A German take on helping jazz musicians to organise

There is much debate in the UK jazz world at the moment about how it should organise itself. Jazz Services is having to rethink its role (see here), the Jazz Promotion Network has been established and is making some progress (see here), and individual jazz musicians like Tim Whitehead has been going in search of answers (see here). There are also developments in the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), which has launched a new jazz executive (see the London Jazz News report here).

On a recent trip to look at the jazz scene in Germany, organised by the German government’s visitor programme through Initiative Musik, I met Jonas Pirzer of Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker. He very kindly agreed to write a piece for thejazzbreakfast explaining how his union is tackling things in Germany.

X-raying the German jazz scene

By Jonas Pirzer

A lot of urban legends are told about jazz musicians. In school they were the oddballs, when they get together they spend hours talking about records, concerts, cats and chops and other stuff no sane person would understand. They are also mysteriously skilful, they get on stage with people whom they’ve never met before and then play the night away like old friends. They sleep all day and after they’ve emerged from their caves at dusk they hang around in gloomy establishments with questionable reputation till dawn. And they are of course poor.

Jonas Pirzer (Photo © Nils Brederlow)

Jonas Pirzer (Photo © Nils Brederlow)

Or are they? Due to their history as underdogs, constant lack of steady jobs and usually little public funding jazz musicians’ socioeconomic conditions were considered precarious but up until today facts are rather scarce.

The German Jazz Musicians’ Union (Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker) is the only federal organization concerned with the needs of jazz musicians in Germany. For over 40 years the UDJ has been a strong voice for Jazz musicians in Germany. Since 1973 it has been promoting awareness of the cultural and social value of Jazz. It helps provide an infrastructure which enables musicians to live, work and be creative. The UDJ represents Jazz musicians at a federal level in social and political bodies and strengthens networks within the scene.

In 2012 the UDJ underwent a significant structural change when almost the entire board was newly elected. The initiative came from a group of musicians, who in 2011 had collected over 1,000 signatures for their JazzMusikerAufruf (initiative for strong jazz in Germany) and then decided to revitalize the UDJ. A good three years later the résumé is excellent: The UDJ was able to more than triple their members, significantly rejuvenate its ranks and last but not least increase their proportion of female members from about 2 to 20 percent.

PostkarteVSThe most recent project of the UDJ is a study of the work life of German Jazz Musicians. The project had originated within the Bundeskonferenz Jazz a network consisting of musicians, organizers, journalists, educators and more. In an attempt to challenge constant speculations with little evidence regarding the work life of German Jazz Musicians the UDJ teamed up with Jazzinstitut Darmstadt (in English) and IG Jazz Berlin to create a concept and raise money both of which was successful. Funded by the federal and several state governments the study, created by the Department of Cultural Policy Hildesheim (in English), was launched on 1 June with an online questionnaire addressing all professional jazz musicians living and working in Germany. The study seemed to have hit a nerve because after the first week already more than 1,000 musicians had participated. The quantitative part is accompanied by interviews with carefully selected musicians all across the country.

The results which are due in November 2015 will for the first time provide detailed and comprehensive insights into the socioeconomic circumstances in which jazz is created in Germany today. Thus the study’s initiators are expecting to create a sound basis from which it will be possible to deduce recommendations for demand-oriented and reasonable jazz politics.

The project has already sparked interest outside of Germany and could not only serve as a blueprint for jazz musicians in other European and non-European countries but also for different (free) art sections that face the same challenges.

Thanks, Jonas! I have asked Jonas to report back to us when he has the results of the study of the working life of German jazz musicians. Should be an interesting read.

Categories: Opinion

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