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Wolfgang Kowatsch


Wolfgang Kowatsch
A tribute from Ron Simmonds

March 2005
Kowa, that's what his fellow musicians used to call him, pronounced Kova. Wolfgang was, for very many years, pianist, accordionist, composer, arranger and conductor of the Saarland Radio band in Germany. I have the privilege and honour to have played with him for about twenty years in that band. Now he is gone, leaving his wife Gisela, his family, and the hundreds of musicians who knew, loved and greatly respected the man.

Wolfgang, and I shall call him that, was a man of many talents. For the last ten years in the life of that radio band, before it was put on ice, he and I ran all the recording sessions. We were the arrangers, and whoever had written the score led the band. But he also ran a second band there. This was called The Halberger Musikanten - it was more or less the same lineup, but we played German folk music, specially scored by Wolfgang, by no means oompah-oompah-oompah, but very rousing. and often very tricky to play. We performed this music at concerts throughout Saarland, and we used to play to packed houses. We were even featured one year at the radio exhibition in Berlin. A rare honour.

We also played very many television shows called Im Krug Zum Gruenen Kranz. Everyone in this show was dressed up in Bavarian costume, there were Bohemian bands from all over, including several from Hungary, lots of country dancing, yodelling - we did the lot. The people loved it. I used to regularly drive deep into neighbouring France to my favourite restaurant in Lembach, the Auberge du Cheval Blanc, and was always treated as a celebrity, not for my former career as a big band trumpet player, but because everyone there was seeing me on that television show. The waiters even wanted my autograph.

Wolfgang wrote all the music for these concerts and shows and often played the accordeon on them. During record sessions and rehearsals he got so carried away that he would often catch his beard in the bellows, adding a scream of pain or two to the proceedings. He had a Bobtail dog called Buddy Rich who looked exactly like him; Wolfgang, not Buddy.

One day he told me, straight-faced, that he had once drowned a piano which was getting on his nerves. He used to have a large catamaran on Lake Constance. In the cabin of the catamaran was a small upright piano. Often, during the summer, he would sail out to the middle of the lake with other musician friends and throw a party, whereby the piano, as the night went on, and the bottles rapidly emptied themselves, took on an increasingly important role in the entertainment. After several years of constant dampness, caused by water lapping on the outside and beer swilling around on the inside, many notes went missing and the piano became fearfully out of tune.

'I'd like to murder this piano,' he muttered angrily one evening in frustration. Then someone suggested drowning it, and so, that night, when it was dark, they lifted the piano and threw it over the side. Solemnly, they watched as it sank slowly from view into the deep waters of Lake Constance, gone for ever. A few minutes later they all watched it slowly bob up again. 'Ach,' said Wolfgang, 'We can't leave it here. A ship might run into it.' So they lassoed it, not without difficulty, and towed it back to dry land, where it was left on the dock, from which it disappeared without trace later that same night.

There is a story, too, of the time Wolfgang went to his local pet shop to buy some birdseed and came home with a donkey. He kept it for a few days only because the donkey screamed day and night until he returned it to the shop.

On his 60th birthday he gave a big party in a pub in his home town of Neunkirchen. Most of the guys took their instruments and there was a lot of fun and a whole lot of jazz going on in there that evening. To my surprise there were a lot of gypsy musicians in there, all friends of Wolfgang. While the band played I was sitting at one of the long tables with Annie, the wife of Eberhard Pokorny, our trombone player, when one of the gypsies came over and sat down with us.

He was a big swarthy man, obviously as strong as an ox, very handsome with an enormous moustache, a gold earring and fingers loaded down with diamond rings. It was clear right from the start that he had taken one look at Annie, and fallen madly in love with her. Now Annie, who herself was about sixty at that time, and married to Eberhard all her life, noticed this at once, and when he grabbed her hand fervently she uttered a plaintive bleat and rolled her eyes at me for help. Brave as I am, I was not going to start a free-for-all with the King of the Gypsies, who had enough of his mates in there to wreck the place, so I grabbed Annie around the waist, dragged her away from him and started to dance her around the floor. She was too amazed to struggle. Neither of us was a very good dancer, and we were the only ones on the floor so it must have looked pretty weird. We sailed past the band a couple of times, giving Eberhard, who was in the middle of a solo, the big hello. When we got back to the table the gypsy had gone.

"There you are," I said. "He only wanted to tell your fortune."

I think Wolfgang had quite a bit of trouble with me when I first joined the band. Neunkirchen, although technically in Saarland, was, according to folklore, actually right at the end of a long strip of territory known as Niederbayern, or Lower Bavaria, that ran right across the bottom of Germany, and the people there spoke a very mixed Bavarian dialect. I'd already spent a couple of years working in Munich, but this variation was mostly incomprehensible to me, so we had quite a bit of sorting out to do at times before I knew what he was talking about. But he had infinite patience and never lost his rag with me, even when things got really tangled up. A lovely, quiet man. All except once, when I invited all the band with their wives around to my house to celebrate my own birthday.

We had the director of the local coal mines there, with his wife; a local estate agent with his wife; one of the radio announcers with his girl friend, who was the radio station boss's secretary, and my landlord, with his wife. Each of those four couples had had a flaming domestic row just before they arrived and weren't speaking to one other. When we'd all had a drink or three the women retired to the bedroom where they sat weeping. Meanwhile, the director, taking time out from telling the guys as how we ought to run the band business like he did the coal mines, burned an enormous hole in our new couch without turning a hair, while a couple of the band wives each smoked about half of one of my Havana cigars before rushing into the bathroom.

It's a disaster, I thought, and put on a very loud Rob McConnell tape to liven things up. At once, Wolfgang leapt up and started a crazy boogie all around the room, expertly dodging the furniture, flower pots and our best china, elbows working, legs pumping, laughing madly, working away furiously, wholly dedicated. He looked exactly like the bearded guy in Chaplin's Gold Rush cutting a crazy rug at midnight to celebrate the New Year, and everyone in the room broke up. I don't think anyone had ever seen him do that before. Annie and Gisela were laughing so much I thought they were going to split their sides. After that it was all great fun. It was always great fun with Wolfgang.

He was a talented musician, great pianist, a good friend and colleague, a lovely man.

Bless you, Wolfgang, for bringing so much sunshine into our lives. You will always have a place in our hearts.

From Peter Bauer, drummer and long-time associate of Wolfgang at Saarland Radio.

April 1st, 2005
This afternoon I assisted at Wolfgang’s funeral on the Zentralfriedhof
at Neunkirchen-Furpach. Heini Bach, Conny Motyl and their wives were there, and a big crowd of fans and friends.

During the ceremony, Amby, Wolfgang’s drummer of the last 20 years, sang “Nadine”, a Kowa-composition, dedicated to his granddaughter. Amby was supported by a keyboards-man and the lovely alto saxophone of Günther Haehre.

The whole ceremony was very touching and the priest’s words were all good and true.

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