experience change your bass playing much? Did you relax more, play less nervously?"

"I guess so, yes. But I have to?it's very difficult to bring it organically into our music, I have to think about it, to intentionally do it."

"I heard Leo Smith at the Moers Festival, I think in '77 or '78," he recalls, "then I asked him if he wanted to do something with me. He said yes. Then I had since the early '70s a friendship with Baby Sommer who was far away, in Dresden [East Germany]?because Dresden was further away than America, in a sense, because you could not go into the country, and you couldn't bring him out, either, until '78..... But then I started to play with Leo Smith, and then he invited me over for a few times in the early '80s, '81; he lived in Connecticut then, and we did a tour in Canada then, and a tour in a trio to the south, to Carolina and Virginia and places like that."

"That was your first time in America?"

"Yeah."

FMP as a whole lies solidly in the tradition of European support for American musicians and music, by providing performance and recording work; Kowald is the only FMP musicianI met who has h ad a simil ar impact as an individual through money he's attracted and invested in his American colleagues.

"When I got the fellowship, at that timeI was friends with A.R. Penck, the painter. He made a lot of money. In '83 the Sonnabend Gallery from New York called me up and said, 'Next week we have a Penck show, do you want to play for the opening?' I said okay. They said, 'How much do you want?' I said 3,000 marks?1,000 for travel, 1,000 to spend in New York, and 1,000 to bring home. I went to New York and played this opening, with Penck?he played piano and drums and stuff, and Billy Bang played. The whole show was sold out, for a million marks that night, Penk's work. Every painting, nothing left. Then I knew I had not asked for enough money," he laughs.

"So Penck sold very well at that time, and he had a lot of money, like some painters have. Then in November '83 I knew that I would get the fellowship for February '84 to start to go to New York, and he came to Wuppertal and I told him I had the fellowship to go for one year to New York?wonderful?and he said, what are you going to do there? I said I have a lot of friends I can play with. 'Ah, bullshit,' he said. He pulled out fifty thousand marks and gave it to me and said, 'You have to do something.'

"I got together with William Parker and we did the first Sound Unity Festival with that money. Then William and I talked a lot about the possibilities for this money in the Lower East Side. We decided I would not use the the money for myself, but use it to organize a big event for many musicians who would not normally play so much in New York."

Kowald's relationship with William Parker, dating from 1982, is a personal friendship, a meeting of minds between fellow bassists, and, of most general import, a transatlantic link (Brötzmann, Schweizer, and Rüdiger Carl also played) between activists serving a common aesthetic vision and interdisciplinary gra ssro ots art s community . The spirit of self-definition/production/promotion that spawned FMP itself is ongoing in Kowald's initiatives of this sort.

"Since youstarted working with Leo Smith and William Parker," I ask, "have you had many conversations about the difference between the American and European traditions of improvising?"

"Yes, there have been quite a few," he says. "William is a very open person. I stayed in the same building for months?he found me a sublet in his building, so we were very near each other, and spent a lot of time together, working on the festival and so on. We spoke about the need for musicians to organize things for themselves, which we were doing with the Sound Unity Festival. But also that kind of attitude.

"I told him we played in Wuppertal in the cellar for a year-and-a-half before the first person came to listen. We found out that many things, even with Wuppertal and New York being so different, had the same kind of social context. Except for the attitudes of the musicians trying to keep it up, New York being New York, of course; but we had a lot of understanding about that."

Perhaps the most interesting collaboration with an American player, in terms of the dynamic on both sides of racial and national identity for individuation and recalibration of the formerly unbalanced relationship, has been with saxophonist Charles Gayle.

"Just when I went to New York there was a little festival at Sweet Basil's at the time, Music as an Open Sky, featuring a different group every night for two weeks," says Kowald. "Right after I arrived they had this festival, so I heard a different group every night: Geri Allen, Frank Lowe's band, and Sonny Murray's band with Grachan Monchur?and Charles Gayle. I really loved his music, but when he left the place late at night I didn't feel like speaking to him. But I thought about him for weeks, and then I called Grachan Monchur, because Ch arles didn't have a telep hone at the time. Grachan told me to call a certain newspaper stand in Brooklyn, and they'd tell him. I left my number with a woman there,and thenext day Charles called me.

"He came to my apartment upstairs from William Parker, the next day in the morning, at 8:30. He was playing in Times Square from 7 to 8:30, then he came to my house. He played in the morning while people went to work; he does that still. I told him we were doing the festival, introduced him to William; I told him we were having a series of duos every Sunday at the Life Cafe, and that I would like to play a duo with him. He didn't say yes or no. He told me later what happened. He went back to Brooklyn and told his fellows that there was a German bass player who wanted to play with him, and what should he do?" he laughs. "It was really funny."

"What was that about?"

"Well, he had never played with white people before. He was in a kind of hardcore political thing, a black consciousness thing in Brooklyn he was a part of; nothing very organized or public, but it was there."

"So they gave him permission to play with you?"

"Well, I think there was one woman, I never met her, and a drummer whom I met, who were his two main people to ask about it. I mean, he wasn't a man who had to ask others what to do, that wasn't the issue; it was just an unusual idea for him?that a bass player from Germany would ask him to do a duo. But then he said yes.

"The Life Cafe is on Tompkins Square, and I knew this because concerts had happened there in the early years when I went to New York , but at that time nothing had happened. When I went there with William, I said we would do a festival for two months, and we wanted to have a little concert every Sunday night. They said, 'Well, we haven't had this music for a while here because nobody organized it, but if you come for a program for two months, wonderful.' Bill y Ban g was a little angry; he said, 'We've been asking for a gig there for months, and then you come from Germany and you motherfuckers get two months.'" Laughter.

"It's the same as when the Americans came to Europe, yeah?"



continued...




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