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Rolf Kühn: "I felt that I should prescribe my life of music"

2019-09-29T11:07:06.860Z

Rolf Kühn, one of the best jazz clarinet players in the world, turns 90. He just keeps playing. A conversation about his life and jazz in the GDR, Germany and the USA



Rolf Kühn drives in a blue sports car, parks his car in front of the former Rias building in Berlin-Schöneberg and gets off to a great start. Elegant scarf, denim jacket, black polo shirt, sublime, timelessly sovereign. A few weeks before his 90th birthday on September 29, Kühn still plays concerts, travels, rehearses, sits at the computer, takes care of all necessary things of the artist's life, plans far ahead. He is considered one of the best jazz clarinetists in the world. What is behind him and in front of him, we want to talk about, across generations, because Rolf Kühn loves the exchange with young people. We are the ZEIT-ONLINE author Reinhard Köchl (61) and his daughter Theresa (23).

Reinhard Köchl: Your big jubilee vinyl box, which seems like a joke, is called The Best Is Yet To Come . They turn 90 and do not seem to stop thinking. So what about an interim balance?

Rolf Kühn: Does not bring much. A balance fits when a period in life has come to an end. With me there was the Leipzig period, then followed the Berlin period, the New York period, then came the time in Hamburg and now I'm back in Berlin. I've always evolved, grown as a musician and maybe as a human.

Theresa Köchl: Which period would you call the most interesting?

Kühn: The most interesting was the time in the Theater des Westens in Berlin. There I led the orchestra as principal conductor in the sixties for 13 years. I was allowed to work in absolute luxury of 45 musicians. Something like that can not be found anywhere today. In the orchestra trenches there are now more than nine to ten people, what used to be the fullness of such a sounding body, are now doing synthesizers. Unfortunately that sometimes sounds pretty good.

Reinhard Köchl: You traveled a lot in your life, you went to the USA in 1956 and then back to divided Germany. What did you seek?

Kühn: The best musicians. It would not have occurred to me that I could meet Benny Goodman and play for two years in his band. I heard his name for the first time in 1947, when the Leipzig pianist JuttaHipp played a V-disc entitled Hallelujah . Goodman and the band, Teddy Wilson or Gene Krupa, all at their best! It was the only record I knew, and I studied it and literally stole every note. I wanted to know how he did that, inventing new tunes in seconds that fit in with these harmonies. Listening to such people and maybe playing with them, learning from them, that was my big goal, no matter where I was.

Reinhard Köchl: 2019 is the year of the great German-German anniversaries: 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 70 years of West Germany and the GDR. They were witnesses of all these events.

Kühn: In 1949 I was 20 and still living in Leipzig. I did not even notice the founding of the two German-speaking states because everything turned to music. Since the age of 17, I have been playing as a saxophonist and clarinettist in the Leipzig Radio Dance Orchestra, the leading big band of the Sowszone, with well-known colleagues such as the trumpeter Horst "Hackl" Fischer or the drummer Fips Fleischer. And in 1950 I got a job at the Rias Dance Orchestra in Berlin as the first saxophonist. When I left home, all else was easy for me. I had to think about our family and my younger brother Joachim because he was completely on his own. Sometimes I think: He might have needed me at this time. That's why he did everything he is today on his own. One way for me to come home was the Leipzig Fair. At one of these I heard Joachim with his trio for the first time, which impressed me unbelievably. We immediately formed a quartet and played a few gigs in Halle or East Berlin. That was still possible at the time. For me it was a kind of homecoming.

Theresa Köchl: Despite all the reprisals?

Kühn: At some point in the GDR politics began to influence the music. There was this arrangement that a concert program had to be played at least 60 percent with pieces by GDR composers. The quota increased sometime to 70 and then to 80 percent. That was awful! That drove me away.

Reinhard Köchl: Do you remember the day when Walter Ulbricht had the wall built in 1961?

Source: zeit

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