Music & clubs

Keeping the jazz alive

Berliner Festspiele's Jazzfest is kicking off Tue, Oct 31, but for those who don't know, Charlottenburg used to be the epicentre of jazz in Berlin... and today, a trio of venues sustain the scene in their own unique ways.

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Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Berliner Festspiele’s Jazzfest is kicking off Tuesday, October 31, but for those who don’t know, Charlottenburg used to be the epicentre of jazz in Berlin… and today, a trio of venues sustain the scene in their own unique ways.

Mere metres from Bahnhof Zoo, there sits a little Bermuda Triangle. But instead of swallowing small aircrafts, it attracts legions of jazz musicians, promoters, old regulars and young newcomers from across the city, and even all over Europe. On Kantstraße, you’ll find the historical jazz club Quasimodo; on Pestalozzistraße there’s the 25-year-old A-Trane; and under the S-Bahn tracks at the back of Kranzler Eck, there’s the recent Russian-owned addition The Hat. Like Charlottenburg itself, the jazz scene here is in flux, with old ideas being pushed out and new ones arriving almost daily.

Quasimodo: Fresh blood for an old legend

With its low basement ceilings and walls lined with black and white photos of the jazz and blues heroes who have graced its stage since 1968, the club is almost shockingly small to have hosted greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker.

The space opened after the war as a club for American GIs. “By the time I started working there, it was a typical south German wine cellar where students would come and get drunk. There was a stage in the corner and someone would be playing rock ‘n’ roll or whatever,” recalls Giorgio Carioti, the 67-year-old Italian who owned the club for over 30 years and was responsible for its transition from student dive to jazz hub. “My thing was, I had no intention to have drunken people who would sit around at 5pm and have to be carried out by eight. So, what do you do? You bring good bands and charge at the door, so the regulars decide not to come anymore,” he muses over coffee at the upstairs restaurant Qmodo.

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Chet Baker at Quasimodo. Photo by Giorgio Carioti

Carioti took over the business in 1975, shortened the club’s name from “Quartier Quasimodo” and went on cementing its place in the scene. “Jazz always had a great following in West Berlin – we had great events like the [Berliner Festspiele’s] Jazztage, now called JazzFest Berlin, but there wasn’t much going on in the clubs – those were all for singer-songwriters,” he says. “We started with German bands and local jazz groups, but towards the end of the 1970s we booked Jasper Van’t Hof, Joachim Kühn, Philip Catherine – the first international musicians to play the ‘Quasi’. Then it went on and on…” Despite its jazzy reputation, Quasimodo’s programme has actually been quite varied, booking everything from rock to blues to R’n’B. In Quasimodo’s heyday, even the biggest pop stars could stop by, trading the largest venues in the world for an intimate jam. “In 1987 Prince came down to have a session, on the Sign o’ The Times tour,” says Giorgio with a chuckle. “We’d been working for eight years to bring the most successful acts, and suddenly all the magazines and newspapers were only talking about Prince! At first I was pissed off at him… I mean, right before that we had had Art Blakey. If that doesn’t make the club a big hit, what’s the point?”

After Carioti’s retirement in 2008, the club appeared to stagnate. As of March this year, though, Quasimodo is attempting a revival with the help of Berlin booking agency Trinity Music. “I think the whole jazz thing is like a positive personal development – like, when you’re a teenager you drink beer, and then you appreciate a good wine, you know?” says Trinity’s Sabina Boller, a 40-something who used to book doom and psych acts in the 1990s. She laughs a little. “There are so many acts right now like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Binker and Moses… they’re playing Boiler Room, and they’re actually jazz, you know?”

You won’t find Washington and Thundercat on Quasimodo’s docket this month, but you will find an astoundingly diverse range of acts, from German jazz singer Lyambiko to seminal glam-rocker Ian Hunter, disco covers to zydeco to indie to experimental improv. It’s a wide net meant to capture both local Charlottenburgers and those from further afield who are, as Boller puts it, “kind of getting fed up with the Neukölln vibe.”

A-trane: Where thereal jazzers are

If it’s jazz and nothing but jazz you want, head to the opposite side of Savignyplatz. A-Trane’s programme might include blues, country or even techno influences, but never strays too far from its jazz roots. On any given night their bar is completely packed, with patrons spilling from the seated area in the front of the stage all the way to the back wall, devoting their full attention to what’s on stage. Those in the know come on Mondays, when entrance is free, or late on Saturdays, where the weekly jam session stretches from midnight well into the wee hours. This year marks the 25th anniversary since German saxophonist Ralf Rudolph opened the club, and the 20th year since Turkish entrepreneur Sedal Sardan took over. The former designer, basketball player and jazz purist meticulously soundproofed the room down to the air conditioning vents and began bringing in the likes of Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis.

Over the past two decades, Sedal has been able to maintain A-Trane’s stature as one of Berlin’s two premiere jazz clubs (with B-Flat in Mitte) while cultivating a mass of local regulars. One of them is Kelvin Sholar, an African American pianist from Detroit who moved to Berlin in 2006. The 44-year-old shifts seamlessly from jazz to classical to blues as he sits at the keyboard, dressed in a pink patterned suit of his own design. “I’ve had some really great moments at A-Trane,” he says. “One night, I presented Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird suites with acoustic piano, synthesizer, drums, electronic drums and two ballet dancers… another time, we did all the major hits of Detroit techno, orchestrated with live musicians and vocalists. I had Wendell Harrison there from Detroit, to do some of his early songs from when he had his record label in the 1970s. I brought Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and David Gilmore there…” How does the jazz scene in Berlin compare to America? “It’s a microcosm,” Sholar muses. “It doesn’t quite touch on everything the scene in America has to offer. Historically, Jazz is an American art form, particularly an African American one, so I do consider myself closer to the source of it than people from other countries, like Germany.” He concedes that a place like A-Trane helps the scene, though. “It does a great job bringing in international acts while still focusing on local groups as well.”

The hat: More than background music

Right down the road from A-Trane, under the tracks of the S-Bahn, is the newest addition to the Charlottenburg jazz scene: The Hat. Imported here from St. Petersburg in 2015, it’s a long, brick-lined tunnel with a bar on one side and a tiny stage on the other. The clientele is decidedly younger than at A-Trane or Quasimodo – groups mingle, talk, laugh and drink the bar’s top-shelf liquor while a ragtag group of musicians play in the corner. The atmosphere isn’t serious or reverent, like at other Berlin jazz venues. Here, the live music seems more background than the centre of the evening. The Hat doesn’t have a house band, an emcee or a cover charge – all the music is provided by jam sessions where musicians, some of whom have never met, perform improvised versions of old-school standards.

“As far as I know, we’re the only jazz bar in the city – the other places are jazz clubs. Here, there’s a jam session every night, and for us the point is putting the traditions of New York from the 1920s until the 1950s back on track,” explains Michael Shpaizman, one of the bar’s three Russian owners. And it’s true: even though the interior of The Hat looks very new, there’s an old vibe to the place, like it’s connecting to the wild, free-styling mood of the beginning of jazz. “Sometimes you have 12 people on this really small stage who want to play, and sometimes it’s two or three. A few months ago, on a Friday, this huge brass band – 15, 16 people – played, half on the stage and half out on the sidewalk.”

Everything about The Hat reads footloose and fancy-free, even the way they ended up in Charlottenburg to begin with. “I chose this space because there aren’t any neighbours at all.” Shpaizman says. “The closest residences are blocks away in either direction, so it was perfect. Only then did we consider that it’s across the street from Quasimodo and two blocks away form A-Trane.” You won’t find free jazz or Echtzeitmusik here, as pushing the envelope isn’t Shpaizman’s primary concern. “Jazz has become something very sophisticated for intelligent people with big glasses pretending like they’re professors. But a song like ‘Summertime’ is like Michael Jackson, everybody understands it. We want our clients to get drunk if they like, listen to some good jazz, go home, and come back the next day.” And every so often, he says, those old standards provide moments of transcendence. “You have somebody who looks totally ordinary, half-drunk, and suddenly starts really singing from their soul, and everybody is like ‘Wow’. This kind of magic is only possible with jazz. If it were any other kind of music, it would be karaoke.”