Ensemble Studio 4
|Jazz Development in Britain|
At Christmas I received the gift of a record album from a very good friend who is a native of East Berlin. The gift was unexpected, as was the content of the album. It consisted of a performance of six ultra- modern jazz items executed with superb command by a group known as Ensemble Studio 4, comprising six musicians led by an alto saxophonist with a truly magnificent technique (Ernst Ludwig Petrowsky).
With the likelihood of East Germany (German Democratic Republic) receiving recognition from Britain this year, and the resulting prospect of our hearing more of, or more about, the musicians and artists of the GDR, it is perhaps worth listing the remaining personnel for future reference. They are Hans Joachim Graswurm- another great technician (trumpet and flugelhorn), Hubert Katsenbeisser (trombone), Eberhard Weise (piano), Klaus Koch (bass) and Wolfgang Winkler (drums). Three of the items are compositions of Weise, and two are by Petrowsky. Although I knew of the existence of the Ensemble Studio 4, formed in 1967 and attached to the Berlin Radio Studios, I had not had an opportunity for hearing it during my two most recent visits to the GDR in 1967 and 1970. The album therefore proved to be both welcome and enlightening.
Many years before, in 1954, during my first visit to Czechoslovakia, I had heard good jazz played by such bands as those of Gustav Brom, Karel Vlach and Karel Krautgartner, and I remember both Paul Robeson and Max Goldberg telling me of the good jazz that they had heard played in that country during the mid- 'thirties. Paul, of course, was there as a concert artist and Max was playing lead trumpet with the Savoy Orpheans on a European tour. I later obtained some recordings made in Prague during the period, which bore out their mutual opinion. Prior to World War II, we in the British music profession heard little of Continental jazz performances. We occasionally heard, over the radio, the Dutch Ramblers and the Belgian orchestras of Stan Brenders, Charles Remue and Fud Candrix, and we were familiar with the work of Ray Ventura's Orchestra, Gregor and his Gregorians and the Quintet of the Hot Club- all of France.
But there were many others of which we then heard little or nothing, although jazz was in fact well- established in many of the countries of Europe, both East and West. In my opinion, jazz has become an almost international music, to the development of which musicians of many nations have contributed. My respect for the high standards achieved by the musicians of various European countries has been developed over many years in relation to my experience of the high standards long ago achieved by their British and American counterparts. However, I have never considered that these have been surpassed by the Europeans.
The standard achieved by the Ensemble Studio 4, though, is a rather different matter because— although I must frankly admit that I find it difficult to accept the avant garde type of interpretation as jazz— the group is certainly second to none in its very modern idiom, and is probably superior to most. When their work becomes known in Britain, it will undoubtedly be accepted as an extremely important contribution to the development of modern jazz, possibly important enough to entitle these young German musicians to claim themselves to be among the leaders in the field.
Recently, whilst listening to the Kessel/ Grappelli album I fell to meditating over the fact that during my own professional career, which dates back to 1926, few violinists had managed to make an impact upon the jazz scene. Indeed, few had demonstrated any desire to do so and I recalled that some jazz authorities had been known to hold the opinion that the violin was an instrument totally unsuitable for the performance of jazz music. This, despite the many then already existing examples of the work of Joe Venuti who, it seemed, they at best regarded as exceptional. Another American violinist, Matt Malneck, a contemporary of Venuti's, also played good solo jazz, although he never managed to achieve the same recognition for it as did his colleague. Malneck, incidentally, played for years in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, sometimes alongside Venuti, and, along with another celebrated Whiteman player, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, was the co- writer, in 1930 or 1931, of the popular jazz- orientated novelty number entitled "Choo Choo". Also from America , we enjoyed the Swing jazz of Negro violinists Eddie South and Stuff Smith. In Europe, of course, the playing of Grappelli has long been admired, as has that of Denmark's Sven Asmussen, whilst in Britain, during the late 'twenties and early 'thirties, violinists playing good jazz in the leading dance orchestras of the day were Hugo Rignold, Eric Siday, the late Ben Frankel, Cyril Hellier and last, but by no means least, George Hurley.
Rignold long ago transferred his activities to the concert world, in which he is a highly respected conductor. Siday emigrated to America in the late 'thirties and, when he paid me a visit in London a few years ago, had given up playing to become a recording executive. Frankel, of course, long ago established himself as an important composer who has built up a significant repertoire of symphonic, chamber and solo concert works. Of the British musicians only Hellier and Hurley, it seems, still play the violin professionally and I recall that, when the Savoy Orpheans left the Savoy Hotel in 1928 and toured in Europe, these two were the string section. George, however, obtained release from his contract whilst in Germany and returned to London to join Fred Elizalde's Orchestra, which had then replaced the Orpheans at the Savoy. After a short period the Elizalde Orchestra was augmented and George was joined by Ben Frankel, Len Lees and Herbie Powell, the latter playing viola, to form a string section that developed a magnificent rapport. When I received recently the two albums entitled "The BBC Presents British Jazz", I was especially interested to see George's name listed on the sleeve of Volume 1 as a member of Fred Spinelli's Lido Venice Band, and also of the Spike Hughes Orchestra, but in the performance of "Baltimore" by the first of these I failed to find George at all, which is particularly unfortunate because the band, which included some of the best players of the day when it was badly recorded (though not actually by the BBC) in 1927, now sounds hopelessly "corny", whereas anything that George would have played at that time would not have so date.
I express this opinion not merely as a compliment to George's work but because those few violinists who have specialised in jazz playing seem to have maintained a style that, whilst varying from player to player, never dates, and I would instance as examples the earliest of Venuti's recordings. In the Spike Hughes arrangement of "Kalua", recorded in 1930, George shared a brief eight bars with Ben Frankel and Stan Andrews, which, although good rhythmic scoring and playing, was not exactly the style of jazz fiddle playing to which I have here been referring— a style in which George Hurley is perhaps the most natural of the British players, although I fear that today he has few opportunities, if any, to demonstrate the fact, being busily involved as he is in the string sections of various session and theatre orchestras. A perhaps interesting statistic is that, with the exception of Asmussen, the violinists to whom I have referred were all born between the beginning of 1904 and the end of 1909.
The Danish player arrived in 1916. So it would therefore seem that, although there were undoubtedly younger violinists who played good jazz, the only vintage achieving real success at any time was that of the first decade of the present century, and, even then, comparatively few violinists were recognised as having a true feeling for jazz. This, although it may prove nothing. does clearly demonstrate a marked contrast with, for example, the scores of grand brass, reed and rhythm experts who have graced the jazz scene in the past fifty years.