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“Three Angels”: Albert Mangelsdorff’s and Other Jazz Musicians’ Reworking of the German Folk Music Tradition

Wolfram Knauer


In a Down Beat interview from September 1980, Albert Mangelsdorff stated, “You might start now to make a national jazz and try to discover folk songs and all of these kinds of things. But in our German folk music, I can’t find anything that would be really worth making jazz out of.” [1]

To look at music as the expression of a national character has often been viewed as questionable because (a) there are so many examples to prove the opposite and because (b) such a view seems to be so immensely nationalistic. Yet, our cultural background shapes us to the core, in our language, our behavior, our expectations, our thinking, feeling, and being. How could music be exempt from such influence and how could especially a music so much based on the concept of individuality as jazz not show traces of national and cultural origin? This article will examine German discourses about the use of national folk traditions or about “being German” and their compatibility with African-American jazz.

The one musical tradition which will not be included is German classical music, from Schütz to Stockhausen, all of which would be a subject unto itself.

“Es sungen drei Engel”

Here is a description of the performance [2]: The piece starts with a fast bass and drum foundation above which Albert Mangelsdorff plays a trombone melody. Then saxophonists Günter Kronberg and Heinz Sauer join for a collective improvisation reminiscent of Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mangelsdorff plays the chorale, the others respond. More collective improvisation follows with the leading voice alternating through different instruments. Mangelsdorff plays deep notes followed by a passage performed by the rhythm section alone. Next: the theme, in a chorale arrangement for the wind instruments and in a Phrygian mode; the form is AAB. It is followed by a plaintive trombone solo cautiously entering into a dialogue with the bass which for the first time leaves the pedal tone to make use of other notes. Mangelsdorff toys with pitches; he uses a slowly descending scale sliding into or out of the notes. The saxophones join in for another collective round above a strong and driving passage by drums and bass. The melody shimmers through the collective improvisation, falling into place more and more until everybody refers to it. The arrangement dissolves the tension in a downward direction towards the rhythm section. A last arranged theme passage, picking up the happier tempo of the beginning. A collective improvisation mainly of the saxophones, slowing down, the end!

Photo of Mangelsdorff in Ceylon

Figure 1. Albert Mangelsdorff Quintet in Ceylon, 1964. (Jazzinstitut Darmstadt)

It is significant that Mangelsdorff recorded “Es sungen drei Engel” for the LP Now Jazz Ramwong, which otherwise is dedicated to the cultures of Asian countries, which he toured with his quintet in 1964 for the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s cultural institute with offices all over the world. Most of the other pieces of the LP refer to the countries visited on the trip and are meant as musical homages to their traditions: “Sakura Waltz” for Japan; “Three Jazz Moods” with a theme by sitar master Ravi Shankar and based upon a Bengali folk song for India; “Burungkaka” for Malaysia and Indonesia; “Raknash” as a duo by Günter Lenz and Ralf Hübner again for Ravi Shankar (the title is his name spelled backwards); “Theme from Vietnam”, played unaccompanied by Mangelsdorff for the country it is titled for. The opening “Blue Fanfare” is a blues and thus honors the African-American tradition to which all of the musicians felt obliged. The critic and producer Joachim Ernst Berendt, who had organized the trip, had collected some of the Asian themes during a previous visit to the continent. He suggested the musicians should play a piece dedicated to the respective culture in each of the countries they visited on their tour. Perhaps this homage to folk songs from other countries made Albert and his musicians think: What about us? Where do we come from? What are our musical roots? And how do these roots reflect in our music? In his report on the tour, Berendt wrote:

We all agreed: The music which usually is referred to as ‘Volksmusik’ [folk music] in Germany could not be used. That’s why I decided, when preparing our Asian tour, to go back into the old, the big time of German folk song, back into the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth century when many of our songs — similar to contemporary jazz, similar to the Asian themes which Albert chose — were still ‘modal’. [3]

This, then, was how “Es sungen drei Engel” was chosen.

What kind of roots did German jazz musicians in the 1960s refer to, then? And what did references to roots signify other than tradition? Basically there are two different worlds that musicians referred to: the world of African-American music (the history of jazz) and the world of European music (their own national/regional/personal traditions).

Roots and Wurzeln I: Roots

Of course, jazz itself has its roots in “folklore,” in the different music traditions which can be located between the folk, ritual and high culture music of Africa and Europe coming together as jazz was born. The spontaneity of jazz, the oral concept of improvisation were further reasons for jazz being viewed as an odd hybrid of folk and commercial dance and pop music and less as a distinct musical genre developing its own aesthetics and its own history. Some scholars used terms like “urban folklore” to describe the rules and functions of jazz which were obviously different from those of rural folk music. There was, after all, a distinctive African-American folklore in the rural blues, work songs, street hollers and early spirituals. With recordings like those made by Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five it became clear, though, that jazz had developed a distinct aesthetic and thus had become a musical genre of its own.

For jazz, roots have always been important. To look back at one’s roots, to feel at home in the present and to develop the music into the future, all at the same time, was a generally accepted balance of tradition and avant-garde for jazz. To be a jazz musician one had to be aware of one’s musical heritage and at the same time find one’s own, authentic voice. This individuality is the basis for the archetypical aesthetic advice jazz musicians used to give to each other, “Play yourself, man!” More than any other art forms jazz followed the rule “Where you come from is where you go to!” Roots and visions; being aware for one’s own cultural heritage and targeting new artistic ideas always kept a balance within this music.

For American musicians such roots bore more political weight than ever in the 1960s. Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige from 1943 had already possessed political undertones. When Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and other musicians in the 1960s referred to roots (or, like Mingus, even named an album for them), this was part of the African-American Civil Rights movement within the United States: being proud of one’s own, African-American tradition the roots of which one clearly feels and from which one wants to create new and daring art — legitimacy of the new by way of tradition.

For white American musicians roots also were a way to legitimize their own role in jazz. By referring to the roots, and especially the African-American roots of jazz they proved their entitlement to be part of this music tradition.

European musicians had to attest their right to play jazz through their knowledge of the music’s history and their grasp of its repertoire. More and more, they felt compelled to furthermore establish their own point of view within the music. It was no longer sufficient to know about jazz history, swing, groove, repertoire, and playing styles. European musicians also felt that they had to show awareness for their own musical heritage in their approach to jazz. This is the self-awareness Ekkehard Jost talks about in his book Europas Jazz, which starts with the words: “In the years around 1970, within a relatively short period of the historical process, Europe’s jazz became aware of itself.” [4]

For modern jazz musicians in 1960s Germany, there was yet another problem of legitimacy. In other European countries, jazz had been enjoyed by the public since the 1920s, more or less without interruption. In Germany, jazz underwent several connotational shifts during the same time period, all of which left their marks on the music’s reception. Jazz had been popular and fashionable in the 1920s; it had been demonized in the 1930s; it was seen as the music of the liberators, of freedom and democracy in the 1940s; it was (both affirmatively and skeptically) understood as a youth phenomenon in the 1950s; and during the 1960s it was used as a serious — and independent — form of artistic expression. While musicians in the 1950s mostly needed to legitimize their music with respect to “authentic,” (i.e., American) jazz, in the 1960s they also quite consciously understood their art as a competitive alternative to contemporary composed music.

Mangelsdorff explains the aesthetic changes: before 1958, he had tried to find his way within the jazz language by using the vocabulary of the American musicians he admired. In 1958, he had spent six weeks in New York working with the International Youth Jazz Band, led by Marshall Brown. He had gone to jazz clubs and had become aware of the direction American jazz was taking during this time. And he learned that, in order to reach the level of authenticity which he admired with his American colleagues, he would have to start looking for his own roots instead of copying his idols. He never saw this as an autobiographical process, though, as an ethnomusicological field trip into the world he grew up in. Instead, in interviews he emphasized that he did not see himself first and most as a European. He saw himself as a jazz musician first — and that description in his understanding always referred to American or more precisely to African American music. Yet, one cannot escape one’s roots: Where you come from is where you go to! The hymns in volume three of the Müller trombone method from which Mangelsdorff had studied [5] eventually would inform his unaccompanied solo playing, and his love for singable melodies may have been consciously or subconsciously influenced by regional or national musical traditions. [6]

Roots and Wurzeln II: Wurzeln [German for “Roots”]

Mangelsdorff’s recording of “Es sungen drei Engel” is often cited as one of the first and few examples of how German jazz musicians deal with material drawn from their national folk music. It is usually cited in reference to examples from neighboring countries in which national or regional folklore had been used as the improvisational basis or as a major influence on jazz much earlier than in Germany.

A comparison between German and other European folklores and their use in jazz has to take two major differences into consideration, though. Germany never possessed a folklore that could be called national. Instead, it had a variety of very distinctive regional folkloric traditions cultivated into the present and a somewhat mutual folk song repertoire which was much older but hardly present in the collective memory. Thus, while jazz musicians in other European other countries could refer to a national folklore known among many to which their jazz interpretations sounded like a clear and poignant counterpoint, such an approach was hard to achieve in Germany. Even referring to widely known “Volkslieder” which had been rewritten and arranged by such Romantic composers as Schumann and Schubert was (and still is) mostly seen as riffing on Schubert, Schumann, or whomever and not so much as a re-appropriation of the German folk song repertoire.

The second difference in how folk songs were received in Germany and other European countries is rooted in the Nazi era and how the Nazis appropriated any “Volks” traditions for their own means. By this and by trying to legitimize their ideology through references to the “Volk” (people) and Germany’s rich folk traditions, the Nazis made it all but impossible for young artists of any genre after the war to make use of such material. Kitschy paintings, heroic statues, certain camera moves and much more became suspect of Nazi overtones after the war. At the same time, those art forms which the Nazis had banned as “degenerate” seemed to have received a seal of quality by that fact alone. The decision about what was seen as progressive and what as reactionary was made often than not made from the gut, not from extensive study of the real situation.

All of this makes it difficult to use the word “Volk,” which, to this day resonates in the ears of many with the race theories of the Nazis. In the end, discrediting the term “Volk” made it hard for musical or aesthetic concepts of “Volkslied” or “Volksmusik” to be regarded with respect, unless they clearly connected to the more innocently romantic notion of folk art.

One last reason why German jazz musicians shied away from using their own folk songs lay in the fact that in the 1950s the popular music industry had discovered “Volksmusik”. By industrializing the “Volksmusikschlager” (folk song as pop song), this new genre gained such prominence that for a whole generation it basically overshadowed the existence of an original, authentic folk music. If one had to judge its aesthetic or political hipness the whole world of “Volksmusik” — no matter what was subsumed under the term — stood for pretty much the exact opposite of what jazz stood for.

“Between Two Stools” — Authenticity

Talking about European musical identity one cannot ignore the classical music tradition which after Enlightenment and the development of urban social cultures even became a substitute to functions earlier served by folk music. Jazz musicians of the late 1950s and early 1960s toyed both with aesthetics and techniques of classical/contemporary composed music, sometimes looking for aesthetic solutions in the free space between these two seemingly related genres. The idea of Third Stream which American musicians pursued during this time did not really catch on in Europe, though, where musicians and listeners felt uneasy about hybrid solutions, demanding a clear aesthetic decision instead.

Excursions into folk music presented by the critic and producer Joachim Ernst Berendt in his “Jazz Meets the World” record series or by the tour promoters Lippmann + Rau had their effect on jazz musicians as well. Both for Berendt and for Lippmann + Rau folkloric traditions stood as examples for authenticity in music.

European jazz of the 1950s (and 1960s) was searching for its own kind of authenticity. Thus, there is a relatively straight line between finding one’s own voice (“Play your own thing!”), experimenting with the fusion of different genres (pop/rock/classical/contemporary composed music) and the renunciation of everything conventional — even if it is deeply rooted in jazz.

A Short Aside: The Folk Movement

The folk movement of the 1960s as a political music movement has to be understood in close connection to the development of rock music which, after Elvis Presley and with the help of the American Folk Blues Festivals organized by Lippmann + Rau, reflected upon the origins of this music in the African-American blues. Folk music came to prominence in the United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and was widely seen as a protest against anti-liberalization and anti-democratization during the McCarthy era. The movement had discovered musical roots and wanted to connect them to the present, and it also wanted to connect the African-American blues experience with the white experiences expressed in folk songs of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

There was a similar folk moment in Europe which was rooted somewhere between the research of musical traditions and a heightened political awareness. Many bands in Germany, not unlike in the United States, conducted almost ethnomusicological research for their projects and often enough found a repertoire rooted in barely known folk traditions. They performed in pretty much the same circles as the political singer-songwriters of their time. They saw their assignment as rediscovering German folk songs with democratic lyrics from past centuries.

The political content in all of this had to be indisputable, if not in the song itself, then at least in the morale of the musicians. Founded in 1964, the folk festival in Burg Waldeck in the German Hunsrück area soon became the most important festival for the German folk scene. In the announcement for the first festival, the organizers explained:

We thought that a certain kind of music which we favor a lot is neither known nor cared about by enough people in Germany. We are talking of the Chanson, the song, the street ballad, non-sentimentalized folk music. We have asked ourselves why in our country we have no Georges Brassens or Yves Montand, no Pete Seeger and no Joan Baez. [7]

Influenced by the strongly politicized American protest song movement, acts performing at the festival in 1968 were disturbed by members of the SDS (Socialist German Student Association) who disrupted singers and bands whose lyrics they though had no or not enough political content and forced others, among them the soon-to-be-famous Reinhard Mey and Hans Dieter Hüsch to defend themselves in public.

LP cover

Figure 2. Cover of the LP Folk Mond & Flower Dream, 1967.

Albert Mangelsdorff had connections to this folk scene. In 1967 he had performed with the political singer/songwriter Franz-Joseph Degenhardt; in 1969 he had participated in an album recorded by the Jazzensemble des Hessischen Rundfunks (Jazz Ensemble of Hesse Radio) with Colin Wilkie, one of the British folk singers regularly performing at the Burg Waldeck festival since 1965. Most of the tracks on this album relate to English and Scottish folk songs and shanties; in addition, for “Ich armes Maidlein klag mich sehr” Joki Freund wrote an arrangement of an old German folk song from the sixteenth century. It is the only instrumental of the session and features Günter Kronberg on alto saxophone. Uli Olshausen had come up with the idea for the album, as Mangelsdorff relates in Bruno Paulot’s biography, and the choice for Maidlein was made by Albert himself: “I knew the piece from the days when Lippmann + Rau had planned an album of German folk songs,” he said. [8]

In 1967, Mangelsdorff recorded another album which, both in its title and the cover art made by Günter Kieser, seems like an homage to the folk movement of the time: a moon with blue eyes and flowers of many colors or a straw hat as seen from above: Folk Mond & Flower Dream. “The title,” Albert explains, “was born during a lively evening at the Frankfurt Jazzkeller club. Full moon always comes with such a specific atmosphere — everybody is a little besides himself. When we performed the piece at the Keller for the first time, it made quite a stir. We did not yet have a name for the piece, but as there were plenty of folkloristic phrases in the theme it had to be something with ‘Folk.’ And then the association with the word ‘moon’ came almost automatically.” [9]

Alternatives to Folklore

As the use of German folk songs offered no valid possibility for a national jazz identity in the West of Germany, musicians construed close links to contemporary composition, its methods, use of material, PR management and stage behavior. There were at least two reasons for this. For once, the aesthetic difference between jazz and contemporary composed music seemed to have become smaller with both the resulting music and the musical approach showing parallels and affinities. Also, the classical music scene had been most successful in securing public funding without with, as jazz musicians became more and more aware of, contemporary jazz would not be able to survive.

Another alternative to folklore references were jazz and poetry projects which became popular during this time. These projects mostly made use of poets from the “Vormärz” (pre-March) era, i.e., the revolutionary side of German romantic poetry, or of avant-garde poetry toying with language itself. In both cases they referred to poets who combined tradition and risk: the tradition of the word and the risk of creating something new. Jazz and poetry projects were no German invention, of course; they had been popular in the U.S.A. since the mid-1950s when the beat poets surrounding Jack Kerouac had discovered that jazz was not just a stimulation for creativity but could also pose as a fitting performance partner emphasizing the improvised atmosphere of their poetry or prose.

The poets chosen for these projects, then, were not suspect to any democratic doubts: Heinrich Heine, Gottfried Benn, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, or Peter Rühmkorff. Most of these projects approached the genre with a radio production attitude: The poems were recited by a professional speaker or actor; the more or less fitting music underneath came either from previously released albums or was recorded for just this occasion. Only the 1970s and 1980s brought about some genuine jazz and poetry projects, for instance by Rühmkorff with Michael Naura or by Ernst Jandl and Dieter Glawischnig, projects in which music and poetry were equal partners with independent roles. The reason these projects are mentioned at all in this context is to direct attention to the fact that such jazz and poetry projects can be read as an alternative to folklore approaches in other European countries, by referring to the innocuous acknowledgement of democratic and thus morally “good” roots aided through the clear and unmistakable words and the good reputation of the poets.

The East

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the use of folk elements seemed to be far less problematic than in the West. Jürgen Engelhardt describes the situation in his liner notes to the album Snapshot. Jazz Now/Jazz aus der DDR. The GDR, he writes, “spurs on the folk and the folk music without, for the most part, ‘folksiness.’” [10] While in the West the alternative was “folk music instead of/or jazz,” he writes, in the GDR it was also possible to have “folk music and jazz.” Engelhardt notes that the folk song in GDR jazz of the early 1970s was “simultaneously the subject source and catalyst” providing “a means of extracting GDR jazz from the esthetic diction of the American prototype in an independent and authentic way” [11] — exactly what was not seen as a possible alternative by West German jazz musicians.

Uli Gumpert and Heinz Becker photo

Figure 3. Uli Gumpert and Heinz Becker at the Leipzig Jazztage festival, 1981. (Matthias Creutziger)

One of the GDR musicians most associated with the use of folk material is the pianist Ulrich Gumpert. In 1972 he released the LP Aus Teutschen Landen (From German Country) which contained early German folk songs from different sources — pieces like “Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht” (notated in 1823), “Tanz mir nicht mit meiner Jungfer Käthen” (from the 18th century), “Der Mayen, der Mayen” (anonymous, ca. 1550), “Es saß ein schneeweiß Vögelein” (German lute song, 1914), and “Kommt ihr Gspielen” by Melchior Frank (1580–1639). Gumpert’s folk song arrangements also comprised parts of Synopsis’ repertoire, a contemporary jazz ensemble later to be known under the name Zentralquartett. Gumpert’s approach to traditional material is similar in the arrangements for his workshop band of the late 1970s which referred to many different musical traditions, from Broadway to march tunes and Hanns Eisler — always aware of the fact that melodies, harmonies, rhythms or just gestures will evoke emotional memories in the listener. In his music Gumpert did not plan for a revolution “destroying” musical traditions or “demolishing” the material used — West German free jazz of this period often was referred to as “Kaputtspielen.” His aim was to clearly define his own position by means of the material used and his adoption of it.

“The jazz tradition,” he said in conversation with Bert Noglik, “is important to me in respect of its methods and the European tradition in respect of its message.” [12] In a piece like “Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht”, the repetition of the initial theme is a clear point of reference for the listener, leading into and explaining the following free improvisation. Here, then, not the destruction but the emphasis of one’s own tradition helps the musicians to justify their part in developing the jazz continuum.

But Gumpert’s approach to jazz can also be a little more ironic: “I believe,” he says, “that many things that seem to be different are actually blending into each other, as for instance the comprehended tradition and the tradition used with ironic distance.” [13] A social system (in East Germany) in which everybody at least agreed on one thing, namely that the people did away with the horrors of Nazism (even though they could not agree as to how that had happened) is clearly different from one (in West Germany) in which the leading figures of society are accused by the younger generation of continuing the past, in which the commercialization of anything even faintly authentic makes the real authentic suspect, in which a spontaneous expression is only accepted as long as it is really spontaneous and does in no way invoke the past, at least not the German past.

Bert Noglik describes the difference between how folk music was used and seen in the East and the West: “It seems to depend on one’s own social way of living and how one participates in sociocultural activities whether folk music is connected or associated with conservatism and reactionary sentimental notions of ‘Heimat’ (homeland) or with ‘music from below’ and progressive peoples’ movements.” [14]

The Political Meaning of Music

The saxophonist Emil Mangelsdorff, Albert’s older brother, always viewed jazz and his own playing as a political statement. For him music and politics were closely connected since childhood. He played jazz in the early 1940s when it was demonized by the Nazis; he played jazz although he was bullied by the SS; jazz helped him survive the Russian war imprisonment; and he became one of the leading advocates for the political responsibility of artists, including jazz musicians.

The political meaning of music is not simply a clear political message stated through music; the political meaning of music can only be achieved by keeping one’s moral integrity. That is no different in music than elsewhere: The example of virtue and sobriety remains the strongest argument for political integrity. Emil Mangelsdorff keeps on living this example, going to schools and talking about his experiences in Nazi Germany and how they shaped his democratic consciousness.

His younger brother Albert was interested in politics, as well, for all of his life. He performed at political rallies, as can be seen in Michael Rüsenberg’s and Christian Wagner’s film documentary Die Albert-Mangelsdorff-Rolle, he signed public petitions and he understood his life and his artistic activities as a conscious creation within a political environment.

The idea of music as a political message was equally present in the United States and in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Jazz thrived in the student environment and was often listened to by people with a heightened political awareness. Musicians usually knew about the political and social connotations of their music, be it freedom, individuality, team spirit etc. In the years of European free jazz further connotations included the uncompromising search for self-fulfillment and not being deterred by the music industry which more and more seemed to govern the market.

During these years, using traditional music in German jazz was only accepted if the arrangement or the improvisations were clearly marked as jazz reinterpretations. “Play Bach” was seen as currying favors, and whenever jazz musicians participated in the performance of contemporary composed music, they had to justify whether these jobs were agreeable to their integrity as individual artists, and how far they would have to put up with established music circles belittling their art. In his autobiography edited by Bruno Paulot, Albert Mangelsdorff tells of his dissatisfaction on such occasions. [15]

Using such and other material without having to fear involuntary connotations became only possible from the 1980s onward, when the political skepticism of the 1968 generation had started to calm down and references to tradition were no longer necessarily connected with the recent German past. Discussions about the political legitimacy of songs as they could still be heard at the Burg Waldeck folklore festival in 1968 were a thing of the past by now. The choice of repertoire was open again and to jokingly quote from different sources was an accepted procedure, even though from the 1960s there survived a certain skepticism against the American popular song repertoire: one had to play original compositions to show musical and aesthetic quality and independence. Standards were mostly seen as references to jazz history, a distant mutual basis.

Sense of Nationality and Jazz

In recent years there seems to be a new discourse about national jazz styles in Europe. This new discussion seems to have resulted from the acknowledgement among jazz musicians, journalists and promoters that the European market became more and more perceptive to European music projects. Reasons for this are manifold. Many of the older American stars have died off; European jazz really has reached a level of autonomy and thus a bigger audience interest; the younger audience is by far not as focused on everything coming from the U.S. as had been the case in earlier decades. The political developments had rather decreased nationalistic tendencies in Europe — think of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe without borders, the introduction of the Euro, European domestic economy, adjustments between the East and the West etc. The deregulation of the market resulting from the EU enlargement actually showed some results which were not widely noticed but affected culture and thus jazz: In a bigger marketplace in which there is more competition, culture once again becomes a unique selling point and is viewed as a sign of national prestige and appreciation. When Mangelsdorff traveled the world for the Goethe-Institut he was seen as a cultural ambassador for Germany; in recent years cultural policy makers realized that culture also is an economic factor. Not only can it give a more sympathetic face to one’s own country abroad, but it is an investment in a perception with cultural as well as political and economic consequences.

Mangelsdorff did not agree with the idea of “German jazz.” “What should that be?” he asked, and in interviews he usually stressed the African-American origin of jazz and his own indebtedness to what he had learned from the Americans. He felt that everything he had learned obliged him to give his best, work and practice in order to fulfill his own standards of quality and at the same time hopefully continue to develop the music.

Fusion Between Jazz and German Folk Songs: Other Examples

Of course, there are other examples of musicians experimenting with German folk song material. Some of the most important of these should at least be mentioned:

In 1964 the brothers Rolf and Joachim Kühn used a 16th century love song, “Sie gleicht wohl einem Rosenstock”, in a recording with Michal Urbaniak (soprano saxophone), Klaus Koch (bass), and Czeslaw Bartkowski (drums). The interpretation is plain: The song functions as the material basis, comparable to a jazz tune, then it is being reharmonized in typical jazz fashion and filled with improvised solo choruses played over a modal basis comparable to many modern U.S. jazz recordings of the same period. Actually, the role model for this recording clearly seems to have been John Coltrane’s modal reinterpretation of popular songs such as “My Favorite Things”.

In the music he wrote for his Grubenklangorchester [mine sounds orchestra] — examples to be found for instance on the LP Bergmannsleben (Life of a Miner) from 1982 — the pianist and composer Georg Graewe makes use of miners’ hymns and songs. He alternates the clearly identifiable sources with free band improvisations and thus toys with the regional knowledge of a recent past. One suspects the story of the repertoire more than that one knows about it.

In 1997, the bassist Dieter Ilg recorded the album Folk Songs, in which he used better known Volkslieder (folk melodies) such as “Guter Mond, du gehst so stille”, “Im Märzen der Bauer”, “Der Mond ist aufgegangen”, etc. Ilg was particularly concerned with memories of his own childhood and what they shared with the memories of his listeners. The pieces serve as “working material,” he explained, as a regional repertoire which is being subjected to a jazz treatment in its harmonic and rhythmic interpretation and then becomes a conventional jazz theme used for ensemble passages and improvised solos.

In 1991, the baritone saxophonist (and musicologist) Ekkehard Jost in his album Weimarer Balladen referred to an alternative repertoire of the twentieth century: film songs from the 1920s and early 1930s written by the composer Friedrich Hollaender and others.

In 2005, the Zentralquartett — the name is a widely understood pun on “Zentralkomitee” (Central Committee), the administrative body of the communist party in the GDR — recorded Ulrich Gumpert’s “Aus Teutschen Landen” in a new version for the Swiss label Intakt. The CD contains both pieces that had been on the original LP from 1972 and new discoveries by the four band members. The music has no historicizing and at no point does it sound like “Play Folk Songs” (i.e., a folk version of “Play Bach”), but instead shows a great deal of fun in the musicians’ approach to the material, their picking it to pieces and putting it back together again to discover the musical possibilities.

One should also mention Michael Rießler and his projects pointing to medieval traditions; the RIAS Big Band which recorded an album with German folk songs; or Michael Gibbs whose suite “Europeana” reinterprets folk melodies from all of Europe. On the album, Germany is represented by no less than the title of this essay, “Three Angels”, played by Albert Mangelsdorff.

All these examples aside, though, German jazz hardly produced remarkable musical approaches towards its own folk music traditions.

A New European Position

At the beginning of this essay I had suggested that one reason for many European jazz musicians to work with folk material was that they felt urged to position themselves within the jazz continuum, to fulfill the idea of “Play yourself, man!”. This invitation had ultimately resulted in a search for their own roots, their own sound. The recourse on folklore included the use of material or instruments or sounds or techniques or of atmospheric moods. All of these recourses enabled the musicians to identify with their heritage while playing jazz — which was more of a feeling of identity than an intellectually argued one. And indeed, curiously, many musical decisions that clearly show influences of regional or even national folklore on the specific jazz scenes were often suppressed from the memory even of the musicians themselves. If one talks to Scandinavian musicians, for instance, they often refuse to accept the idea of a Nordic Sound even though this phenomenon can clearly be analyzed within the music. Whether the influence of local, regional or national musical traditions is a conscious or a subconscious one, whether it is the goal of the musical action or a result only identifiable in retrospect doesn’t matter.

In 2005, Stuart Nicholson published his book, Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address?), in which he detects a new independence of European jazz and polemically argues that the more interesting developments in this music seem to take place in Europe and not in the fatherland of jazz. The book and the discussions about aesthetic values resulting from it led to some European critics and music functionaries (rarely musicians) arguing that they had known this all along and that finally Europe plays jazz “better” than America. Albert Mangelsdorff, always an advocate for the German and the European jazz scene, would have been the first to vehemently oppose this notion. For him, jazz was and remained an African-American art form, a gift that allowed him to find a new musical outlet that enabled him to express himself artistically. If his expression had a European dialect, then that fact was not so much a political decision than rather a biological and social one: He had, after all, been born here, grown up and been socialized here.

“Where you come from is where you go to” is the name of the game, in improvised jazz more even than in other music or in other art forms. “With his deep love of the jazz tradition,” writes George Lewis in his obituary on Mangelsdorff, “it is no surprise that a time-tested Afrological notion of the relationship between innovation and introspection undergirded Albert’s 1963 reminder to all of Europe that, even with its admiration for American musicians, ‘First of all, one should express musically one’s own personality, one’s own conception of jazz.’” [16]

The Role of Folklore in Today’s Global Internet Society

In the 1980s, the way of dealing with traditions in German jazz — whether in general or specifically concerning German folklore — became more relaxed. In the last 15 years the Internet seized all spheres of our lives and established new social networks in which global influences also had local effects, in which local traditions could be embraced globally. Stuart Nicholson uses the word “glocal” for this phenomenon, a word originating in the globalization discourse of the 1990s. The blending that comes with globalization and worldwide access to traditions of even the smallest cultural spheres — in which only a century earlier identity-establishing rituals had a clear community function — have changed our view of folklore. All of a sudden, everything is accessible and thus has become a product, freed from former and set into new functional usage or just left alone by itself, without any functional ties or explanation. The Internet is some sort of continuation of the “anything goes” concept that defined postmodern approaches. Folklore, and musical folklore as well, did not lose its function completely, though; it has just become more public. The closed systems in which folk culture took place for centuries and in which one of its most important functions was to establish identity do no longer exist. Folk culture is upheld, yet today it enters into an exchange with other folk cultures, an exchange with the market, and an exchange with people from all over the world.

Let us return to Albert Mangelsdorff one last time. “In our German folk music,” he was quoted at the beginning of this article, “I can’t find anything that would be really worth making jazz out of.” He did, however, dedicate an original composition to one part of the German “people.” In fact, he actually undertook some near-ethnomusicological research to transcribe some of the songs of this particular population. Mangelsdorff wrote “Meise vorm Fenster” when a chickadee sang in front of his window during a long spring, “always the same shout of two notes, sometimes substituted by a third note, alternating a fifth with a minor sixth.” [17] He recorded the piece in 1992 with the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble and in 2002 with the NDR Big Band. Each time he starts with the fifth/minor sixth interval which after a first 32 bar chorus focusing only on this motif is being highlighted by a solemn theme of typical Mangelsdorff qualities in the intervallic leaps (augmented fifth, fifth, octave leap, second step, fourth), which then becomes the basis for the following solo choruses.

“Where you come from is where you go to.” And what is around you will inspire and influence you, especially (but not only) if you are a jazz musician, whether it is folk songs, hymns, baroque music, classical, contemporary composition, or...the chickadee outside your window.


  • Berendt, Joachim Ernst. “Der deutsche Jazz und die Emanzipation (1961–1973).” in Ein Fenster Aus Jazz, 215–40. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978.
  • Engelhardt, Jürgen. “Einige Anmerkungen zur Ästhetik des DDR-Jazz.” in Snapshot — Jazz Now/Jazz aus der DDR. FMP R4/5, 1980, 33 rpm, Plattentext: 33–40.
  • Gibbs, Michael, and Joachim Kühn. Europeana. ACT 9220-2, 1995, compact disc.
  • Georg Graewe Grubenklang Orchester. Bergmannsleben. CMP 18, 1983, 33 rpm.
  • Glawischnig, Dieter. “Motivische Arbeit im Jazz.” Jazzforschung/Jazz Research 1 (1969): 133–139.
  • Gumpert, Ulrich. “Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht,” on Aus Teutschen Landen. Amiga 855549, 1972, 33 rpm.
  • Ulrich Gumpert Workshop Band. Echos von Karolinenhof. FMP 0710, 1979, 33 rpm.
  • Dieter Ilg Trio. Folk Songs. Jazzline JL11146, 1997, compact disc.
  • Jeske, Lee. “Free Players from Many Lands Form Globe Unity Orchestra.” Down Beat 47, no. 9 (September 1980): 28, 31–33.
  • Jost, Ekkehard. Europas Jazz, 1960–1980. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987.
  • Jost, Ekkehard. Weimarer Balladen. Fish Music FM004, 1991, compact disc.
  • Lewis, George. “Albert Mangelsdorff, 1928–2005.” All About Jazz (New York) 41 (September 2005): 13.
  • Klostermann, Berthold. “Hut ab! Hut ab vor Deutschlands Jazzmusiker Nr. 1. Am 5. September wird Albert Mangelsdorff 75 Jahre alt.” Fono Forum (September 2003): 98–100.
  • Rolf Kühn Quintet with Joachim Kühn. “Sie gleicht wohl einem Rosenstock,” on Solarius. Amiga 850046, 1964, 33 rpm.
  • Mangelsdorff, Albert. “Es sungen drei Engel,” on Now Jazz Ramwong. CBS S63162, 1964, 33 rpm.
  • Mangelsdorff, Albert. Folk Mond & Flower Dream. CBS 63162, 1967, 33 rpm.
  • Mangelsdorff, Albert, and Jazzensemble des Hessischen Rundfunks. “Ich armes Maidlein klag mich sehr,” on Wild Goose. MPS 15229, 1969, 33 rpm.
  • Mangelsdorff, Albert, and United Jazz & Rock Ensemble. “Meise vorm Fenster,” on Na endlich! Mood 6382, 1992, compact disc.
  • Mangelsdorff, Albert, and NDR Big Band. “Meise vorm Fenster,” on Music for Jazz Orchestra. Skip SKP9039-2, 2002, compact disc.
  • McKay, George. Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Noglik, Bert, and Heinz-Jürgen Lindner. Jazz im Gespräch. Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1978.
  • Noglik, Bert. Klangspuren: Wege improvisierter Musik. Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1990.
  • Paulot, Bruno. Albert Mangelsdorff: Gespräche. Waakirchen: Oreos, 1993.
  • RIAS Big Band. German Folk Songs...Our Way. Mons Records MR 874-6334, 2007, compact disc.
  • Riessler, Michael. Honig und Asche. Enja ENJ-9303-2, 1997, compact disc.
  • Sandner, Wolfgang. “Anmerkungen zur Improvisationstechnik von Albert Mangelsdorff.” Jazzforschung/Jazz Research 3/4 (1971/1972): 166–71.
  • Zentralquartett. 11 Songs — Aus Teutschen Landen. Intakt CD 113, 2005, compact disc.


[1] Lee Jeske, “Free Players from Many Lands Form Globe Unity Orchestra,” Down Beat 47, no. 9 (September 1980), 33.

[2] Issued on Now Jazz Ramwong, 1964, CBS 63162.

[3] Joachim Ernst Berendt, “Der deutsche Jazz und die Emanzipation (1961–1973),” in Ein Fenster Aus Jazz (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978), 229.

[4] Ekkehard Jost, Europas Jazz, 1960–1980 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987), 9.

[5] Berthold Klostermann, “Hut ab! Hut ab vor Deutschlands Jazzmusiker Nr. 1. Am 5. September wird Albert Mangelsdorff 75 Jahre alt,” Fono Forum (September 2003), 99.

[6] Both Wolfgang Sandner (Sandner 1971/72) and Dieter Glawischnig (Glawischnig 1969) wrote analytical studies of Mangelsdorff’s style. Sandner emphasizes the intervals of fourths which the trombonist seems to favor both in his compositions and his improvisations, a harmonic technique with a “tendency to open up keys.” He also stresses Mangelsdorff’s motivic awareness both in short motivic chains and in bigger formal structures in which motivic blocks often refer to and thus become a substitute for the theme. Ekkehard Jost describes Mangelsdorff’s improvisational style of the 1960s and early 1970s as alternation of multiphonic passages, “linear melody statements, the characteristic fourths passages” and “percussive sounding figures and disassociations of sound” (Jost 1987, 205). Jost’s description holds true for many of Mangelsdorff’s band recordings from the 1970s, as well, and the elements Jost identifies can also be found in the trombonist’s unaccompanied solos, in which they often form structuring blocks. More and more Mangelsdorff managed to blend elements which at first made each block clearly separate from each other until multiphonic passages, which because of their use of chords sound thematic, lead into free improvisation or until his improvisation blends into a multiphonic passage, only to change back shortly thereafter. Jost describes the use of antiphon structures in Mangelsdorff’s solo repertoire (Jost 1987, 209) which by means of repetition creates clear structures in the listeners’ ears, as well, allowing Mangelsdorff to go into even more daring improvisations. Jost, by the way, closes his Mangelsdorff chapter with a confirmation of nearly folklore-like vocal qualities in the trombonist’s melodic invention: “Without any doubt, his music after the free jazz phase of the early 1970s shows a higher degree of tonal relationships, and his melodic inventions are vocal in a way suggesting folkloric influences (...)” (Jost 1987, 210).

[7] In the original: “Wir fanden, dass eine bestimmte Art von Musik, für die wir eine ganz besondere Vorliebe haben, in Deutschland längst noch nicht genug beachtet und gepflegt wird. Wir meinen das Chanson, das Lied, den Bänkel-Song, die unverkitschte Volksmusik. Wir haben uns gefragt, warum wir in unseren Breiten keinen Georges Brassens oder Yves Montand, keinen Pete Seeger und keine Joan Baez haben.”

[8] Bruno Paulot, Albert Mangelsdorff: Gespräche. (Waakirchen: Oreos, 1993), 237. In the original: “Ich hatte das Stück noch aus der Zeit, als Lippmann und Rau eine Platte mit deutschen Volksliedern machen wollten.”

[9] In the original: “Der Titel kam im Laufe eines lebhaften Abends im Frankfurter Jazzkeller zustande. Bei Vollmond herrscht immer so eine spezielle Atmosphäre — jeder ist so ein wenig daneben. Als wir das Stück zum ersten Mal im Keller spielten, gab das einen phantastischen Wirbel. Wir hatten noch keinen Namen für das Stück, aber da es genügend folkloristische Phrasen im Thema gab, musste es irgendwas mit ‘Folk’ sein. Und dann ergänzte sich das fast wie automatisch um das Wort ‘Mond.’”

[10] Jürgen Engelhardt, “Einige Anmerkungen zur Ästhetik des DDR-Jazz,” Snapshot — Jazz Now/Jazz aus der DDR. FMP R4/5, 1980, 33 rpm, Plattentext, 33

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bert Noglik and Heinz-Jürgen Lindner, Jazz im Gespräch (Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1978), 52. In the original: “Die Jazz-Tradition ist für mich in methodischer Hinsicht, die europäische Tradition in Hinblick auf eine Aussage wichtig.”

[13] Bert Noglik, Klangspuren: Wege improvisierter Musik (Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1990), 258. In the original: “Ich glaube vieles geht ineinander über, zum Beispiel die wirklich begriffene und die mit ironischem Abstand benutze Tradition.”

[14] Ibid., 237.

[15] Paulot, Albert Mangelsdorff: Gespräche, 158–62.

[16] George Lewis, “Albert Mangelsdorff, 1928–2005,” All About Jazz (New York) 41 (September 2005), 13.

[17] Paulot, Albert Mangelsdorff: Gespräche, 150–51. In the original: “immer wieder dieser gleiche Ruf aus zwei Tönen, ab und zu mal durch einen dritten Ton ausgewechselt, so dass aus einer Quinte eine kleine Sexte wurde.”

Author Information: 
Wolfram Knauer is a musicologist and the director of the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt since its inception in 1990. He has written and edited more than twelve books on jazz and serves on the board of editors for the scholarly journal Jazz Perspectives. He has taught at several schools and universities and was the first non-American appointed Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz Studies at the Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University, New York, for spring 2008.

Although nationalist views of music have sometimes been called into question, our cultural background shapes us to the core, in our language, our behavior, our expectations, our thinking, feeling, and being. This article examines German discourses about the use of national folk traditions or about “being German” and their compatibility with African-American jazz.

Albert Mangelsdoff, jazz, Germany, folk music

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Knauer, Wolfram. “‘Three Angels’: Albert Mangelsdorff’s and Other Jazz Musicians’ Reworking of the German Folk Music Tradition.” Current Research in Jazz 4, (2012).
  • MLA 7th ed.: Knauer, Wolfram. “‘Three Angels’: Albert Mangelsdorff’s and Other Jazz Musicians’ Reworking of the German Folk Music Tradition.” Current Research in Jazz 4 (2012). Web. [date of access]
  • APA 6th ed.: Knauer, W. (2012). “Three Angels”: Albert Mangelsdorff’s and Other Jazz Musicians’ Reworking of the German Folk Music Tradition. Current Research in Jazz, 4 Retrieved from

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