The German Youth Jazz Orchestra
Directed by Peter Herbolzheimer

The Return of the Young Lions
by Ron Simmonds
First published in March 1998

Gallery  • Young Lions • Trombone Workshop • Return of the Young Lions

This heralds the return of the Youth Jazz Orchestra of the Federal Republic of Germany, BuJazzO, to these pages. In reality it has only just returned from a tour of South Africa, where it played before Mandela, Tutu, and, for all I know, Nefertiti herself.

It also played before the famed British singer Eve Boswell. I shall now launch into Trivialand, as I know just how much you all enjoy the titbits I throw out from time to time.

The first I even knew about them being in South Africa was when Peter Herbolzheimer, musical director of the BuJazzO, called me up on his mobile phone from Durban and handed it over to Eve. I had no idea where the call was coming from, or who was speaking. She started off right away complaining bitterly about some non-existent arrangement I was supposed to have written for her, how rotten it was, and so on, and was warming to her theme when communications broke down. It was a great gag, and left me mystified until the band returned to Germany and the joke was explained to me.

Eve is alive and well in Durban, still sings and teaches, together with a colleague by the name of Darius Brubeck, son of Dave. Eve's dad used to run Boswell’s Circus in SA, and we did a tour with her down there back in the 1950s with Jack Parnell’s band.

The last time we met was when she came to star in a show in Berlin some twenty years later. There was a 96 piece orchestra on the stage, and when I went down front to greet her she said, ‘Pick me up!’ I dutifully clasped her around the waist, lifted her, and whirled her around a few times. At once the entire orchestra began joyously engaging in a series of hot licks to accompany our gyrations.

‘Put me down, you clown,’ she hissed, red-faced. ‘I said ZIP me up!’ There was an inch or two of the unreachable unzipped at the back of her dress.

‘Sorry about that,’ I mumbled. ‘I’ve gone a bit deaf.’

‘No kidding,’ she said. This was the last time I saw her. Sadly, Eve passed away in 1998.

Peter Herbolzheimer has been running the German youth jazz orchestra now for ten years. As it is basically funded by the government, together with dozens of other sponsors, this is the only truly National Youth Orchestra in the world. Ages of the musicians range from 16 to 24, and the line-up changes every year. Up to now hardly anyone has played in the bands for more than one year. Soon Peter will be gathering the talent together for the 1998 orchestra.

For the auditions a date is set in a location in Germany. At the appointed time up to 200 students from the music high schools meet and test for the bands. These are all jazz musicians, don’t forget; jazz is taught in the German high schools of music by working professional players. The problem is not finding enough good players for the new youth orchestra, but trying to sort out a line-up from the dazzling display of talent.

In the end Peter winds up with two whole bands, with plenty of reserves. When fine-tuning the sections he usually leaves the composition of each wind group to the players themselves. This is, by the way, standard practice in all professional orchestras in Germany.

Once the line-ups have been settled an army of experts descends on the place. Charlie Mariano, Herb Geller and Heinz von Hermann coach the saxes; Chuck Findley, Bobby Shew and Ack van Rooyen show the trumpets how things should be done; the van Lier brothers do the honours on trombones, and many other jazz stars give these not-so-raw recruits the benefit of their years of experience. Within a couple of weeks the kids are playing like seasoned professionals, and then some.

This band made a double CD called “Focus on Vocals”. The name is a trifle misleading. Of the eighteen titles half are vocals: solos, duets or with the group. It would be fairer to say that this is a big band record with integrated singers. The band certainly plays the major role. It is sensational, as they all are, and includes a score of Peter’s Body and Soul adapted for the singers from his equally sensational recording Colors of a Band, with Dianne Reeves. (See review)

Last May I was handed a tape of the recordings, long before they were put on to disc. Since then I must have listened to it right through at least a hundred times. Now I have never done that with any recording before, never mind who is playing. But there is something about this band that really gets me, deep down inside.

Seen on stage there is constant movement in the brass between numbers, as parts are swapped and section leaders change around. Everyone plays great lead, everyone plays great jazz. And yes, the rhythm section rehearses, like the rest of them. Here the drummer has become an important extra member of each wind group. The band has perfect jazz phrasing, perfect intonation, perfect everything, and on top of it all—is thrilling to listen to. How do these people do it? Sheer talent—and lots of practice. It has nothing to do with experience, because these people don’t have any—not yet.

The answer is that it is the teacher who must have the practical jazz experience to pass on. This is, sadly, not always the case with youth bands, or, indeed, any bands. Most of my contemporaries, like myself, had to pull everything out of the ground, learning as they went along. A start in the wrong direction, wrong instrument, wrong mouthpiece, wrong concept could, and often did, ruin a potentially good musical career. Those days are behind us. Now Peter assures me that for every young musician in his bands there are a couple more, just as gifted, waiting and hoping for a vacancy to appear. They are polished and ready even before they get the gig.

Time for some more trivia—sorry guys, but the discs were recorded live, no edits or overdubbing, in the Academy for Youth Education at Trossingen. In a school hall, in fact. Not even a proper recording studio. Remember the last CD, where the stuff was recorded live in concert halls on tour in Latvia, Estonia and St. Petersburg? Once again, the recorded sound on all of these BuJazzO titles is awe-inspiring. One more thing—before, during and after concerts the kids get through several crates of bottled water. This is a far cry from the good old days when some bandleaders used to snarl at their musicians, ‘Here! Why weren’t you in the pub with everyone else in the interval?’

Quite a few of the scores on this package have been written by young composers not in the band. They are, without exception, innovative and outstanding. The youth of today has done away with the old saxophone chorus plus brass figures routine, and mixes instruments of all timbre and quality with solo voices, creating wonderful new tone colours backed with complex rhythmic motives, often borrowed from rock music. Red Letter Day is a good example of this. There is something new and sensational happening all the time, and one never tires of listening and wondering. No less than five bass players take it in turn to play on these 18 titles. Just listening to what they are doing is a joy of its own. You need to turn up the volume, and have no distractions, to appreciate it all. I like to listen with earphones: that way I feel as if I’m sitting in the middle of the band. But beware: this record can grow on you.

As a hardened professional there is very little left in jazz music that can bring me up out of my seat, but I do tend to become very emotional about some of the titles on these CDs, and find myself rating them according to the various feelings they draw out of me.  All of them get the happy smile rating, but I get a lump in the throat near the end of Night in Tunisia, with a couple more in Nefertiti and Better Days Ahead. When We Two Walked is a vocal duet in 7/4 and contains some startling trombone section work. The lump in this one comes during a guitar solo in the middle where the brass comes in with such power and intensity that you almost feel as if you have become weightless.

The tears—ah yes, the tears. They come in Body and Soul. I’m usually drained by the time that’s over. Peter, the Great Magician, has done something with that score that grabs my soul, takes it out and wrings it dry. It’s not just the superb vocal group. There is something almost religious about his writing and the way the orchestra plays Body and Soul. He has inspired everyone there, and the result gets me every time, a totally emotional experience.

Finally, last word, cross my heart: there is a gem of a chase between alto and trumpet on Cherokee that will leave you breathless. They both perform technical wonders at breakneck speed, at the same time putting out some commendable jazz. The trumpet player sounds a lot like Claudio Roditi, one of my all-time favourites. As Gerry Mulligan used to say, if he sounds like that he can’t be all bad. That goes for the rest of them, too.

Focus on Vocals, BuJazzO, Mons Records LC6458, Double CD Recorded in 1997

 Copyright ©1998 Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved