Full jazzahead

Some musicians believe they can bring about change through their music, but all Ulrich Beckerhoff wants is to play his trumpet.

Ulrich Beckerhoff 521 (photo credit: Ulrich Beckerhoff)
Ulrich Beckerhoff 521
(photo credit: Ulrich Beckerhoff)
Last month an international musical showcase took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with many of our leading jazz and world music acts on display before a top-drawer gathering of festival artistic directors and producers, and media professionals, from around the globe. Ulrich Beckerhoff was probably the most representative of the jazz community in the foreign contingent.
Composer-musician Beckerhoff, 64, came here with impressive credentials.He has been at the forefront of jazz and improvisational musical exploration for four decades, playing trumpet with likeminded artists such as American guitarist John Abercrombie, Canadian-British trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, British drummer John Marshall and British vocalist Norma Winstone.
He cofounded such forward-looking jazz act as Jazztrack, and Riot and Changes, as well as working with the acclaimed NDR Big Band and the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble. He writes music for movies, theater, big bands and symphony orchestras and is also a professor at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany.
Beckerhoff came to the musical expo here with a wealth of knowledge in thefield, as he also serves as head of Europe’s biggest jazz trade fair, Jazzahead!
This year’s showcase will take place in Bremen from April 19 to 22, with Spain as the partner company. One of Beckerhoff’s “briefs” on his trip here was to get a better look at Israeli jazz talent, to consider whether Israel might be a good partner for Jazzahead! sometime in the near future.
In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Beckerhoff ended up earning his crust in the jazz domain. He initially studied trumpet with an American classical musician who played with the Berlin Philharmonic for 27 years. Later the young Beckerhoff opted for a very different avenue of study, albeit abortively.
“I studied law at university but after one year I said, this is not the way I want to spend the rest of my days,” he says. “But you know, when you’re 21, you’re very naive, and I thought I would play music for a living.”
Judging by Beckerhoff’s career to date that wasn’t such a naive thought after all.
BECKERHOFF STARTED playing trumpet at the age of 14, even though he originally had his sights set on a different instrument.
“Actually I wanted to go for the clarinet because, at the time, there was [English band leader-trombonist] Chris Barber with [clarinetist] Monty Sunshine, and Monty had a hit called ‘Petite Fleur.’” The number soon took on some added amorous value.
“We had arts classes at school and we all could bring records to play while we painted, so we played this song and all the girls in the class really liked it. So I thought I might have a better chance with the girls when I played that song,” Beckerhoff laughs.
Naturally, he also thought the clarinet would help him with his incipient love life, but some cold financial facts of life led him in the direction of his current instrument.
“I went to a shop but a clarinet cost more than 300 deutschmarks, which was too much for me in those days. But then I heard about someone who wanted to sell a second-hand trumpet for 60 deutschmarks, and I could afford that. So I played ‘Petite Fleur’ on trumpet instead. So you could say I started improvising from the very beginning.”
Nothing, it seems, went too smoothly for Beckerhoff to start with.
“There was a sort of traditional jazz scene when I was growing up in Munster, but I actually came to jazz through my brother. My parents listened to classical music, my older sister listened to pop music but my brother listened to jazz. He had Duke Ellington records and Louis Armstrong records, and Benny Goodman and so on. I started playing trumpet later but, at least in those days, I never had in mind that I would become a professional musician.”
Even after he finally made the decision to opt for jazz there were some obstacles to be negotiated.
“My parents wouldn’t have been too pleased about me studying jazz so it was safer to tell them I was going to a conservatory and, anyway, you couldn’t really study jazz in such institutions back then. We got classical training and ear training and stuff like that. But I never wanted to go into classical music, I wanted to improvise.”
Even so, there was plenty of classical endeavor in Beckerhoff’s DNA.
“My father was an amateur classical violinist and my mother played a little piano. My father was a high [court] judge so he was happy when I studied law, but he was also cool when I decided to do music. He just asked me if I was sure that I wanted to play music for a living, and whether I would want to be playing music in 20 years’ time.
I told him I was sure, and I really was.” BECKERHOFF’S MOMENTOUS career change decision coincided with exciting times in the West.
“It was around 1966, ’67, ’68 when things were really happening,” he recalls. “You know there was the student revolution [in 1968] and things changed in the [German] republic and there was a feeling that we could really change things.” Mind you, that youthful ideological fervor did not extend to Beckerhoff’s chosen profession.
“I didn’t believe you could change things, or convey a sense of change through music, and I still don’t believe it,” he says soberly. “I just wanted to play music. I had the feeling that this is something that comes from me. I wasn’t sure how the audience would react, although most of the time it was very positive, but I never thought ‘I have to bring something to the world.’ There are musicians who feel they bring important things to the world. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but I just want to play music.”
That, says Beckerhoff, also goes for most of the jazz musicians with whom he has played over the years.
“Even Kenny Wheeler, who is one of the most important jazz musicians of the last 30 to 40 years, never thinks ‘I bring something to the world.’ That’s what I like about the English, they’re always cool.”
Then again, there were quite a few black American jazz musicians, drummer Max Roach, singer Abbey Lincoln and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who felt they could help the Civil Rights movement by providing a musical backdrop for the efforts of Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the movement. Beckerhoff feels if there was any music that strove to make a difference in Europe in the Sixties, it was free jazz.
“We’re talking about the period around 1966 to 1968. I wouldn’t say free jazz had a political aspect, but it went along with political changes, coming from younger people, from the students. When I started studying law in 1968 we had more political discussions than lessons, and if a professor wanted to hold a regular lesson about law he had no chance. We felt we could change things, although we didn’t know what that would be.”
That brings Beckerhoff neatly back to jazz.
“That’s why I like to play improvised music. When you sit down and compose you’re not going to know what will come out. And you’re not sure how your concert will be.”
For Beckerhoff it all comes down to following your heart and beliefs.
“When you play, it happens and then it’s over and, if it’s not recorded, everybody has a personal feeling about how it was but it should be the truth, the absolute truth, it is your truth. I think this is something special about jazz musicians, you cannot judge the music in an objective way.”
Beckerhoff certainly sticks to the straight and narrow of his credo, and appreciates fellow artists who do the same, in as dispassionate and ego-less manner as possible.
“You have musicians like that on the European scene, and some Americans too, like Abercrombie and [veteran Jewish saxophonist Dave] Liebman who are just happy to do what they do, to play music. That’s all we want to do.” ■