CD review

Kurt Edelhagen & His Orchestra  – ‘100. The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974’

Kurt Edelhagen & His Orchestra  – 100. The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974
(Jazzline Classics D 77091. Album review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

This 3-CD box set of unreleased recordings by the Kurt Edelhagen Jazz Orchestra made for the German Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) radio station in Cologne presents a fascinating snapshot of an important episode in the history of European jazz. The collection has been put together by Dr Bernd Hoffmann, a German broadcaster and musicologist, who has made the selection from more than 3000 tracks in WDR’s archives. The “100” in the title refers to the fact that the centenary of Edelhagen’s birth was in June last year and that this release celebrates the anniversary.

The Kurt Edelhagen Jazz Orchestra was formed in 1957 under the leadership of Edelhagen, an arranger and teacher of jazz who taught on the jazz programme at the Cologne Musikhochschule. Edelhagen had, from 1952 to 1957, led an earlier big band, the Südwestfunk, which performed at the prestigious Donaueschingen contemporary music festival in 1954. In 1957 the band started working on contract for the WDR, making television shows, soundtracks for films and music for dancing in addition to the jazz work which is documented here. It was also sent to international festivals, notably in Russia and the Middle East as a ‘jazz ambassador’. It played at the opening ceremony of the Munich Olympics in 1972.

There is some wonderful music in the collection, and over the three CDs we see how the music of the band in the domain of jazz developed over its history from 1957 to 1974.

Two aspects of the band and its music particularly interest me. One is the composition of the band’s membership: although based in Germany and working for a German radio station, the members of the band came from many European countries, e.g The Netherlands, France Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia (Serbia) and Turkey. There were also a number of American musicians who joined or guested with the band, notably trombonist Jiggs Whigham and saxophonist Sahib Shihab and in later years Carla Bley, Philly Joe Jones, Maynard Ferguson, Slide Hampton and Mark Murphy.

I was especially fascinated, however, to learn how many British musicians had long stints in the band. Jimmy Deuchar, who played with the Tubby Hayes Quintet in the early 1960s, arranged for the band, and played in the trumpet section; alto saxophonist Derek Humble, a pioneer of the bop scene in Britain, led the saxophone section and was one of the band’s leading and most impressive soloists, tenor saxophonist Wilton Gaynair, who came to Europe from Jamaica and moved between Germany and Britain, was also a leading soloist. Then Shake Keane, a key participant in Joe Harriot’s free jazz experiments in Britain, joined the trumpet section for a number of years. Other British or British-based musicians guested or arranged for the band, notably Kenny Wheeler, Gordon Beck, Kenny Napper, Tubby Hayes, guitarist Gary Boyle and drummer Ronnie Stephenson.

The second major point of interest is the way the three CDs show how the music of the band developed over its history and how those developments reflected the changes in modern and contemporary jazz. The first CD presents recordings from 1957 to 1961. Of the sixteen tracks on this CD, five were arranged by Francy Boland, and these arrangements set the style for the band in this period. The arrangements follow a traditional big band format with an opening ensemble passage, either a new composition or an arrangement of a jazz standard, followed by a number of solos and concluding with the repeat of the composition or arrangement. However, the style of the compositions or arrangements feels in some ways quite different from that of American big bands of the period; the writing is more measured, less dominated by brass and in a sense more thoughtful. This is not to say that the music sounds radically different from that of American bands, the solos from players such Derek Humble, Karl Drewo (tenor sax) or Dusko Goykovic (trumpet) are in the modern mainstream style, and the rhythm section plays the traditional role of that section. Jimmy Deuchar’s arrangements, of which there are three on this Cd, are more upbeat, and remind me of the Tubby Hayes Big Band in Britain and, indeeed, the first track on the album has the title Tubbs. Nonetheless, the band was different from American bands, and the differences had an influence on the music of the later Boland-Clarke Big Band

CD 2 covers the period from 1962 to 1967. The style does not differ greatly from that of the first Cd; Francy Boland arranged three of the 13 tracks, and, interestingly, two Americans, Sahib Shihab and Herb Geller, each arranged one track. The most noticeable aspect of this Cd is that three of the tracks feature small groups, specifically one track by the Derek Humble Quartet and two tracks by the Kurt Edelhagen Sextet. Jazz in this period was very much dominated by small groups, and it is perhaps unsurprising that small breakout groups playing in the modern mainstream style were encouraged by Edelhagen.

By 1968, the first year covered by Cd3, the music and the style of the band has begun to change and to reflect various new movements in American and European jazz. The Cd covers the period up to the band’s demise in the mid 1970s, and we have arrangements for the band by Carla Bley, Kenny Wheeler and Manfred Schoof which create a more contemporary feel to the music, and a style that has much in common with that of more leftfield big bands in the USA, bands such as the Carla Bley Bley Big Band and bands led by Gil Evans. There is also a spectacular, if a little OTT, track, Ole, arranged by Slide Hampton and featuring the high note trumpet of Maynard Ferguson. However, most of the early tracks in this period draw on the bop and post-bop styles with arrangements of Tadd Dameron’s Our Delight, Joe Henderson’s Mo’ Joe, and other similar arrangements by members of the band.

Throughout its history, the band combined its jazz work with performances for dances, television shows and light music concerts. In an article on this aspect of the band’s history, Hoffmann (In the Shadow of the Pyramid) quotes Edelhagen as saying that the band had to live from dance music so that it could play jazz. Hoffmann also describes the band’s tours to the USSR and to North Africa and the Middle East, pointing out that the repertoire on these tours consisted of a mix of jazz with pop music, i.e. music of the twist craze of the time, parodies of Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley and ‘schlager’, which is described as ‘happy go lucky pop songs’; only a third of the repertoire was jazz. This mix proved very popular on the tours, but its repertoire In Germany was widely criticised by German jazz fans, and led to problems with the band members . The informative booklet accompanying the box set makes reference to these problems. Jiggs Whigham, for example, says ‘we performed at other television shows which we did not really enjoy‘. A quote from Edelhagen himself mentions the difficulty of constantly moving from one style of music to another. He says ‘the problem … is that sometimes we have to play at a ball, then at a light music concert, then a jazz concert, and after we provide the music for some sort of television magic show’. 

Have there been equivalent British big bands to Edelhagen’s? John Dankworth’s bands recorded film music and theme tunes for television, but did not, as far as I am aware, play for dances or magic shows. The Ted Heath Band often played for dances, and played variety shows at the London Palladium, but was always a swing big band and did not enter the world of modern or contemporary jazz. The Joe Loss Orchestra was always a dance band playing in a Glenn Miller style. The BBC Big Band as a radio big band with regular broadcasts for the BBC had some similarities, but its repertoire was based on jazz, and I’m not aware of it having played for dances or as backing for television shows.

With thanks to Oliver Weindling

Reference: Pyramids in Red Square. Orchestral tours of Kurt Edelhagen in the Soviet Union and the Middle East (1964-66) by Bernd Hoffmann will be published in Graz in November 2021 (LINK).
LINK: 100 – The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974 at UK Distributor Proper Music

2 replies »

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk1UlPKiPSE have a look at this 2020 WDR-movie ‘100 years Kurt Edelhagen’ with a lot of recognizable faces : Derek Humble, tenor saxophonist Winton Gayner (who died on stage during a Peter Herbolzheimer concert), Toots Thielemans, Jiggs Whigham., piano player Bora Rokovic and percussion player Nippy Noya ( 1975 excerpt).

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