Harking back to the 1930s

The Swing Dance Orchestra takes part in the Hot Jazz festival.

The Swing Dance Orchestra (photo credit: UWE HAUTH)
The Swing Dance Orchestra
(photo credit: UWE HAUTH)
Music, they say, transcends political, social, cultural and geographic boundaries. That was certainly the case for Andrej Hermlin when, almost half a century ago, the now 52-year-old German jazz pianist and musical director first caught the intoxicating sounds of Swing. It has proven to be an enduring love, and it is the music he will bring over, together with a 14-piece big band, to perform as part of the Hot Jazz season.
When Hermlin got his first taste of the dance music performed by the likes of Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, the Swing era had long been consigned to the history books. In the late 1960s, the jazz world was more oriented to fusion and avantgarde than the kind of rhythms you could dance to. So what drew him to that “antiquated” stuff?
“It is a bit of mystery to me,” he admits. “I was born [in East Germany] in 1965. My mother came from Russia and was not in any way connected to jazz music. My dad, who came from a Jewish family and barely escaped from Nazi Germany, became a writer. He was interested in music, but mostly classical music.”
Still, Hermlin Sr. had a few discs from the relevant field.
“When I was a little kid, I was always listening to Bach and Mozart and Schubert, but my dad had five or six jazz records, and he played them from time to time,” he adds.
The youngster may have enjoyed Baroque and classical music, but he really dug Swing.
“My parents told me that when I was about four, I would climb down the stairs and sit down next to the loudspeaker – there was Benny Goodman or Django Reinhardt – and listen to the music. What set the spark for me? I really don’t know,” he says. “It has been part of my life since those very early days. What made a kid, in East Germany in 1968, fall in love with Benny Goodman remains a mystery.”
Hermlin was truly grabbed and has remained enthralled with the insouciant sounds of early jazz ever since. He has taken his infant love all the way, going the whole hog professionally as well.
When he and the Swing Dance Orchestra from Berlin, which includes Hamlin’s 17-year-old son David on drums, take the stage in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya, the audiences will be treated to an all-round sensory treat.
The players won’t only sound like the real McCoy, they’ll look the part, too. If you have ever seen the film The Glenn Miller Story, with James Stewart in the title role, or caught YouTube video clips with Benny Goodman leading his big band on clarinet, you’ll note that not only do the band members play their parts with gusto, but they also give the impression of being esthetically orchestrated.
“I believe that music is being listened to, and it’s being seen,” Hermlin declares. “They are both very important. You need to see the whole package. If you just listen to the music at home, it doesn’t matter whether the musicians are wearing jeans or a suit. But when you go to our concert and you see the band, it is part of the show to look like 1937.”
And it’s not just attire we’re talking about here.
“You have to use the same microphones and instruments, and to have the same hairstyles. I am very strict on that one. I do not accept musicians in the band who have long hair or a beard. We wear tailor-made suits. I believe in the original authentic style of the 1930s. Part of that style is the sound. We don’t amplify our music because bands in the 1930s didn’t amplify their music. All that is part of the concert. I fell in love with the Benny Goodman band of 1937, and my goal is to get as close as possible to the sound and look of those orchestras from the late 1930s,” he asserts.
Even with all the aforementioned effort to convey as authentic a Swing vibe as possible, Hermlin does not pretend he comes from way back when.
“I don’t want this music to be a museum. After all, it’s still jazz. Every musician in my band has the freedom to do his own solo. We don’t copy the solos. If you start copying the solos, there is no room for improvisation, and then the whole thing becomes very stiff and really like a museum,” he says.
For Hermlin, it is very much about presenting the music in the here and now.
“An American jazz musician we play with [reedman] Dan Levinson told me doesn’t play the same solos Benny Goodman played, but he plays the solos Benny Goodman probably would have played today,” he elaborates.
With his Jewish roots, Hermlin is particularly delighted to bring his big band to Israel.
“For me, coming to Israel is very emotional because of my Jewish roots and because I have cousins living in Israel. For me it is not just a concert, it is to show solidarity with Israel in times when, at least from my observation, Israel is being treated quite unfairly by many people, including many Germans,” he says.
There are professional ethnic connections, too.
“We should not forget that the music I love so much was heavily influenced by Jewish musicians and Jewish producers. I always say that had there been no Jews or blacks, there would not have been any jazz at all. I am so happy to bring this music to Israel,” says Hermlin.
The Swing Dance Orchestra will perform on March 1 at 9 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theatre; March 2 at 9:30 p.m. at the Opera House in Tel Aviv; March 3 (doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.) at the Herzliya Zappa Club. For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and www.hotjazz.co.il