The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

Improvisierte Musik in Berlin braucht Freiräume –und ein festes Dach über dem Kopf. Cuvrybrache Berlin © William Veder

Jazz is everywhere in Berlin, you just need to let yourself be aware of it. No other musical genre has an equally varied presence in the capital and often, jazz events beyond the established clubs and concert series are more exciting and have a more welcoming atmosphere than the predictable programmes and audiences consisting only of the usual suspects. Rather than asking which jazz club is worth a visit, you will find it more rewarding to enquire into musical and local contexts that feature jazz musicians as part of the mix. Whether it is in theatre or musical theatre productions, at a Finnish gallery in Berlin-Wedding, at a semi-legal club on Kreuzberg’s Landwehrkanal, at concerts in private homes, events at an old industrial hall on the banks of the Spree at Oberschöneweide, a jazz service at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, Sunday brunches from Moabit to Treptow, in bars and project venues in Neukölln or at jam sessions in Tempelhof – all over the city, professional musicians delight their audiences with their prowess. Apart from Jazzfest Berlin, there are five other regular festivals for jazz and improvised music in Berlin; and every month, there is at least one festival featuring musicians who were raised on jazz and are now equally at home in other musical styles. The scene for jazz and improvised music is more international here than in any other German city: Musicians from Scandinavia, South and Eastern Europe, Russia, the US and Australia come here. Equally unique is Berlin’s “Echtzeitmusik”-scene, where many (jazz)musicians feel at home, making experimental projects happen and exploring freely improvised music with like-minded colleagues. But only a small proportion of musicians manage to make a living solely by giving concerts, because at less than 100 Euro per musician and performance, fees in Berlin are extremely low. This problem, however, is not exclusive to the jazz scene: Musicians who play alternative pop music, post punk, noise rock, sound art and electronic music also make very little money in this city. And there is the precarious situation of musicians who work as music- school teachers in addition to their rehearsals and concerts. Only 7 percent of them hold a permanent position, the rest of them work on fee-based contracts, which means that they are likely to face dire conditions in their old age. In order to change these untenable conditions for creative practice and teaching, the advocacy group IG Jazz Berlin operates as the jazz scene’s mouthpiece and, as a member of the Coalition of the Independent Scene, campaigns for significant increases in cultural spending, participation in processes of cultural politics and a say in the handling of state-owned real estate. The ubiquitous shortage of space is rampant also within the jazz scene – even a big band can find it hard to locate a venue of adequate size and acoustics that will help to entice a sympathetic audience. Which brings us to the most significant gap in Berlin’s jazz landscape: There is no venue to offer perfect performance conditions to a wide range of ensembles, open to both known and experimental varieties of jazz and improvised music and that doesn’t develop its programme based on enquiries from bands, but rather employs (rotating) curators to provide a continuing programme of high artistic quality. There is an audience for jazz in every neighbourhood of Berlin: It spans multiple generations, it prefers live concerts to many other forms of experiencing music and it will drive an extra mile or two to admire excellent musicians. However, if you want to hear important contemporary musicians from the US, the motherland of jazz, you will have to travel to other cities. Due to scant financial resources and a lack of networking between presenters from Berlin and other venues in Germany and Europe, most US-American musicians steer well clear of Berlin when they are touring Europe. A new venue with a wide perspective encompassing local musicians and their audiences as well as international guests could change this. Until that time, following the jazz trail is the best way of discovering new corners of the city.

Jazzfest Berlin 2016 takes place from 1 to 6 November, 2016.