A day at "Europe’s largest public research archive on jazz" – (hosting a conference Sep 26-28)

I’ve just spent a sunny day at “Europe’s largest public research archive on jazz”, the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt. Since 1997 it has been based in a small but rather fine house, a four-storey hunting lodge. The much-restored building originally dates from the 1720’s, and is called the Kavaliershaus.

Darmstadt is a small city, with just 150,000 inhabitants, but which has long held the ambition to punch above its weight. The Darmstädter openly scoff at the pretensions of their nouveau-riche neighbour Frankfurt (700,000).  Until 1945, you still hear them say, Darmstadt was capital of Hessen – population now 7 million, and only lost that status to Wiesbaden because it had been so heavily bombed.

These ambitions translate into a sense of the significance of Darmstadt as cultural beacon. In the early twentieth century, Darmstadt was known for promoting the work of innovative architects and designers. Then, immediately after the war, an initiative was taken to develop a world-wide reputation as a centre for contemporary music. The first Ferienkurs (holiday course) was held in 1946, to provide a platform for the modern composers whose work had been banned under the Nazis. That activity has been reinforced and has developed into today’s “Internationales Musik Institut

The Jazz Institute started as part of the activity around contemporary music, but has been an independent entity, and under the leadership of its present director Wolfram Knauer since 1990. It has a staff of three, plus volunteers and an archive dog, a miniature schnauzer called Lotte. A statue of blues harmonica player Little Walter stands outside. 

Little Walter and Wolfram Knauer 

The archive originally developed from the personal collections of Joachim-Ernst Berendt (1922-2000), who had got involved in radio in the French-controlled zone of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war working for the military command, and who then ran the jazz department of the radio station SWF from 1950 until 1987.

Berendt states in his 1996 autobiography that he had given the collection to the City of Darmstadt to help form the institute, but it immediately became an open secret that he had in fact sold it to them. Berendt did continue to support the work of the institute until his death – which happened crossing the road as a pedestrian, an accident apocryphally attributed to his colour-blindness at a traffic light.

The Jazzinstitut has substantial collections of music (LPs and CDs) onsite, with its collections of 78s and cassettes at a different location just outside the town. It also has collections of books, periodicals, photographs, posters and other research collections (listed here). It has an eighty-seat performance venue in the basement with a good piano and a faourable acoustic. The venue is always referred to in listings with painstaking Germanic accuracy as “Das Gewölbe unter dem Jazzinstitut” (the vault below the Jazz Institute). The archive itself presents eight “Jazz Talk” concert/talks a year. Other promoters come in and present jazz most weeks of the year.

The ethos of the institute from the beginning has been to be completely connected to the current scene rather than to live exclusively in the past. It has published the most comprehensive guide to jazz in Germany, entitled Wegweiser Jazz. Since 1992 it has become something of a bible. The most recent issue, the sixth, with over 400 pages, was published in 2009. The information in the book is available online, but the book itself has developed a following, and is likely to be published again next year. Jazz, at the heart of so many communities, gains from having the statistical work done to aggregate it and measure it across a country, and the Institute’s work will certainly have helped the cause of people in jazz in Germany seeking to gain a more solid funding base. LondonJazz News has one common trait: we both send out a Wednesday newsletter.

Digitisation at the archive tends to follow demand rather than to be systematic. According to Wolfram Knauer; the institute’s resources don’t enable it to do more than that. The archive makes a small charge when it responds to queries, and there is an informal limit on the number of queries which it will accept from a single user. The ethos is driven by external demands of the community of those interested in jazz, and can shift to address gaps in provision, rather than tied down by an explicitly stated mission.

A major institute organized by the Jazz Institute, and with support from external funder, is a two-yearly conference entitled the ‘Darmstadt Jazzforum’. A conference for contemporary (classical) music takes the alternate years. The jazz conference takes a different theme each time. In 2009, for example, it was trombone-heavy, with a conference dedicated to Albert Mangelsdorff, who had died four years earlier.

This year’s conference is the 13th, and will take place from September 26th to 28th. The conference this year is co-organized with the Institute for Jazz Research at Graz University. There are two main subjects: “Jazz Debates” (organized by the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt) and “Jazz Analysis: Postbop” (organized by the Institute for Jazz Research).

Three-quarters of this year’s conference will be in English, the remainder in German. Among the English language speakers is John Gill, partner of the late Graham Collier. John Gennari will present a paper about pianist Jason Moran . Peter Elsdon who has written a book about the Cologne Concert of Keith Jarrett will talk about public perceptions of Jarrett.

In one section of the conference entitled ‘Europe / America, or “Who owns jazz?” ‘ speakers will include Tony Whyton, and Christian Broecking.


Jazzinstitut Darmstadt website

For reference, a listing of European jazz archives is provided by JazzArchive.eu, an initiative started by Fondazione Siena Jazz and Jazzinstitut Darmstadt.

Categories: miscellaneous

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